Category Archives: Memoir

Truce

A signed armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 signaled the end of World War I. The first Armistice Day celebration was November 11,  1919. My parents had two children then. World War II ended September 2, 1945. At the end of WWII, my parents had nine children, ages six to thirty-one, and grandchildren ages up to age seven. Several of those grandsons later served in the Korean Conflict and Viet Nam.

We honored all the dead in our family—military and civilian—on Memorial Day and the living military men on Veterans Day. My mother called the May holiday Decoration Day and the November holiday Armistice Day. We spent the May morning at the Chowchilla Cemetery placing flowers on any veteran’s grave. After my father died in November 1953, my mother insisted that we adorn his grave with flowers on Armistice Day although he was a civilian during all the wars. She said, “It might look bad if his grave was bare on that day so many neighbors visited the cemetery.”

The red poppy became symbolic for Veterans Day, but my mother, a widow, seldom had a spare quarter to donate in exchange for the handmade paper flower. One year, the veteran accepted a dime and handed her a red paper poppy. She pinned it to the right side of her dress. When my brother-in-law, a WWII veteran, saw it, he insisted she move it over her heart. To keep the peace, a truce of sorts, she wore it there until he left. Then, she moved it back to the right side.

“What’d you do that for, Grandma?” one of the grandsons born during World War II asked. “The vets pin their poppies on the left.”

“That’s why I moved it,” she said, her black brows drawn together. “They’re men, but I’m a woman.”

 

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Too Much of a Good Thing

Family stories shaped my life in hand-me-down stories of my French and Native American ancestry. DNA proves the French but disagrees on the other. That doesn’t erase the historical moment my mother blurted two full sentences in Cherokee, part of a conversation she remembered from her young years in Indian Territory, later Oklahoma. I can identify the colors and material of clothes my twin and I wore in aging black and white photos. Cloudy memories say I excelled in high school, but math transcripts disagree. I played shortstop a few times in physical education. I like to think I was good, but the truth is I was the last choice for the position.  True or false, these are part of my backstory.

My critique group often tells me to cut the backstory in my crime fiction novel. “But you need to know my character’s history,” I insist. “How else will you know why she reacts like she does.”

The most common statements my physicians repeat are backstory. “At your age . . .” and “With your history . . .” followed by how genetics and medical history affect a specific ailment now. Despite my poor athletic abilities, I jump like a pro reaching for a fly ball. I catch words preceded by high—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high heart rate.  Imagine my surprise when a specialist lobbed me a slow grounder.

 

“Your sodium level is too low.”

My mind raced to backstory ten years ago when physicians, nurses, and dieticians counseled me to lower my salt levels. No more pizza. Go light on the bread. Ditch the cheese. It was difficult after a lifetime of enjoying salt, but I followed the advice. I switched to organics, bought no-salt-added canned vegetables or rinsed regular ones to remove the excess sodium. I substituted Trader Joe’s Rainbow Peppercorns for my spice-of-the-day. No more salt on watermelon or fresh sliced tomatoes. My taste buds refused to cooperate at first but eventually acclimated to the new taste.

“But lowering my salt intake was the goal,” I countered, back in the present where my new endocrinologist didn’t know my history.

She turned the computer screen my direction and pointed to the < sign before the sodium level.

“Dangerously low,” she said. “Increase the salt in your diet.”

That reversal echoed advice from my critique group when I revealed the antagonist in the last chapters. “You need to flesh out this guy,” they said. “Give us some backstory.”

At home, I made a sandwich with cheese. I sprinkled the sliced tomatoes with salt and ate a handful of potato chips—rare foods in my kitchen.

Backstory and salt. How do I balance the levels to avoid too much of a good thing?

 

 

 

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On the Bench

A bench is defined as a long seat, a pew, or a worktable. It has a seat portion and may have a backrest. A pew, with or without arms, is a long bench with back support. A worktable is a surface to create or repair. When a person sits at a bench, the bench becomes a workstation. When a person sits on a bench, it’s a place of rest or time out. But when a judge sits on the bench, it means he’s been appointed to serve as a justice in a specific jurisdiction.

When bench shifts to an action verb, it takes on new meanings. If a player in sports has been benched, that means out of action from an accident, poor performance, or breaking the rules. Breaking the rules doesn’t disqualify a writer. That’s clear by reading bestselling novels. What about a writer who is out of action? If a physical time-out, the mind still churns with ideas for the next great novel. Benched for poor performance? That’s self-inflicted.

That happened to me. Writing blogs cure-alls said to take a break. If I can’t write, I am taking a break. Next, they suggested I sit in a quiet place to meditate and empty my thoughts. I tried that. My mind whirled with a to-do list. I moved on to writing prompts. “I’m sorry I missed our coffee date, but I . . .” That inspired several excuses but no story.

A second prompt, “You’re walking down a dark street when you realize you’re being followed. What do you do?” That produced a one-word story. Run! What if your assailant has a gun? I understand weapons, so that produced a longer narrative. Run faster.

I write short story memoirs. My kinfolk were farmhands—a few landowners, others paid laborers—until the mid-twentieth century. A few facts live on in marriage licenses, probates, real estate, and religious documents. Day-to-day survival crowded their lives with little time to leave a written legacy.  That provoked a question, “What would I write if I knew I only had a short time to live?”

I remember a conversation with my oldest sister after the oncologist numbered her days. When asked about her wishes for a memorial service, she said, “Skip the funeral. Go to lunch.”

Now there’s a writing prompt that moved me off the bench and back into action.

 

 

 

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Chasing Rabbit Trails

I checked my email before tackling revisions of my mystery novel in progress. I received a request from a genealogy group to be a speaker about identifying family photos from the mid-to-late 1800s. Before I chose an optional date, I checked to see if my PowerPoint file survived the transfer to my new computer last fall. I watched the full presentation. All there, but the majority of the photos were from a later period. Mysterious Mary, a name I had dubbed Mary Dragoo years before when I learned that she was buried in Alamo Cemetery, would be a perfect example of a working woman in the Antebellum and Victorian time periods.  I scrolled through my family photos. “No results” proved to be a minor sidetrack—the first rabbit trail of the day.

I left my computer long enough to review my handwritten notes from my visit to find her unmarked gravesite in Alamo Cemetery. Gone missing. Mysterious Mary continues to be elusive. Back at my computer, I looked for the article I wrote when I first discovered that she lived in Contra Costa County in the nineteenth century. No file. Sidetrack #2.

I emailed my twin, our family history researcher, about the missing photo.  I added more information. Sidetrack #3.

She sent me the picture jpg and my original Word article from 2007. I read it to refresh my memories of my original search for Mysterious Mary and her family. I stopped at the paragraph where I mentioned that Mary’s grandson and his spouse are buried in Roselawn Cemetery a couple of miles from me. I hadn’t visited either cemetery recently. Back online for a Find A Grave search. The Roselawn posting mentioned that the memorial manager, a direct descendant, has no information on the man’s wife. An easy challenge for me from memories of visiting her gravesite. I clicked the link to share that information with the manager. Sidetrack #4.

I received an error code. The memorial manager can’t be reached. I contacted Find A Grave with the details and requested webmaster intervention. Sidetrack #5.

Next step: Update my speaker bio to include previous presentations on U.S. Civil War and Victorian period costumes. My empty stomach growls—a signal for a timeout for lunch. Sidetrack #6.

From the table into the open living room, Green yarn of a hat I’m knitting beckons me to my easy chair for a break from research. Sidetrack #7.

Ah, seven, often referred to as the perfect number. The stately oak trees from my framed print of Oak Alley Plantation, first named Bon Séjour (pleasant sojourn), remind me that no journey is wasted. I hurry back to my computer to accept the invitation from the genealogy group. This time, I’ll stay away from rabbit trails.

 

 

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Debunking Family Tales

My twin and I have spent our lifetimes researching our family ancestry. We began in our grammar school days asking why we didn’t have grandparents like our friends. “They died,” my father said. When we wanted to know more about them, his answer was “Let sleeping dogs lie.” That ended the conversation.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

We pummeled Mother with questions. She believed she was French and Native American. She told me stories about her grandfather who was a medicine man. “He could make a sound like someone knocking on the door, but when I went to see, there was no one there,” my mother said. Then she talked about his magical powers. “He made a table walk. I saw it when I was a little girl.” I wasn’t surprised. Levitation seemed normal to me because I had recurring dreams where I rose and floated in the air twenty years before Sally Field and the Flying Nun TV series.

“When the gov’ment,” Mama’s tone emphasized the mispronunciation like a forbidden word, “wanted the Indians to sign the roll, my father wouldn’t sign up.” No matter how often she told this story, a sad look clouded her face. “He said they would move us far away like they did the others. That’s how them Indians from someplace else ended up on the reservation next to us.”

My favorite of Mama’s stories of how she was afraid when the Native Americans came to buy tobacco from her father. It must have been because he camouflaged his roots with his French surname. She could have done the same. Instead, she acknowledged her mixed blood in her teen years when she married an Englishman.

My twin and I traveled thousands of miles in our search to document our ancestry. We thumbed through books in public libraries and family history centers in a dozen states. We dug through courthouse records. We shivered in cemeteries—some shrouded in fog and others drenched in rain. We donned wide-brimmed hats and carried water bottles through burial grounds on blistering summer days. In 1990 we visited the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma—the tribe our mother believed to be her heritage.  Disappointment overrode the anticipation as I read the pages of the Dawes Rolls. None of my direct ancestors had enrolled.

Back to the stories of my great-grandfather’s magical powers. Perhaps she said my grandfather—not hers— because her grandfathers died before her birth. And the reservation next door to my grandfather? History seems to establish those parcels as tribal lands long before. But these family stories continued to trickle down through the generations.

And then came DNA testing.

My twin and I submitted our test kits in late 2017. The results proved the majority of my heritage to be French and English as I anticipated. I stared at the minor percentages.

No Native American ancestry.

All my 22 chromosomes matched my twin’s results. But I knew that. Family stories said my mother had no prenatal care with any of her pregnancies that spanned 25 years. When her last delivery became complicated, one of my brothers went into town in search of a doctor. Meanwhile, my father’s sister, a midwife, assisted in the delivery of identical twins. When the physician arrived, his main chore was paperwork for two birth certificates. The women who witnessed the at-home delivery of mono-mono twins are dead, the stories buried with them. But FTDNA will retain the records of our exact chromosome match for 25 years.

Now that’s family history.

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Salute to President Abraham Lincoln

I have posted the same humorous tale on several Presidents’ Day blogs. Today, I omit the dual focus of George Washington and salute President Abraham Lincoln.

I toured the 2009 Library of Congress Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition, With Malice Toward None, in Sacramento, California. My steps through multi-level floors of exhibits echoed like a true walk through history. The artifacts included Lincoln’s inaugural Bible, a lithograph of the Emancipation Proclamation, a scrapbook of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and Lincoln’s handwritten Farewell Address. As stated in the California Museum tour booklet, “By placing Lincoln’s words in a historical context . . . the exhibition provides a deeper understanding of how remarkable Lincoln’s decisions were for their time and why his words continue to resonate today.”

Mr. Lincoln would be rejected as a political party candidate today.  He would be considered undereducated (not enough diplomas on his attorney’s office wall) and not attractive enough for TV appearances. In his day, he seldom—if ever—appeared in public without his layers of formal attire of a waistcoat (vest) over a white shirt and black bowtie beneath a wool frock coat. He would not have stepped outside without his black silk top hat. I suspect his shoes were shined—maybe by his own hand—but surely not by an enslaved servant. Today he would be expected to ditch his favorite attire for something informal—perhaps coatless with rolled-up sleeves similar to the Rosie the Riveter poster during World War II.

Lincoln’s words were delivered with a sharp punch that bested his nineteenth-century adversaries. Now, following each speech, treasured statements of history would be ripped apart by news analysts trying to discover his true meaning. Others would second-guess his motives hidden in the sarcastic humor meant to disarm his opponent. A third team would be at work lining up prominent political endorsements in case Lincoln might be the first choice of the Republican party.

One thing that would make Lincoln stand tall today, even if hatless, would be his historical comebacks in his word-sparing with opponents coupled with his common-sense statements in office. As the agony from the weight of the Civil War fell upon him, he declared “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it.”

I treasure my copy of Abraham Lincoln: Mystic Chords of Memory, a Selection from Lincoln’s Writings. This 79-page softcover book published in 1984 is filled with lengthy quotes from Lincoln’s writings that give me insight into the turmoil he faced. But I seldom read the pages of lengthy quotes. Lincoln’s greater resonance is from his commonsense statements seldom mentioned. One simple quote from The Lincoln Treasury rings true today as it did when spoken.

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.

The same applies to blogs. I wish I had known Abraham Lincoln as my foster child suggested in my 2015 Presidents’ Day post.

 

 

 

 

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Special Assignment

This is a true story of a defining moment in my life from my book, In the Right Place: A Gallery of Treasured Moments (Carr Twins & Co. 2006). This revision is as fitting today, January 15, 2018, as the nation observes the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, as it was when first published.

The scene: Proof machines clatter and a check sorter hums with activity outside the manager’s door in a bank Operations Center. A West Coast transplant to the Deep South is being briefed on her new assignment, a dark secret that is about to change this workplace forever.

 

“James wants to see you in his office when you finish that batch of deposits,” my supervisor said.  Except for annual performance reviews, a summons to his office was rare and seldom good news.

“I asked you here to give you a special assignment,” James said. “Because of your California background, you are the most likely person for this job. “You are used to working with different people,” he said, emphasizing different. “We want you to train Mary, our newest employee.”

Because of my previous experience and my accuracy and speed, I had been training employees since shortly after being employed by this bank. What could be so special about training another new employee?

James, who was usually quite fluent, was hesitant as he explained that the federal government was intruding where it had no right and telling our bank how to run its business. President Lyndon Johnson had signed something called a civil rights bill, so we were being forced to hire our first Negro employee. His southern drawl emphasized negro as though his lips were unfamiliar with the word. Management had decided to place Mary in the Operations Department to shield her from public contact.

I reminded James that Mary would be our second black staff member. The main office employed an African-American porter who made coffee and cleaned the kitchen. “That’s different,” he said with no further explanation.

I was embarrassed by the way the employees treated Mary on her first work day when I introduced her to each of them. I thought time would make a difference. How wrong I was! They moved their coffee cups to their workstations. At break time, Mary and I went alone. The others worked during my assigned lunch period, leaving me alone with Mary every day.  Afternoon break was no different.  When Mary was in the kitchen, they stayed out. When they entered as we left, they scrubbed the tables and wiped the chairs before being seated. None of the ladies entered the restroom for weeks after Mary arrived.  Only my direct supervisor and the manager spoke to me unless absolutely necessary for workflow.  After many weeks of this routine, it was clear that I, along with Mary, had been ostracized for exposing the staff to a new and uncomfortable experience.

I was appalled at the southern traditions that denied minorities access to restaurants and forced them to sit in back seats on public buses. I disapproved of segregated schools and churches. Although I felt strongly about these disgraces, I disapproved of ineffective—and dangerous—protest marches and sit-ins. By accepting a special assignment that others refused, I made enemies, but I left a mark in history. No holiday will be named for me. My statue will never stand in a public place. But by giving hope to one person during the civil rights movement, I changed the future of a corporate entity.

 

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