Why did I decide to write a mystery? Let me see.
I was living half way up a mountain, suffering from a serious lack of sensory deprivation. I was surrounded by extraordinary beauty and bored out of my skull. I had read every mystery available in the Kern County Library down the hill. I couldn’t afford anymore Kindle e-books. And I wasn’t aware of digital loans. I could watch TV only if I crashed in somebody else’s living room. Internet connection could be found only at a cafe, which still wasn’t licensed to serve. Anything. Besides the connection was so slow, it took hours just to buffer.
So not a serious writer. Not driven. Just bored.
On the other hand, I had built my long life around narrative, survived by it, studied it, taught it, got withdrawal if I ran out of it. So why not?
My friends in the mountain village, fearing for my mental health, brainstormed the underlying idea – eco-terrorism. Well meaning ecologists driven over the line by ideology. Or not. Three and a half years and eight rewrites later, back home in Toronto, I published Hour of the Hawk, independently as an e-book and POD (print on demand) on Amazon.
David Gaughran who generously shares his experience in independent publishing, helped me – virtually – to publish my first book, a memoir of childhood, Never Tell with his free book, Let’s Get Digital in 2012. Now I turned to his book Amazon Decoded for finer points on accessing Amazon’s best seller’s lists and his newest Strangers into Superfans. Reading and rereading, I slowly began to refine my idea of my ideal reader.
She was a cozy mystery reader!
➤ COZY: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. READER EXPECTATION:
A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.
Writer’s Digest Oct, 2015
A world where violence is rare -Bear Mountain Place, a remote village in Southern California – check
a unique and engaging protagonist – Joanna, a 78-yr-old who has trouble recognizing faces, Clara, an 85-yr-old who has trouble seeing and hearing, set out to solve the mystery -check
a clever, ingenious even brilliant resolution by the protagonist – add visionary – check
Justice triumphs, order is restored – of course, with two such sleuths on the case – check
So what’s the problem?
In order to find my narrative voice, I had a number of portraits taken and this is what my narrator looked like. (Phillipa C., Dundas W. Toronto)
Gaughran told me to look at “Also Boughts’. (In my case, the term ‘bought’ has to be used loosely.) These included several cozy series including the Cupcake Series, (cozy mysteries often include recipes), several historical mysteries like Mona Lisa’s Secret by Phil Phillips, the Undertaker Series (sounds promising) and Everett by Jennifer Buff, a dark psychological suspense novel.
Oh, come on, Joyce, you did include a detailed description of a birthday dinner preparation in Hour of the Hawk. And it’s true Clara has six cats, named Jazz, Poirot, Tennison, Sherlock and Columbo. It’s also true that Joanna, who is living with her, is allergic to cats and endures a sequence of 27 sneezes early in the book.
You, Joyce, are a terrible snob. Like most English Majors. Look how long it took you to lower yourself to reading mysteries. You were 67 when your friend Anna said she was reading Donna Leone’s Detective Brunetti series set in Venice. (A lot of Italian cooking there) Only then did you admit a reader could not live by Booker Prize alone. Since then you have devoured P.D. James, Ruth Rendall/Barbara Vine, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, all of the Scandanavian mysteries – even Jo Nesbo, as well as Icelandic, Michael Connelly, Lee Child. Etc. Now you have had to branch out to espionage novels. You have had repeated escapes from truly awful cliched books, some of which you actually undertook to review. Get over yourself. Admit you wrote a cozy mystery.
“Can I still keep the cover? (Jeremy Von Caulert, BLack Sunset) I love the cover. I’ll have to rewrite the blurbs. Okay, Okay, but only if I can call it a cozy mystery, plus.”
Hour of the Hawk Chapter One: Too Many Bears
The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.
She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now. There would be a new cub in winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, her cub’s blood.
The man got home from work early. He was the boss. He could leave when he wanted. This bear thing had him all upset. All he had wanted to do was help his fellow creatures. They were hungry and starving in this four-year drought.
To continue reading sample https://www.facebook.com/joyce.howe.75
Awake, I lack imagination. Asleep, I dream whole new worlds. Unfortunately, I do my writing awake. And so, I identify with Sheryl Crowe’s ‘worst kind of thief’.
In her song, The Book, Sheryl Crowe (from her 1996 self-titled album) sings that she read the book and discovered she knew that girl in it ‘a little too well’. She’ll always remember three days in Rome. She got “written down, sliced around, passed down among strangers’ hands”. She ‘laid her heart out, laid her soul down’. She learned that ‘the love you once made/can’t be undone’. ‘Will I get revenge?’ Well yes. By writing this song.
I longed to find proof that this was autobiographical. It seems too heartfelt to be fiction. But I didn’t.
Why do I care? I “carry a pen and a paper” and “no words I waste”.
I started writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, when I spent several months in a California mountain village waiting out a family problem. My amateur detectives are two elderly women who set about finding out who is terrifying the town with acts of ecological terrorism, which steadily grow more deadly. I modeled one of them on a friend.
Clara was a disarming little old lady, cute, with flashing blue eyes and a lovely smile. She had a great schtick. She could seem charmingly helpless-a girl just out in the world, or alternately, a slightly confused elder. The first week she was in Bear Mountain Place, a woman stuck $10 in her purse and told her to buy herself a decent meal.
“Why did she do that?” Clara asked me.
“Generosity,” I said. “But next time tell her you need $20 for a decent meal up here.”
I shamelessly stole other identities as well. Two of these people read the manuscript, and, although they both offered advice, neither objected to the theft. ‘Clara’ still had not read the book when I published it as an e-book on Amazon. Since she didn’t have a tablet, she still couldn’t. Then in February, I published Hour of the Hawk through Amazon’s Print on Demand. Now she could read it.
I’m such a coward that I tried the indirect approach. None of her close relatives would hazard a guess about how she’d react. Fictional Clara is hard of hearing and sight, so much so that the villain of the piece – or one of them at any rate – is able to sneak past here while she is watching television. Real Clara has had her vision corrected, but has also fore-sworn her hearing aids on the grounds that elderly fingers can’t handle tiny, tiny batteries. Would my friend resent these handicaps being used for humor?
The other amateur sleuth, Joanna Hunter, can’t recognize faces, a disability I am familiar with.
So I found my courage and wrote Clara a long letter, explaining my concern and enclosing a sample or two.
Then Jesus, the cable guy, arrived.
His card read Jesus Morales, Direct T.V. He pronounced it for me, Hesus.
“Hesus, Hesus,” I kept repeating to myself. I wasn’t used to Jesus as an ordinary name. I wasn’t used to Hispanic accents. I could understand Chinese or West Indian accents, and, of course, South Asian, but not Spanish.
He wasn’t used to Canadian accents. He didn’t understand ‘rooof’, so I had to say ‘ruf’. We kept asking each other to repeat. I held the record. I just didn’t get Hesus.
“Sit down. Why don’t you sit down?” Reg/Doug called to me.
Clara could tear herself away from them only for a moment. “Joanna can show you whatever you need,” she told Hesus.
He turned on the new 70-inch television set. It hung on the wall in front of the couch where Clara and her company sat. We were all jammed into a ten-foot wide space, crowded with unpacked boxes. When the sound came on, Clara cried out, “I’ll never be able to hear that.” So Jesus turned the volume up and up, until Clara was satisfied. The screen told us the volume was 87. Then she and the ‘boys’ resumed shouting.
Jesus showed me his work sheet, and began to ask questions. A bald guy on the screen was yelling about the shoddy workmanship on a renovation. Jesus was shouting questions at me. The boys and Clara were splitting their sides at some long ago anecdote. I grabbed the remote control, and turned down the volume.
“It says one box here,” said Jesus.
“No, no. We were promised two,” I said. “There’s another set in a bedroom. Colin talked to the company several times. There are to be two boxes.”
Then I moved Jesus over near the utility room, so I had access to the landline.
“Oh, Jesus-with a J-God, I’m going to lose my mind,” I thought.
Once I’d got hold of Colin, I handed the handset to Jesus, and locked myself in my bathroom.
It didn’t work. I had to come back out into the din. Jesus called.
When I came out, he assured me everything was all right now. The bedroom set was working as well. I dragged Clara away from the boys, explained what had been done, and asked her to sign her name. Suddenly, she decided she should take charge, and began to ask questions that had been answered an hour ago. Jesus tended to mutter in his thick accent.
“Do I have two boxes? Colin said I would get two boxes.” She went into my bedroom and came out. “There’s just this tiny thing in there, no real box.”
Jesus began to reassure her that both sets worked, independently of each other
“You’ll have to speak louder,” I told him.
He started shouting. I searched frantically for the remote control, found it at last on top of a pile of boxes and pushed mute. I gestured at the boys who were laughing with each other. Now there were only two voices shouting.
It took a week for the letter to escape the confines of Canada Post and the U.S. Mail and end up being released into Clara’s California post office box. Yes, she wanted to read it, I heard. A mutual friend handed her a print copy. I waited for her verdict.
“I’m so flattered,” she said when she called.
I have started writing the second Joanna Hunter mystery and Clara, who will soon be 90, will be part of it.
The e-book version of Hour of the Hawk is free to download on Mother’s Day May 13/18 and May 14/18. If you decide to read it, please leave a review on Amazon. The print edition is also for sale.
This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.
Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.
This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.
I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.
I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?
That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.
Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.
Except the world as we know it.
My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.
This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.
Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.
Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.
He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.
Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.
Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.
Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.
I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.
So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U
Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.
Thus I began my mystery in the summer of 2014. I was temporarily marooned in a hot hotel room. I could see the mountain from my balcony so why not weave it into my mystery. I wrote and wrote. Various things happened. I found myself writing in widely different rooms with different scenery and colder temperatures. I ended up in another place I never expected to be, on the 14th floor of an apartment building. In a suburb of Toronto! There I discovered I was ready to publish my second book.
So, find an agent, find a publisher. I had the tools: books that told me how to write a killer query letter and three kinds of synopsis. An almost up-to-date copy of Jeff Herman’s comprehensive list of both. It’s a fat book, so the one before that and the one before that, etc. had gone into the recycle bag.
Somewhere I still have a collection of rejection letters for my previous book, most formulaic, but at least one from an agent called Victoria dissecting my character. So self-publishing again, an ebook but now, hurray, a paperback, print-on-demand.
Things had changed since 2012. My nephew is now capable of designing a cover and a website. (Sorry Stewart Williams) I can now format my own book using Vellum. (Sorry 52 Novels) I can now use Twitter to access help self-publishing. I am following half a dozen companies that gave me advice and offer to publicize my work. Among them is Book Marketing Tools, more than generous with free information and advice.
Helpfully, they inform me that 6,500 books are published every day. What do I care? Last year I declared an income of $120 from my writing, with a net loss of only $571 (all figures Cdn). Clearly, I’m on a roll.
I had looked at Book Marketing’s time-line for how to prepare for a book launch earlier, but now I downloaded an up-to-date one and set about reading it in front of that floor to ceiling window on the 14th floor.
I wish I could say that it left me laughing. I wish I could say I didn’t go for the Alan key to remove the locks that kept my windows from opening more than 4 inches. Evidently, I should have started marketing this book long before it became a gleam in my eye. Ideally, the week I was born.
Book Marketing sets off its timeline a year before the book launch. It continues with a list of tasks to perform at 3-4 months, 2 months, one, etc., climaxing with a book launch party. The list assumes I have many friends. I have maybe 6, several of them relatives, two even older than me, several living many thousand miles away. One of my friends refuses to read the book, which focuses on eco-activists, because an animal dies-off-stage and before the action starts. Only my niece and my son-in-law stuck with me through the endless revisions, and even son-in-law could do so only because I read it aloud into iTalk and put it in a shared dropbox. (He has a long commute.) I am extremely grateful for the excellent advice I got. But…
There’s a strategy that’s been around for 20 or 25 years. Artists are encouraged to draft their friends into their marketing process. Thus I was instrumental in getting a friend a show hung in a club I belonged to. I thought I had already done my bit by buying more of her canvases than I needed. Then I found I was also expected to serve refreshments.
Exactly why would anyone from that group of six people want to become my ‘street marketers’? And are they actually expected to knock on doors?
I am called upon to seek endorsements from other writers. “Dear Margaret Atwood, You don’t know me but I am a
young beginner novelist and I would like you to take four or five hours to read my mystery. I expect you to do this because I have read all your books and taught Surfacing to my Can. Lit. class…” Dear Peter Robinson, You don’t know me, but we both live in the Toronto area and my ex-husband came from Yorkshire, (where your Inspector Banks does his sleuthing). And I make an excellent Yorkshire pudding. I could drop one by, but it would be better if I came to your house for fear of it falling. I could bring my new mystery..” “Dear Mar Preston, You met me once in the lobby at the Pine Mtn. Club. I have set my mystery Hour of the Hawk in the same town as your book The Most Dangerous Species and there are striking coincidences, although honest, I wrote my book before I read yours…”
How am I doing?
But this is mean. Book Marketing Tools just wants to help – and possibly to sell me advertising space on Twitter.
Agents demand to know if we indie writers are up to editing, proof-reading, printing, publicizing, all those things a real publisher does. Well, yes, if Book Marketing Tools has anything to say about it?
Have you had the experience of meeting someone after years apart and feeling that no time has passed. You start up your friendship right where you left off, all those years ago. Me too.
I went away a year ago. Part of the reason can be found in my last post. I was about to lose my decade-long home. The other reason can be found in my Dec. 15, 2015 post, Getting the Hawk off the Ground. The picture said it all. I had to rewrite my mystery, Hour of the Hawk.
I last posted in Sept. 2016 – A Gold Finch This Morning. I had just finished reading Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch, and had been greatly heartened by her description of terrible depression, my own default setting. It had made me laugh, horrible though it was: it was so dead on.
“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…
Happily, I can report I am not homeless, although I am writing this in my favorite Starbucks. My resourceful sister took me in hand, announcing that I needed to live near her and her daughter because of my advancing age. Any day now, apparently, I will need a zimmer frame and a tag pinned to my coat, giving my address and saying, “If found, please return.”
Georgia lives in Mississauga, a suburb west of Toronto. I had lived there 15 years before. As a young married woman, I had lived in Scarborough an eastern suburb. I had already done my time in suburbs
But Toronto rents for a one-bedroom were $900 to $1000 more than I was paying for my two-bedroom, rent-controlled home. In Mississauga, we found a one-bedroom on the 14th floor for only $500 more. The library, recreation center, pool and park were one long block away. And I could count on invites to dinner every week.
So I moved, got rooked by the movers, lost things – some didn’t make it onto the truck, some unpacked by others- I had to get niece to come back and find the battery box, and just generally lost my mind. Getting groceries from my car and up to my eerie flummoxed me. Ditto doing laundry on the ground floor. My muscles took turns seizing up. I discovered that reading in bed not only helped with that, but had the additional benefit of a floor to ceiling window on life in the burbs: a major thorough fare, two schools, parkland, a community of houses and the front door of the building.
I hated it. Of course I did. I could see all the way to Lake Ontario and, on a clear day, half way across. I wasn’t God. Why would I want to do that?
I wanted my green old neighborhood with the crazy Polish woman next door, who persisted in thinking that I understood her rapid Polish, and had the ability to influence my landlord. I missed the maples and the deer that lived in the oak savannah next to the river. I missed the kids on the other side of my house. I missed the “girls” upstairs. I could hear all 4 of them in my place.
In the new place I had a wood burning fireplace. I had a gym on the penthouse floor and a sauna. In the brief summer I had an outdoor pool. I got to go to house parties where beautiful African Canadian and Muslim children softened my heart. I was in a minority. Let’s just say that Donald Trump would not approve. Even the province of Quebec in my own country would look askance, although we have no burkas, just a lot of very colorful hijabs and African prints. The West Indians and Haitians fill the halls with lilting English and distinctly un-Canadian French. And, of course, I got to go to dinner two blocks away.
I got the place in order eventually, sat down at my desk in front on another floor to ceiling window, and pulled up version 7 of Hour of the Hawk. It was as usual, completely silent in my tower. And warm. Did I say warm? Those windows face south
Version 8 coming up.
Next post: Getting the Hawk off the Ground 2017.
Okay brace yourself! As some of you know, despite my name, I am ‘Sad’, while my sister is ‘Joy’ (according to the gospel of ‘Inside Out’). She is often required to drag me around by my heels, until I cheer up. (Confused? You’re going to have to see that movie.)
Then along came my 80th birthday on Cinco de Mayo, and a house full of people, 18 months to 81, all of them beautiful, people who had gone to the trouble of seeking out 80th b’day cards!!
The biggest surprise was a six foot parcel of fun from Brussels.
Well, maybe he was the second biggest surprise. The biggest is my realization that in spite of events, I have not actually failed. It was never my job to save everybody. They all had their own saving potential. Whatever happened was not wrong or my fault.
Hips demand exercise. Sorry, Hips, I say, I’ve done Feet. No time for you. I need to spend that half hour on Mind and its buddy Computer. I’ll get back to you later this afternoon. Then I stand up.
“See,” yell Hips. “We’re all seized up. You should stretch one minute for every year of your life.”
“Like I’ve got an hour and a half every expletive day!”
“Look, we’re structural, we’re the foundation. Mind is just electrical.”
Mind, tyrant that it is, does what it wants, and uses up the half hour.
So I arrive at the Genius line more or less knowing what my computer problem is.
In front of me is a beautiful boy. He has apparently tagged along with his parents, probably bored out of his mind. But no, the adults go off with their Genius, and the boy remains. Is he 12? Maybe a young-looking 13? The next Genius leads him away, asking,”What do you want to work on this time?” The boy begins a lengthy answer, not a word of which I understand.
My Genius shows up. I ask him to repeat his name. It is Chinese and sounds like the French word for yes.
I haul out my Mac Air Book-3 years and 6 months old, no longer covered by that expensive extended warranty. “I have been leaving it on because it takes so long to reboot, but it shuts off while it’s sleeping. When I go back to it, it won’t turn on until I plug it in. The battery still has a charge, so that’s not the problem. Then it takes forever to boot up again.”
He starts tapping keys. “First of all, you need to turn it off as often as possible. We’ll get rid Rapport. I know your bank told you to run it, but you don’t really need it. The bank site is secure enough. I find people who have it complain their computers run slow. Then we’ll take out this. I’ll leave this window open and when you get home, plug the computer in and click “Turn off file vault.” I check it out. Who knew I was encrypting my files.
“We’ve only got 15 minutes, so we need to use out time wisely,” he says.
Okay. We must have used 3 already.
He reboots the thing. It’s already faster and no longer black and white when it asks for my password.
“So, I tried to save my photos on iCloud, but..”
“ICloud isn’t really for photos.” He grabs my iPad, plugs it in and in a trice loads my photos there as backup. “I’m like a car mechanic. I fix things. I’m not really a teacher. Come to classes where the teacher is good at that. Here’s the screen for quitting File vault again.” Then he adds, “I suppose you don’t turn the iPad off either.”
“Isn’t it off now?”
“No, it’s sleeping.”
Okay, I wonder, does he want me to turn off my iPhone as well? I don’t ask. I give him my humble thanks. I figure he just came out ahead by at least 5 minutes, kind of a slam, bam, thank you situation.
As he departs backstage, I rise from my high stool. My bags are on the floor. How did they get so far away? “See,” yell Hips. “You need to do a full set of Tai chi, not just the exercises and not just those stupid Yoga stretches.” Stooping is not going to work.I creak forward in a deep bend from the waist. Central Back screams. I stagger down the aisles of people, some of them four-years-old, playing with chained-down devices.
Across the way is a Pottery Barn outlet. Maybe I could just saunter around it. Who knew Christmas shopping started before Remembrance Day? I sidle through the crush. I never shop in stores now. See Hips above. But I spot red lunch plates, only $9. I really really want lunch plates to go with the Fiesta Ware I received when I turned 70, but have you see the prices?. $40 later, I have a huge box of plates. I get to the outside door, but before I press the button to open it, I go back to the store to ask for a bag. Carrying the heavy box has threatened to tip me forward.
Starbucks is jammed, but a welcome rest stop.
I am parked on the deck, way out beyond civilization, past construction. I see there is a yellow hatching on other side of the road for pedestrians, complete with barriers. Cars without parking spots are cruising nose to tail slowly around blind corners. Pedestrians on the other side are flattening themselves against hoardings as I did on the way in. The walkway I’m on is more roundabout, but finally, it leads me across the road between cars to a seven inch curb painted yellow. Okay. There’s a low wall on the left. I put one hand on it to balance and step up, ignoring Hips who are crying out in agony. I glance right. A good-looking young man is looking at me. He smiles his congratulations. I’ve made it.
Good-looking young men used to check me out for a different reason.
Hips and Feet, with a little help from Legs, approximate walking all the way back to the little red Yaris.
Blake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake. It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.
Then we said goodbye.
Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.
For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.
Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.
My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.
This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.
Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.
Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.
This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?
She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.
I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.
I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.
I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.
I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)
At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.
I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.
As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.
No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.