Tag Archives: memoir

The Flying Boat by Chuck Thurston

The PBM Martin Mariner was a flying boat that saw considerable action in World War II. It was a long-range sea plane that provided escort duty for convoys headed for Europe and was credited with sinking 10 German U-Boats during the course of the war.

After the war, a number of these planes were transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue service. The Coast Guard phased them out in 1958, and I expect I was one of the last aircrewmen to have a ride in them. These planes were built to stay in the air a long time, and they were outfitted accordingly. They normally had a crew of nine, so you could be relieved after a four-hour watch – as a radioman, in my case. Off duty, you could go to the small galley in the belly of the aircraft and get something to eat. Then, maybe, take a nap in an available hammock.

I would go for the sandwich and drink, but I was more into sightseeing, and I found the perfect place for it. Although the .50 caliber guns had been removed, the gun turrets were still in place, and the tail gunner’s seat provided a view like no other. I had to crawl on my hands and knees through the long tail boom to the back of the aircraft. I would squeeze into the plexiglass bubble, hunker down in the tailgunner’s seat and watch the world go by.

I would have my sandwich and drink and watch the ocean roll below. I could imagine the battles planes like this engaged in – the sight of a U-Boat just breaching the surface, or alerted to danger, preparing to dive. I could feel the course change, the big plane wheeling over to line up on the target, and the thump as the depth charges were released. I could imagine the tail gunner manning the hand-aimed machine gun, and alert for danger from the skies.

Or I could daydream. It was peacetime. We were actually in-between wars. Korea was over, but Viet Nam was not yet on the horizon. In any case, the action was over for these old flying boats. Their exploits were honored, their duty was done. There is one in the Smithsonian now. There are a few others, scavenged for parts in a sunbaked bone yard in Arizona – far, far from the rolling ocean.

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The One-Way Mirror, by Carole Howard

Violinists sometimes claim they play the most difficult instrument. After all, there are no keys to press that automatically produce “C#.” Nor are there frets, as on a guitar neck, for guidance. You need to just know where to put your finger. For every single note – and there are so many of them. (Have you guessed I’m a violinist?)

I have to admit, though, that pianists have it rough, too, with two different lines of music, one for the left hand and one for the right. As if that weren’t enough, the two lines are written in different clefs. (Non-musicians: let’s just say that black dot on one of the five lines of a musical staff can mean different things depending on which clef it’s in.)

Each group has a point. Or, as my friend’s mother used to say, “There are pros and cons on both sides, and they’re all bad.”

Having been a fiction writer who dove, somewhat naively, into memoir-writing, I see that there are pros and cons in both genres. In this case, of course, they’re not all bad. But they sure are different.

My first novel was character-driven. I could use incidents from my own life, but got to pick and choose, and had the freedom to make up whatever I wanted. Having come from the corporate-writing world, it seemed heavenly to give free rein to my imagination, my creativity. Readers didn’t know which parts were fact-based and which were fictional. When people asked if the protagonist was really me, the short answer was no.

And yet, there was that intimidating blank-canvas thing.

The second novel was a murder mystery. Only a little was drawn from my life, and the canvas wasn’t so blank because mysteries have to be constructed in a certain way so they wind up being….. mysterious. Red herrings, false clues, buried truth. So the “rules” were comforting. But they were difficult, very difficult, to follow.

Like I said, pros and cons.

My most recent book is a travel memoir about five volunteer trips, each two months long, to the developing world. It’s not a travelogue: no recommendations for hotels or restaurants. Yes, it recounts experiences I had while traveling – some funny, some inspiring, some surprising, some sad. There was the time I was twenty feet from a silverback mountain gorilla with nothing between us except trees. Or the time I coached sex workers on their presentations to colleagues about the correct use of condoms. We used wooden props – use your imagination!

But the point of telling about these moments in the memoir is not necessarily, “This is great – you should do it too.” There’s a lot more. Character. Reflections. Truth. Certainly, the tools for writing fiction were also crucial for memoir: setting the scene with physical description, creating tension, using punchy dialogue. But making it all into a story was quite a hill to climb.

The strangest thing about having written a memoir, though, is realizing there are a whole lot of people out there who know some pretty intimate stuff about me. Not only do I not know intimate details about them, I don’t even know who they are!

When I’m speaking at a book store or library, this asymmetry is particularly disorienting. And there’s irony, too: People in the audience, if they’ve read the book, know how uncomfortable I feel about public speaking, and yet here I am, speaking publicly. Through the looking glass, or should I say the one-way mirror?

I guess it’s like being naked when everyone else is clothed, aka EVERYONE’S WORST NIGHTMARE!!

  •     *     *     *

Carole Howard wrote Deadly Adagio, a mystery with a musical undertone set in West Africa, published by Indigo Sea Press.

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Get Me to the Church On Time—J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad and new wife, Colleen

J. Conrad and new wife, Colleen

“I got to get there in the morning;
ding, ding, dong, they’re gonna chime.
Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose your compass.
Get me to the church, get me to the church …
Pete’s sake, get me to the church on time.”

Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner

 

Like marriage, no wedding is perfect. In fact, like imperfections that often draw us to someone—a lopsided smile for example, dimples, a tiny mole perhaps—a wedding in which all does not go according to plan results in lasting impressions that will in time create memories of grand warmth. Our wedding—mine and Colleen’s—left us with several such lasting impressions.

The photographer stopped by the house at eleven o’clock to take pictures of my shoes, cufflinks, my jacket on a hanger and, eventually, me in my tux; Colleen had left for her makeup and hair appointment. I wouldn’t see her again until she came down the aisle. After he left, I took the box bearing our unity cross, a two-piece cross that Colleen and I would assemble during our wedding ceremony to represent the two of us becoming one, along with the marriage license and Colleen’s ring (in a black box) out to the car. I placed them all in the backseat—the license (an original and two copies in a manila folder) on top of the box that bore our unity cross, and the ring box on top of that. Then I went back into the house for a final bio stop and to check myself out in a mirror.

A few minutes later, Rory, at age thirty-one Colleen’s youngest son, and I got into the car and proceeded to start for Mark’s place. Mark is my best man. He and I go back to the days when our ages were single digits. Rory had flown in from L.A. to, in the absence of Colleen’s father, give away the bride.

Halfway down the street, I looked on the dashboard for the ring: it wasn’t there. I patted myself down; no ring. After a moment of panic, I recalled where I’d put it. I called to Rory, who was in the backseat with our jackets, the unity cross, and the marriage license, to confirm the ring’s presence.

“Nope,” he told me after a moment. “Not here.”

Hard braking, I wheeled the car around and went back to the house to get the ring. After spending twenty minutes looking everywhere I could think to look—several times—with no luck finding it, I called the photographer thinking that maybe he’d grabbed the box inadvertently when he picked up his gear. He hadn’t. I checked everywhere a third time, under my bed, under the dresser, in the closet, the bathroom, the trashcan, even the bushes outside the front door. Then I asked Rory to check the car again while I called Mark.

“Houston, we have a problem,” I told him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I can’t find the ring.”

We spent the next few minutes retracing my steps of the morning—that is after I’d, as my dad used to say, shit, showered, shaved and shined my shoes—to see if we could jog my memory. We failed.

“What size ring does Colleen wear?” he asked.

“Four and a half.”

“Not a problem,” Mark said. “Kim wears a four.” Kim is Mark’s wife of thirty-six years. She was arriving later for the ceremony, driving separately from Mark. “That should work for the ceremony. Worry about your ring later. It’s someplace in the house, right?”

“Right,” I said. But I wasn’t certain. The only thing of which I was certain was that Colleen would not be pleased with me for losing her ring. Rings, with an “s.” She’d placed her engagement ring in the box. When the time came for me to place the ring on her finger, I’d place the wedding band on first and then the engagement ring.

So Rory and I piled back into the car and started for the second time to pick up Mark. A minute later, Rory handed me the black ring box from the backseat.

“Black box,” he said, “on black upholstery. It must’ve slipped onto the seat when we hung up our jackets.”

We got to Mark’s place and I told him we were good on the ring. “It was in the backseat all along. Black box, black upholstery. We missed seeing it three times.”

“Good news indeed.”

“My colon agrees, and I’m sure Kim will be so pleased to keep her ring.”

Mark chuckled.

“Do you have Nick’s phone number on your cell?” I asked.

I don’t own a cell phone. But Colleen thinks I should have one even though I don’t like them, so that will change after we’re married. The things we do for love. Nick is the pastor we selected for our ceremony. Mark and I were supposed to meet him at the church at noon. We’re already late and, with I-96 closed until October for road repair, easily thirty minutes away by surface streets.

“Yeah,” Mark told me.

“Dial him up and tell him we’re running behind.”

A minute later I hear Mark leave Nick a voicemail: “I’m with Joe and Rory. We’re a little late and will be there …” he glanced at his watch, “about twelve-thirty-ish.” After he broke the connection, he told me, “Twelve-thirty-ish I figure buys us up to twelve-forty.”

“Good thinking.” It seems I chose my best man wisely.

I picked up our speed, hoping to make the next light, thinking (in a poor Scottish accent), I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain. We made the light but missed the next two before we made the next one. I tried to time the lights, a practice Mark loathed whenever he rode with me when we were kids. It was a story he shared with Colleen upon meeting her for the first time. “He’d drive twenty-eight miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone so he wouldn’t have to stop at the red lights. I used to hate that.” Timing the lights here didn’t work, so I threw all caution to the wind and just picked up my speed whenever I could, risking five to ten miles an hour over the speed limit, which seemed to work better.

We arrived about 12:35; guests had been arriving for a few minutes. I greeted Colleen’s family—those I’ve met—most of whom have come from Chicago, and my own family, and a few minutes later, the ceremony started.

A couple weeks earlier, Nick had asked Colleen and me to each send him a few words describing our first meeting, our courtship, and how I proposed. He planned to use each of our perspectives in the ceremony. So we, along with our guests, listened as he described how I was taken, the first time I met Colleen, by her auburn hair, emerald eyes, and beautiful smile.

A few minutes later, Colleen and I exchanged the vows we’d written for each other. These went off without a hitch and we later learned that there wasn’t a dry eye in the chapel. Afterward, I heard Nick say something about Colleen’s “emerald hair.” Sheesh, I thought. If I heard it, then surely our guests heard it, and it’s captured on video now, too. So I turned to Nick and in a stage whisper said, “Auburn.” Nick laughed, as did family and friends (it’s a small chapel), and he corrected himself and went on.

After Nick pronounced us husband and wife, he told me that I was free to kiss my wife. Afterward, he presented us to the congregation as, “Mr. and Mrs. Guest,” and I asked him, “Does that mean we can change our Facebook statuses?”

Another woman might’ve been angry with my levity; but Colleen isn’t another woman. I’d dated women who turned out to be Miss Wrong, and others who maybe weren’t Miss Wrong but certainly weren’t Miss Right. I learned a few weeks after meeting her that Colleen was a keeper. Colleen laughed, as did everyone who witnessed our marriage, and today, as I sit typing these words a week later, I’m happy to call Colleen, “My wife.”

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In Death, A World Without Music (forthcoming), Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s ParadigmJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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Click to purchase

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Mother’s Day 2013 — J. Conrad Guest

Mother’s Day has been different for me since Mom passed away. My inbox still fills this time of year with spam to “Don’t forget Mom.” Commercial.

Irene Rupkus

Irene Rupkus

I’ve written about Mom over the years—her battle with Parkinson’s disease, and she appears, in some form or another, in a lot of my fiction. My effort to keep her memory alive, and perhaps to find some reason for her suffering. Several readers have reached out to me, grateful to me for sharing with them her story. There is comfort in knowing someone shares your pain.

Mother’s Day has evolved for me since I was boy, when I hand-crafted cards for her, a heart-felt sentiment inside written in shaky block letters. When I got older it became a Hallmark day—flowers, brunch, a card with a heart-felt sentiment in a more elegant cursive.

My first Mother’s Day without her, two months after she passed away, was difficult; it was spent with Dad (who is now gone from me, too) and my sister. It made little sense for us to ignore the day. After brunch, while Dad gave me directions, I drove the three of us by the tiny apartment in which they lived for a time after they wed, and where my sister was conceived. Sadly, the building, in a rundown neighborhood, was boarded up. I saw it as a pictogram of the aging process. Heraclitus wrote: “All things flow, nothing abides.”

Each year since has gotten a little easier—several spent with a lady love who was herself a mother and whose mother still lived. But I always saved a moment for a thought of my own mother.

The lady love has moved on from me, and a new one now holds a prominent place in my life; but Mom is still a part of me. I know I’ve disappointed her in many ways, but I hope I’ve made her proud of me, if only in the trying. I’ve tried to live a good life and have, on occasion, failed. Yet we don’t have to let our failures mark us, the labels others place on us rule us. A man’s mettle in the face of adversity, his perseverance in the aftermath of disappointment, is a better measure of whom and what he is.

Each Mother’s Day I remember Mom in my own way, and this year was no different. I have an old photograph of her—sweet 16, a high school graduate, and beautiful, I see in her eyes all the hopes and dreams of youth … destined to one day become my mother.

She who bore me, and now I bear her, her memory as well as her hopes and dreams.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

J. Conrad Guest, author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, One Hot January, January’s Thaw, and A Retrospect In Death

retrospect_th

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The Day of the Trickster by J J Dare

The first day in April is a silly day. If this day had a spokesperson, it would be Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“Nudge, nudge! Know what I mean? Say no more! A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, say no more, say no more”).

The origin of April Fool’s Day is obscured by this and that, but a good lead suggests it started as a farmer’s festival in ancient Rome around 230 BC. This festival, Saturnalia, was named for Saturn, the Roman God of Agriculture. It was a way for the people to cut loose after a long harvest season.

According to what we know about the old days in Rome, these guys and their mythological gods loved to party. During the Feast of Saturnalia, roles were reversed. The master served the servant, the parents obeyed the children, executions were cancelled with a laugh and pat on the back, cats pretended to be rabbits, and, for the most part, the shoe was on the other person’s foot for awhile. Silliness ran rampent.

Silly Cat-Rabbit

Although April Fool’s Day can be loosely traced to the Feast of Saturnalia, pranksters have been around since the beginning of time. The Romans upped the ante and it snowballed into what we recognize today as a time to get away with bending the truth. As long as we do it in the spirit of fun, we’ll be forgiven. Of course, don’t try this if you’re attempting to get out of a speeding ticket. Trust me, it doesn’t work.

Sometimes the holiday can be taken a little too far. There are numerous accounts of hoaxes and pranks throughout time and if I start talking about them, we’ll be here all day. Instead, I limited myself to four of the more notorious literary fibs from this century.

James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” hit the bookshelves with a bang in 2003. The sad memoir of a young substance abuser, this tale (and I use the word “tale” very specifically) was on the New York Times Best Seller’s list for almost four straight months. Only after The Smoking Gun published an article entitled “A Million Little Lies,” which pointed out the falsehoods in Frey’s recollections, did the “memoir” become “semi-ficitonal.” Great. One more category in book genres to keep up with. What next?

“Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin was published in 2007 and stayed on the NY Time’s nonfiction best seller’s list for a long time. Too bad this account of one man’s journey to make a difference in the lives of young children from Afghanistan and Pakistan was overshadowed by fictious accounts touted as true events and mismanagement of the charitable institution that sprang from the book. Was co-author Relin’s suicide last November because of all the controversy? Who knows? One thing for certain is Jon Krakauer’s rebuttal book, “Three Cups of Deceit,” did not help matters.

“Honor Lost,” an account of life in Jordan by Norma Khouri, debuted to sensational acclaims shortly after publication in 2003. While the story of two star-crossed lovers has played out through time immortal, this one was not true. In fact, it was a bald-faced lie. The relationship between a Muslim woman and a Catholic man is ficitonal but was sold as a true story by the author who was the supposed go-between for the lovers. The eventual “honor killing” of the girl by her enraged family is also false. Khouri admitted her deceit after she was caught in the lie. While these types of executions still happen in modern times, for Khouri to exploit this type of tradegy for profit was shameful.

Last, but not least, here’s one that was stopped at the gate before trotting into the Field of Books. “Angel at the Fence” by Herman Rosenblat was the “true” love story between an inmate in the Schlieben concentration camp and a Jewish girl pretending to be a Christian who saved his life by supplying  him with food thrown over a fence. They later met in the States on a blind date and, surprise, surprise, discovered their shared history (ehh, only a little bit true. The truth: they met on a blind date). Although Rosenblat was at Schlieben during the Holocaust, the account of a brave, selfless act by a young girl was fictitious as she was on a farm over two hundred miles away. Once the facts were discovered to be false, publication was cancelled in 2008.

“Secret to Immortality,” rare Japanese document I found in a bottle someone had tossed in the ocean. Bidding starts at $2.5 million. April Fool’s! For all I know, this is someone’s grocery list my dad picked up in Tokyo after the war.

I’m really glad I write fiction. As a teller of tall tales, I can get away with just about anything. Unless I’m a Cohen brother and the script’s name is “Fargo,” if I label something I write as the truth, I sure as shooting flying pigs better be able to back it up with facts. Unless, of course, it’s April Fool’s Day.

By the way, did I tell you I’m in the running for a Pulitzer?

Snort. April Fool’s 😉

^^^^^

J J Dare is the author of two published books, several short stories and triple digit works-in-progress.

Current enthusiasm is sharpening intangible knives and co-authoring at Rubicon Ranch

Facebook addiction

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Mother’s Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson’s

With Mother’s Day fast approaching, I thought I’d share this piece I wrote a few years after I lost my mother. This first appeared in Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, a print magazine published annually by the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.

Mom with J. Conrad Guest and sister, Mary

 ***

Mother’s Day at six: finger-painted pictures, cutout flowers and Elmer’s Glue. Clumsily fashioned ceramic turtle ashtrays, and cards with simple words filled with love and written in shaky block letters … all long since forgotten by the child, but cherished forever by Mommy, so proud of her young son.

As the child grew older, the homemade treasures became a Hallmark tradition: cards chosen with care, a special sentiment scrawled inside to personalize it, to make it different from the hundreds of other cards purchased for other moms. A necklace, a pair of earrings, a ceramic or pewter figure, sometimes a book, and always a brunch—time with Mom, perhaps the most treasured gift of all.

When did all that change? For me the change came in my twenty-fourth year, my mother’s fifty-second. A weakness on one side of her body and a slight tremor; diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. I’d heard of this disease, but knew little of it and its cruelty. Human nature, I suppose, to ignore the unpleasant until it touches us personally. Parkinson’s had touched my mother. She would suffer from its effects, become weaker day by day even as she fought her battle, a battle she was destined to lose, one day at a time.

Yes, Parkinson’s had touched my mother, but it would touch me, too, and my dad and my sister as well. For the next eighteen years we would all become intimately familiar with Parkinson’s and its relentless pursuit to steal from Mom her functionality as well as her dignity. Helpless, we could only watch. Innocent bystanders, we would see, firsthand, Parkinson’s handiwork. And in the process Dad would lose his wife, and my sister and I would lose our mom.

In the early stages its effects were barely noticeable and came and went. Mom had good days and bad days. All too quickly that changed: she had bad days and worse days. She quickly learned that protein in her diet worsened the tremors, and so she began eating less and less. She would lose the ten pounds she always wanted to lose.

Through it all, Mom struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy to the madness. She drove a car for as long as she could. In time it became an effort for her to get up from a chair and cross a room; at the very end she needed assistance getting from the bed and down the hall to the bathroom and back.

My visits to the house I grew up in revealed Mom engrossed in her daily routines: dusting, vacuuming, laundry … struggling to keep house in the same fashion she had while my sister and I were growing up. “Why,” I asked one day, not understanding, as she struggled mightily to iron a pillowcase, “why do you work so hard, Mom?” “It has to be done,” she answered patiently.

During the early stages of her condition it was good therapy; towards the end it seemed that she had become somewhat of an automaton, functioning solely on what she’d managed to convince her broken brain was necessary in order to maintain her normalcy.

In public she was most self-conscious of her condition. “I’m sorry,” she would say, apologizing for the extra few moments it took her to make up her mind over which item on the menu she wished to order, to get her wallet out of her purse, or for the difficulty she had in making herself heard as her speech became more and more slurred. “I have Parkinson’s.”

Once a month I got a call asking if I wanted to split a pizza. Splitting a pizza with Mom meant that I’d call the order in and pick it up. Once home, she’d pay me for the pizza. How could I pass up an offer like that? She rarely ate more than one slice, because the protein would cause her to shake, but that pizza always managed to “hit the spot”.

As dad got older, I helped with much of the yard work, mowing the lawn in the summer, raking the leaves and cleaning the eaves in the fall, and shoveling the snow in the winter. I also painted the garage for the last time. But Mom was always out there too, offering what help she could, even if it was only to bring me a cold beer. In the spring, when most Michiganders welcome the warm weather after months of winter and thrill at the sight of new growth, Mom paniced. Springtime to her was the harbinger of autumn, when the leaves dropped, and who was going to rake up the leaves for her?

The ten pounds had become twenty. Eventually her forays into public became less and less frequent. On her worse days she refused to put herself on display; on her bad days she needed to get out of the house. A prisoner of her own body, she occasionally sought an escape from the prison that her own home had become.

Spending money became one of her few pleasures. It made her happy to bring home a new plant or a knick-knack for the house or a new sweater for herself. Unfortunately it was a quick fix—spending merely propagated more spending. Yet for all the pleasure it gave Mom, Dad, ever the more practical one and ignorant of the why behind her spending, grew more and more frustrated. A new pair of slacks was never a single trip to the mall. Mom’s condition prevented her from trying on the outfits she bought until she got home. Often it was much later that she would find she had brought home the wrong size, or that it was the wrong color to go with the blouse or sweater she had purchased a week before. The woman who once was able to unerringly pick out a picture for the dining room without a piece of wallpaper and a carpet swatch to match it to now became indecisive about which kitchen trash bags she wanted to purchase.

Despite the many clocks she purchased over the years, perhaps as a reminder that the sands of time were dwindling for her when so much living remained, a twenty-minute trip to the mall to exchange an outfit ended up a two-hour ordeal, with stops at the fragrance counter as well as the handbag and linen departments. Too late I realized the shopping meant little to Mom; it was the getting out that brought her the most pleasure.

Towards the end the Parkinson’s began to affect her speech. She had difficulty supporting her voice and spoke in little more than a whisper. About that same time Dad’s hearing began to deteriorate. The timing would’ve been amusing had the potential for disaster not been so real. One day Mom fell while in the garage and struck her head on the driveway. Unable to call out for help, she lay in a puddle of her own blood for thirty minutes before it occurred to my dad to go looking for her. Vanity aside, Dad finally agreed to get a hearing aid.

Mom began to lose her balance more and more frequently. She would come to a stop, nearly in mid-stride, her muscles locked in a sort of rigor mortis. She would stand for minutes at a time, unable to move or to call out, until Dad found her and coaxed her into motion again and assisted her to a chair, or she would just topple over. It’s a wonder she never broke anything, or worse, that she never fell down the basement stairs.

Each Christmas she made the arduous journey into the basement several times to bring up her decorations, despite the fact she and Dad rarely entertained family anymore. Yet she managed to do all of her own Christmas shopping, right up until the very end. Always a gift for me; always something I needed. Each card she ever bought for me spoke to me: somewhere inside this frail and failing body was a six-year-old boy’s mommy.

Three years before she passed away, I had a minor surgery to repair a hernia. I was off work for several weeks and unable to drive for at least a week. Mom sent Dad to the hospital to pick me up and bring me home—their home not mine. I lived alone, and she insisted I stay with them for the weekend so they could care for me. Not wanting to be a burden, it felt odd having her fuss over me; after all, she was the invalid. But it was comforting, too, being home. Having Mom take care of me.

On Monday Dad took me to my place, and every day for a week thereafter they came by together to take me to lunch. Of course I thanked them for all they did for me, but it wasn’t until Mom was gone that I realized what taking care of me had meant to her. Although she never said it, perhaps she didn’t understand it, but I had given her life a purpose again, if only for a few days. Someone needed her. Her son needed her. I’m glad now that I let her take care of me.

The twenty pounds had become thirty. Mom fought extreme depression, courtesy of her affliction. It was rare that I saw her lose her temper, rarer still that I saw her question the reason behind her disease. “Why me?” she pleaded on a rare occasion. And I could only shake my head. She lashed out from time to time, at Dad most often because he was there most often. She tried Dad’s patience; I know she did because she tried mine, too, as surely as she must have tried my sister’s.

Helpless to do little else but watch, I became angry with myself for my inability to do anything but watch. She needed assistance with nearly every aspect of her life now. Where once she needed someone to cut her food for her, she now needed someone to feed her. Someone came into the house two or three times a week to bathe her. And she began to panic: so much work needed to be done around the house and who was going to do it all?

Yes, I was angry at my inability to do anything about my mother’s condition save take care of her, and so I became angry, too, at what she had become—what the Parkinson’s had made of her. I have few regrets where Mom was concerned, but one of them is that I raised my voice to her, more than once. I hope she understood that it was never her that I was angry with.

 ***

December 1996: Dad is diagnosed with cancer. While he recovers from a colostomy, I spend the next few weeks going home—the home I grew up in—after work to fix them dinner, make sure Mom has her meds, do a few odd chores, and get Mom ready for bed. I spend the night on the sofa. Mom urinates frequently now, and she cannot make it through the night without going to the bathroom. I sleep fitfully, waiting for her to call my name to help her to the bathroom, two, three, sometimes four times throughout the night. In the morning I help her from bed and dress her for the day, fix a quick breakfast and coffee, and then go off to work, only to come back in nine or ten hours to repeat the custom.

I hear her voice call out and roll off the sofa and into motion. I pad down the hall on bare feet and pull the covers off her and help her to a sitting position. After a moment, I assist her to her feet and guide her to the bathroom. Once she is seated, I ask if she needs any meds. She has taken to calling them by color and tells me in a whisper, “Two blues and a yellow.” At this stage of her illness she takes them when she needs them, which is not always as prescribed. Who am I to argue with my mother? I go to the kitchen, wash my hands and get her meds and some water. Back in the bathroom I place the meds in her mouth and hold the straw to her lips so that she can suck some water. She swallows and I am amazed at the effort it takes for her to do so. A moment later she looks up at me with her beautiful blue eyes and destroys my last hope. Until that moment I had always hoped that whatever the Parkinson’s was doing to her brain synapses to cause the tremors, the rigidity in her muscles, her loss of balance and all the rest of the horrible symptoms of this dreaded disease … I had always hoped that it would have the decency to cloud her thinking, too. That a lucid, thinking, aware brain would not be trapped inside this fragile, malfunctioning body.

“You always wash your hands before bringing me my meds,” she tells me, matter of fact. “Your father doesn’t.”

I have been struck a blow; I nearly double over but manage to overcome the urge.

I get her back into bed. I pull the blanket up to her chin and gently arrange it around her tiny frame. I’m suddenly struck by our sudden role reversals. A six-year-old boy is tucking his mommy into bed. Has it really been so long ago that she was doing this for me? I ask myself, hastily brushing aside a tear and hoping that Mom has not seen it, that she will only see me rubbing sleep from my eye.

She looks up at me, her eyes seemingly seeing into me, and whispers, “I’m sorry to be so much trouble.”

I manage a smile and wonder if she sees her own dimples in my smile. I lean down and kiss her forehead and whisper, “You’re no trouble at all, Mom.”

A few moments later, back on the sofa, I cry myself back to sleep.

A few weeks pass and I find I am wearing myself out with this schedule. I had only suspected how difficult it was for my dad to care for Mom all these years, and suspecting is a far cry from experiencing it firsthand. She needs more care than I can give, and needs it most during the day, during the hours I am away. She is active during the day, and should she fall, my father will be unable to get her to her feet. I suggest that she consider having someone come to the house during the day to sit with her, or consider staying at a care facility for a few weeks while Dad completes his recovery from surgery, although by then he will have begun his Chemo and radiation therapy. Her eyes tear up and she shakes her head. I suggest that she deserves and needs better care than I can give her. She gulps and says, “Nobody wants me.” Crushed, I give up my argument, and never again breach the subject.

Another week passes and she complains of abdominal discomfort. It worsens the next day. She is taken to the hospital where she is diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. Admitted on Friday, she can be treated over the weekend and be home on Monday. On Sunday a blockage is discovered in her lower intestine. Because of her condition, the doctors advise against surgery. It will only serve to traumatize her and prolong the inevitable by a few days. The inevitable. For eighteen years we awaited the inevitable. Now it was here.

Mom had made it known long before that she did not wish to be tortured into being kept alive. The next day we move her to Hospice, where they will monitor very closely her discomfort and administer morphine whenever she needs it.

The thirty pounds has become forty—she now weighs but ninety pounds: a skeleton sheathed in a thin veil of skin.

I visit her every day during my lunch and every night after work. On Wednesday evening I walk in and tell her how much I wish I could split a pizza with her, but that Lona’s won’t deliver this far. Her face lights up with a smile I take with me forever. Later that evening I manage to spoon some tapioca pudding—another favorite of hers—into her mouth. I ask her if it tastes good. She nods and manages to say, “It’s delicious.” A few minutes later she slips into a coma, one from which she will never come out.

On Sunday evening, just after nine, my dad, exhausted by his vigil, asks me to take him home. I remind him to say goodnight to Mom. When he finishes, I lean down to kiss her and whisper into her ear that I love her, and that I’m proud of her. I tell her that it’s okay, that everything is going to be fine, and that I will always carry her with me. And then I ask her to let go. “Your time has come, Mother. There is nothing left here for you to do. Go and rest. You deserve it.”

My sister stays with Mom.

At just after ten, a few minutes after I get home, the phone rings. It’s my sister. My world has suddenly become a much colder place in which to live.

She passed very easily; no death’s rattle. Her breathing, which had been irregular for three days, simply stopped. Even had she the will to continue living, the Parkinson’s had left her too weak to do anything but succumb. In this she was blessed. After eighteen years fighting a losing battle, she deserved an easy death.

 ***

And now as I sit writing these words so many years later, trying to find some meaning for her suffering in a world where little of anything that happens to any of us in this brief moment we call life—for good, bad or indifference—has so little to do with meaning, or deserving, I’m nearly compelled to throw in my towel. But I cannot. I will not.

Perhaps the meaning is in the writing of these simple words, although this has been no simple task. Perhaps the meaning is in the impact of what she was and what she became and how she faced her adversity. Perhaps it is in the memory of a young boy and the pride a young mother took in hearing her son utter his first word, in taking his first step, in doing well with his studies, in leaving the nest and alternately pleasing and displeasing her, as all children must surely do. But in every card I ever received for holiday or birthday, she spoke of her love and of how proud she was of her son. Perhaps the meaning of her suffering comes in the full circle of life: that I now bear she who bore me—her memory as well as all that she gave to me and sacrificed for me.

To me, Mother’s Day is now every day, as there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my dear mother—she who bears the sweetest name, and adds a luster to the same; long life to her, for there’s no other who takes the place of my dear mother.

Why do I write these words? The answer begins to come into focus, becomes crystal clear: I write these words because it is a task that must be tended to … a task from which I will not back away, nor will I stop until I have finished writing the last …

J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, One Hot January, and January’s Thaw.

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If the Novel is Dying, What’s That Say About Imagination?

I ran into two people recently, both women, who told me they lacked the patience to read a novel. “Just too many other things I need to do,” one told me; while the other said, “Too many other things I want to do.”

I don’t deny it, reading for me is a luxury. With a full time job and my creative writing, that I live alone and must mow the lawn or shovel the snow, cook and clean for myself, shop and pay the bills, I have to make time for reading, which I gladly do.

So I thought about these two women and how many others, men and women, adults and children, they might represent and why.

“Too many other things I need to do” I can understand.

A few years ago the facilitator in my writers group had just published a collection of short stories and commenced work on a novel; but she got pregnant and gave birth to their first daughter. That kept her busy and work on the novel slowed. Then the second daughter came along. With two little ones she became even busier and so work on the novel stopped long before the third daughter came along—all within a five-year period of time. This summer she managed a T-ball team—a want, yes, not so much a need. But then, my father was mostly absent from my youth due to career and it was only at the end that he admitted to me he wished he’d been more nurturing to me. So, she needs to manage her daughter’s T-ball team.

Yet she manages to make time to read. Not only does she offer the group recommendations of books she’s recently read, but she manages to workshop excerpts from those in the group. She also managed to make time to work on a children’s book. She’s still in her thirties and I figure she’ll have plenty of time to write novels when the girls grow up and start their own families. She might even be bettered armed as a storyteller.

I digress.

It must be about choice—choosing not to read. But I also feel it’s the result of the technological world in which we live. Video games, the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, DVD players in the car—all of them conspire to destroy what getting lost in a good novel inspires: imagination.

Samuel R. Delany: “Above all things, the story, the poem, the text is—and is only—what its words make happen in the reader’s mind.”

Young people today are afraid to be alone. If they’re not connected to a friend via a cell phone they’re on Facebook or in a chat room. Video games are so realistic they need no imagination. A ten-minute trip with Mom to the grocery store is too long and boring. Pop a DVD into the family car’s DVD player. Read a novel about a vampire? How passé when there are movies and TV shows that graphically show what I once imagined.

Remember when Rob and Laura Petrie couldn’t be shown in the same bed on prime time? Now we see all manner of soft porn any night of the week. America has been desensitized: we never so much as saw someone bleed when they got shot on shows like Gunsmoke. Today we see autopsies in all their gory glory on shows like CSI and NCIS—and we never bat an eye.

Make no mistake, I enjoy both CSI (the original Vegas show—Grissom was my idol) and NCIS (Mark Harmon is great as Gibbs—glib, tough on dirt bags and marriages, but he gets along well with kids because “they don’t have the guile to pull it off”); but one day I came home from work and realized I was in a rut: after dinner, turn on the tube and let it work its magic on me, or as Frank Zappa wrote: “I am the slime oozing out from your TV set.”

It was getting easier day by day, even during the summer rerun season. But you know what? Even though we’re creatures of habit, habits can be broken. If you can quit smoking or give up drinking, you can pretty much do anything to which you put your mind. I won’t give up my moderate drinking habit, nor my cigars (not that I can’t—I gave up both for thirty days on a bet and won); but TV? Heck that was a snap.

Today after I come home from work and have dinner, I do a little writing or read a few chapters of that new book I downloaded to my Nook. Sure I still watch a ballgame, and TNT has some new series on any given night of the week, even during the summer months; but I no longer sit glued in front of the tube from seven until eleven.

And you know what? I truly think it’s been good for my creativity, largely because it’s been good for my imagination. I’m writing better now than I ever have.

On the other hand, what good is it doing me in a nation of illiterates?

I’m sorry if that last statement offends some of you, but that’s exactly how many Europeans view Americans, as illiterates, and I suspect they’re more right than arrogant in their assessment. And if you are offended, maybe you should pick up a good book to read instead of spending your night playing a video game or texting with your friends.

Nothing like a good book to keep you company.

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Dear Emily

For nearly a year, I have had the opportunity to spend a large amount of time working on “Dear Emily: A Memoir ~ My Life in the Fine Stores”.  At the age of 89, Louise Thomas is a spunky woman of the world, living on her own in her beautiful home and taking on new challenges every day. She was also a trend-setter, paving the way for women in the executive world. Not only was her executive world male-dominated, but it was also largely family operated and almost always enjoyable.

Starting out in the department stores of New York in the 1940s, Louise experienced decades of social and economic change, not only in the evolution and decline of the fabulous shopping world, but in the world as a whole as she traveled across continents as a buyer and eventually for enjoyment.

The following excerpt from her memoir gives a glimpse of the New York department stores at their peak:

One April morning, a well-dressed lady stopped by the handkerchief department to purchase an all-over embroidered linen handkerchief for one dollar, asked to have it gift-wrapped, cashed a check for $100 so that she would have lunch money, and requested to have her full-length black mink coat sent to her Park Avenue address. She would be meeting a friend for lunch at Club 21. The temperature had risen which made her long coat a bother. Every detail was met within minutes, accompanied by a smile and a “thank you”.

Sadly, service like that doesn’t exist anymore. 

Ivey's Department store, Downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, 1924

Another excerpt brings the reader into a world surviving under less security and less scrutiny.


Dear Emily,

I wish you could have been with me on Thursday, January 28, 1965. I did a full day’s work at the office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and then caught an evening flight to Newark and a helicopter to Kennedy airport for an 8 a.m. flight to London. We were scheduled to begin our spring buying trip in Rome, but at the last minute, we were able to switch our destination from Rome to London to attend the funeral of Winston Churchill. 

To the strains of Handel’s “Dead March”, the cortège entered first Parliament Street and on to Whitehall. Here stood hundreds of veterans from the European resistance, French, Belgians, Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians. Their survivors dipped their flags to the man whose voice had brought them hope. Next, the procession passed a house with two outside lights burning, No. 10 Downing St, passed the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, up Fleet Street headed toward Ludgate Hill where we were fortunate to have front row positions not far from the massive cathedral. Everywhere one looked, there were people and more people all with one purpose—to honor their fallen hero, their protector.

The cortège carried the flag-wrapped casket up the narrow street—no more than five or six feet from us. Behind followed the veil-draped Lady Churchill and her daughter, Sarah. They were riding in the Queen’s carriage on loan from the owners. The creeping carriage stopped immediately in front of us. We could easily have touched the carriage. It was that close. We were a block away from the cathedral.

Louise also gives us an idea of what happened to the glorious days of service:

Dear Emily,

Does it all make sense now? So what really happened to a fine institution, born in Europe, perfected in America, and all but extinct in little more than one century? There is no simple answer.

Louise’s account of her life in the fine stores, speckled with tales of her adventurous travel and insights into business, history, and day-to-day life during the past eighty years is presented as letters and pictures to her lifelong friend Emily. I encourage readers to settle in for a trip into the past as they read Dear Emily: A Memoir ~ My Life in the Fine Stores. I’m glad I took the trip. I now have memories of Louise and the fine stores that I will never forget.

See also: Woman Writes of How She Did it Her Way in Heyday of Downtown Business

~Tracy Beltran is the Administrator for Second Wind Publishing. She also writes as Claire Collins and her books, Fate and Destiny,  and Images of Betrayal are available from http://www.secondwindpublishing.com, as well as a variety of e-book applications, Amazon, and Kindle.  Grab a copy of Louise’s Dear Emily while you’re there.

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