Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Widow's Walk: Airplanes in the Sky

When my husband first died, I went to visit his grave frequently. After a few months, the headstone was finally put down. Initially I thought myself prudent in going ahead and purchasing a double headstone. It would be one less thing for my children to take care of after I'm gone. What I didn't understand was just how it would feel to see my name there just waiting for that final date. I was very sad to see Mike's name there, but I was not prepared for the anxiety and fear that would follow when encountering my own name.

Now it is difficult for me to go there. My mother, sister, and grandparents are all buried nearby. Going to the cemetery to put down new flowers was something I've done many times. My sister died as a young adult and my mother was always taking flowers and holiday decorations there. It was comforting. After I lost Mom and then grandmother, I continued those traditions. I assumed with Mike, it would be the same, but it wasn't.

Before he died, Mike would remind me that while his body was there, he would not be. He encouraged me to do whatever was best for me. I do put flowers on the graves, but I don't feel compelled to decorate them for each holiday.

Instead I think of Mike when I see a small airplane flying across the sky, when I see a bougainvillea blossom, when I see a Baobab tree, when I see the commercial for Olive Garden, and of course there are many others.

When I see a blue sky with white clouds, I remember lying on a blanket with my Mom and siblings watching the clouds and pointing out what each one looked like - a horse, a bell, a cat, etc.

When I see roses, I think of my grandmother. She was so proud of her small rose bushes. When they bloomed, she would cut a few blossoms and place them in water in a little jelly jar.

And my sister,  I see her in green army jackets, which is a story I'll save for another time.

We each have to find our own path through grief. Time does help, but I think this is because you let go of the fear, frustration, and sadness and appreciate the good things and cherish the memories. If you're reading this and hurting, I hope you can find a little peace with a sweet memory.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sunday Dinner: Ugly Cakes

My grandmother made ugly cakes. This was back before all of the nonstick bakeware. You would slather the pan with Crisco, the white solid substance that came in a blue can. You would the add a layer of sifted flour that you would shake around the bottom and edges of the pan. With all that preparation, you would think the cake would just fall lightly out of the pan.

For my grandmother this rarely happened. One Sunday morning, she was still dressed only in her slip. She couldn't cook in her Sunday go to meeting clothes, she might mess them up. She turned the pan upside down and nothing happened. She used the edge of a case knife to loosen the sides. Still nothing. She shook it ferociously and then pieces began to fall. Not just a couple of large chunks, but lots of bite-sized crumbs. I wondered what she would do. We always had dessert with Sunday dinner.

She smiled at me as she took bowl down from the shelf. She put the tub of frosting in pan of water and flipped the gas on with a low flame. She proceeded to remove the other half of the cake. Ironically, it came out perfect. She broke it into small pieces and dumped them all in the bowl. She stirred the warm chocolate frosting and then drizzled it over the chunks of yellow cake.

After lunch, she spooned the cake into dessert bowls offering everyone some.

If I had to use one word to describe my grandmother, it would be resourceful, an honorable legacy to leave behind.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Write Now: Ron Rash and The Cove

I had the opportunity to hear Ron Rash speak at the Spartanburg County Library. He has been on a book tour for five weeks and was extremely happy to be back in the South, where nobody asks him to just say something so they can hear his accent. After all, we speak his language.

His previous novel, Serena, is being made into a major motion picture. The screenwriter asked if the Toby Jones, who portrays the sheriff could speak with Ron. When they spoke, Ron kept waiting for questions about the character, but it was just a conversation. Toby asked if there were any youtube videos of Ron speaking. It was all about the accent.

I love to hear authors discuss the way the writing process works for them. For Ron, it begins with an image. He doesn't outline and he has many pages that don't make the novel.

He also applauded our local press, HubCity Press. They offer many wonderful titles, workshops and readings. They also have a bookstore, where the staff is extremely knowledgeable and always helpful.

Superstition surrounds Laurel Shelton, a beautiful young woman with a port wine birthmark, which the townspeople are sure is a sign of misfortune. Since moving to the cove in this small town, her parents have died and her brother has returned from the war minus his hand.

She's also a bright girl, but had been asked to leave school before graduation. Books and her beloved teacher were her only friends.

She remains at the small homestead within the cove as her brother prepares the home for his new bride to be. Laurel is excited and concerned about sharing her home with another woman. She wonders how they will divide the daily tasks of cooking and cleaning.

One day while doing the wash, the melodic sounds from a flute come with the breeze. She searches and finds a stranger in the woods.

Laurel isn't the only person with a secret. Her brother has one. The stranger has one. And then of course there is Chauncey Feith, the local serviceman who has never seen combat, but is ready to persuade the young men of the area to enlist. Chauncey claims his skills are more important at home.

And then of course there is the biggest secret of all, what did the man from the TVA find in the well?

It is definitely a wonderful book to add to your summer reading list. I loved it so much that I went out and also got Rash's book, Serena. And so far it is just as captivating.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Widow's Walk: Bougainvillea Blossoms

My late husband, Mike, spent much of his childhood in Dakar, Senegal, which is located at the far left tip of Africa. His parents were missionaries and they worked with the local orphanage as well as the school that taught the children of those serving in the mission. This was one of the greatest times of Mike's life. He loved Africa and considered it home.

When we first started dating, he talked of the beautiful bougainvilleas that would line the fences and walls of the city. He told me it was his favorite flower and he was sad because you couldn't grow them here in our climate.

Well, I am the daughter of an avid gardener and I knew that you could grow them because my mother had. True they are not hearty and you often have to replace them each year unless you put forth the time and effort throughout the fall and winter to keep them safe.

The year we got married, I bought Mike one that we put in a large planter on our back deck. It was glorious full of lovely pink flowers all summer and part of the fall. When it got cold, we put it under the deck.

The next year as a new widow, I went to retrieve it, but sadly it did not make it either. I told a friend about it and she surprised me with one. It only had a few blossoms, but it was pretty. I put it in the planter and cared for it faithfully. The blossoms dropped off. Throughout the summer, the bush would only produce a few flowers, not the cascade of the plant the year before.

I was sad and so was the bougainvillea, maybe it sensed my melancholy. Until now, I've been scared to buy another one. I just couldn't handle another temperamental plant, but I'm ready to try again.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sunday Dinner: Green Beans and the Singer Sewing Machine

Sometimes on Saturday evenings, Grandmother would sit on her front porch snapping beans for the next day's dinner. The house was a small mill house, four rooms originally, with a bathroom added later. Every room intersected with one another and she actually had two front doors until Papa had one of the doors blocked in and converted to a window.

For some reason, I was with her that evening, just the two of us, which was unusual. If she had one, she usually had my other three siblings as well. I'm not sure what made me ask, the innocence of childhood or possibly overhearing again how this might be Grandmother's last year. According to my Mom and her siblings, Grandmother would never live to see the next Christmas. I think this went on for nearly thirty years. I asked her about her sewing machine. It is the old type, no electricity, just a foot pedal that makes it move. I loved that sewing machine. I could remember sitting at her feet, watching the pedal totter back and forth listening to the hum as the thread stitched the fabric. I asked her if I could have it when she died.

She laughed at me and asked me if I thought she was going anywhere anytime soon. And of course I told her no, but then she said of course I could have it. A few laters, her daughter asked for the sewing machine and Grandmother informed her I had requested it when I was ten. The family got a good laugh, but Grandmother saved it for me. Now it sits in my living room and I use it mostly as a table top. I have an electric sewing machine for the rare occasion when I must sew something.

I must confess that I often used canned green beans, but there is a trick to making them taste good. First you must drain off all the water and rinse them thoroughly. Place them in a saucepan and add fresh water about halfway to the top of the beans. Add a beef bouillon cube and simmer. Adding fatback is the typical Southern tradition, but I've found that the bouillon gives it a nice flavor without the added fat. My family loves them this way.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Write Now: Review of The Iguana Tree

The Iguana Tree is the story of a young couple desperate to live the American dream. Hector comes to the United States first and it is a terrifying ordeal, but he finds himself safe and working on a tree farm in the lower part of South Carolina, while his wife and daughter remain in Mexico.

His wife, Lilia grows anxious and makes her own arrangements to follow her husband.This is the first conflict between husband and wife and the struggle of the sexes of a woman's need for love verses a man's need for respect.

This is all I can feel that I can safely summarize without ruining the story for you. As a woman writer, I am always intrigued by women authors who can write from a man's perspective that feels genuine. When I try to write from a man's point of view, it seems more like a woman trying to talk like a man.

Ms. Stone shows the difficulty of the language barrier as Hector attempts to find his place with his new employer, who was not thrilled to understand that Hector does not speak English. Hector finds a Spanish English dictionary and immediately studies the language. He is on a quest to make a better life for his family.

There is a large Latino community here in the South. I never really thought about what those illegally here must face. The Iguana Tree made me think about these people that I see on the streets everyday. I've heard so many complain about how they should learn English, and they should, but there should also be compassion and brotherly love. Most Americans live here because their ancestors came to America looking for a better life.

My only criticism is that the novel ended too soon. I hope that there will possibly be a sequel so that we come to know the rest of the story of Hector and Lilia.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Widow's Walk: Coffee and Airplanes

They say there are five stages of grief. This alludes to the idea that grief is orderly and follows a path. It doesn't. Grief is messy. I think of grief as being like the ocean, sometimes the waves are soft, warm, almost comforting and other times it is like a hurricane is coming and you're drowning. And of course there is the in between.

When a spouse dies, there is so much to be done. And you can hide for a little while from it. But then you go home, and you're alone. He's not there. At first, the memories overwhelm you and make you feel uncomfortable. Loneliness sets in.

A lady who I go to church with lost her husband last year in an automobile accident. It was terrible. I found out that she was sitting on the side of the road where the accident happened on the one year anniversary. My heart went out to her. I can empathize with her grief, but everyone reacts to grief differently.

For me sometimes when I miss Mike, I will do things that remind me of him. He loved fresh coffee. I'm not a big coffee drinker but I do love the way it smells. Sometimes I'll go buy a cup and ride out to the park where we used to sit when he needed to get out of the house. We'd park in the handicap parking spot and just look at the pond, the ducks, and the people. It gave him a change of scenery and made him feel better.

Airplanes in the sky also seem to be a message of "I love you" from him. Flying was a passion of Mike's. There was a small airport near our home and we would often go park and watch the planes land or take off. It made him feel better. When I see a plane against a blue sky with white, billowy clouds I can't help but think of my Mike and it makes me smile.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sunday Dinner: Happy Mother's Day and Lime Poundcake with Strawberry Sauce

My brother's birthday is at the end of April. Our family loves to give funny cards. I walked into the card store just like I did every year, but this time it was different. There were signs, banners, and displays all proclaiming Mother's Day. It would be our first without her. I turned around and walked out. Even though I was a mother, I hated Mother's Day that year and for several years afterwards. I still avoid card shops at this time of year.

My mother always cooked Sunday dinner at my grandmother's house and Mother's Day was just like any other Sunday. One year my brothers sent all of the women out of the kitchen after dinner. They proceeded to wash, dry, and put away all the dishes. They made our mother go sit and enjoy herself. And of course she was proud of her little boys for being so kind and considerate.

Sunflowers were one of my Mom's favorite flowers so when I saw these today, I knew they were right to mark the occasion. There is just something about fresh flowers.

My mother loved to cook and desserts were always her specialty. A couple of weeks ago I came across this recipe for a Lime Poundcake with Strawberry Sauce over on Southern Belle View. I couldn't wait to try it. My biggest obstacle turned out to be finding the Betty Crocker Poundcake mix that is used as the base for the recipe. I had to go to three grocery stores so I hope you have a better luck than I did.

As the cake baked, the house smelled wonderful. The strawberry sauce is a nice blend of tart and sweet. My niece preferred her strawberries whole and added a dollop of whipped cream so you may want to try that too. So if you want to try a great recipe, hop on over to Southern Belle View and give it a try. I promise that you will enjoy it.

With my Grandmother and Mom. I miss them both so much. Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers out there. Motherhood is one of the greatest blessings of a woman's life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Write Now: Writing What You Know

For every writing class, my professor always begin by telling everyone in the class that she does not want any stories about vampires, zombies, werewolves, or any other fantasy creatures. Her objective is to teach us how to write, to give us the basics, and to learn how to tell a story. On our own, we are free to write in any genre we choose, but for her class, we must stay in the real world.

There was a lot of grumbling and complaining, but she's write. In anything you do, you must start with the basics. At writers conferences, I've met people who amaze me. They don't read. They aren't interested in story. They think it will be easy because they have a wonderful idea. And they think they will instantly make a lot of money.

Writing is about perseverance. Writers write. Writes write what they know. And here is your assignment, it is one of my favorites when I get stuck.

Think of your childhood home. Draw a diagram of the layout of the house showing the different rooms and how the furniture was laid out. Now think of the walls and floors. What colors do you see? Is there carpet, linoleum, tile? Which is your favorite room? What do you see, smell, taste, feel, and hear? Use your senses and write about what you know. Some of these quirky little details always seem to make it into my work when I write. You can also apply this exercise to other places.

This is a paragraph from my story, "Bird Watching."

The Budweiser clock on the wall echoes with each passing second. Mama won it when I was fifteen. She was always entering contests. Dad would tease her about it, but she would always say, “The only way you can’t win is if you don’t enter.” They had switched to Budweiser for their evening drink because Dad’s doctor told him he had to give up his evening Scotch. They switched to beer. I don’t think that is what the doctor had in mind. The Clydesdale horses regaled in Christmas attire prance on the face of the clock above the huge Budweiser logo. I used to try to get Mama to put it up after Christmas, but she always said no. She won it. She liked it. It was staying. 

I needed something to let the reader have a moment to breathe. I also needed a little humor. My Mom really did have a Budweiser clock she won in a contest.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Widow's Walk: The First Step

Tomorrow would have been our fourth anniversary, but we never made it to our first. My husband, Mike was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2008. We were married on May 10 of that same year.

Mike was a man, who always took his time and did not make rash life decisions. He even had trouble picking out laundry detergent. He would compare brands, prices, and claims before making his final selection. We had been dating for a couple of years and we thought we had all the time in the world, there were no hurries. We had both been through difficult divorces. But when you get that kind of diagnosis, you reevaluate everything.

One evening, he called me outside. We sat on the back porch, one of his favorite places. He told me he knew things would get bad and since I had nursed my Mom through lung cancer, he would understand if I didn't want to go through that again. He told me he would not hold it against me if I left. And in that moment, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be and I had no intentions of leaving him to go through it alone.

"I don't know how much time I have left, but I do know that I want to spend it with you. Will you marry me?" he said.

And of course I said yes. He apologized for not getting down on one knee. We married in between his chemo treatments. Two days before the wedding, he was so sick we thought we would have to postpone the wedding. The night before he wanted hot dogs for supper. If he could eat that, we could definitely get married.

Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and other special days are difficult when you lose someone. But tomorrow, I will remember Mike's laugh, his love of black coffee, and that smile he seemed to have just for me. I'll also say a prayer of gratitude for I am thankful for the time we did have together.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Sunday Dinner: Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes were almost always present on my grandmother's dinner table for Sunday dinner. I love this picture of my Mom making mashed potatoes. She just looks so happy and that woman could make the potatoes so smooth and creamy with only the potato masher, maybe there is a more culinary adept description, but for us it was called the potato masher.

One day after he got his own place, my son called me wanting to know how to make mashed potatoes. Seems he was tired of the flakes from the box.

I explained how he was to peel the potatoes, cut them into cubes, and then boil them until they were soft. Then you strain them, add salt and pepper, butter, and milk. I cautioned him to add the milk slowly. You can always add a little more, but once you have too much, well there is no going back. He called me later that evening amazed at how easy it was. So if a young man, barely out of his teens whose culinary experiences consist of frozen pizza and hot dogs can make mashed potatoes, I think just about anyone can.

One added piece of advice, you can substitute a hand mixer for the potato masher. It makes the potatoes smooth and creamy. My potatoes tend to be lumpy unless I use the mixer. I've not mastered the potato masher the way my mother did.

When I first selected this photo, I was just focused on my mother. It was only afterwards I realized how dingy my grandmother's kitchen appears in the photo. But for me, it was always a place of comfort, warmth, and happiness, a place where the whole family came together. Later as a Mother's Day present for her, we did paint her kitchen and install new cabinets. Grandmother was so excited with the remodel. As a child, I couldn't comprehend, but now I see.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Write Now: Reading Like A Writer

I just finished my senior thesis. Part of that particular project was to compile a reading list of twenty-five books. The professor asked that we concentrate on books that would help us with our chosen topic. Mine was to incorporate more setting details and to make my male characters stronger.

The professor stressed each week how important our reading lists were. We were encouraged to include books that we had read before. Twenty-five books is a considerable amount of books for such a short period.

My advisor encouraged me to add Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. And it is a wonderful book, but be warned it is a novel in stories in which Olive appears as a main or minor character at some point within the story. Olive is not a very likable person, but there are moments where her humanity prevails.

I also reread Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I had forgotten about the richness of the details, the characters, and the conflict.

The first time I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I hated it, but I was in my first year of high school. I just did not understand the relationships, the deceit, or the characters. At that time in my life, it was dry and boring. I struggled through it. Now, I have a new lens that has matured. If you have not read The Great Gatsby since high school and several years have passed, give it a try. I don't think you'll be able to put it down.

Reading encourages me to write. I love to read the setting details revealed by other authors. I love to see how they develop their characters, set the pace of the novel, introduce and work through conflict, and I love to see the way they reveal the resolution.

What am I reading now?
Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister (She Reads Selection of the Month for February)
The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone's  (She's a local author published by Hub City Press)
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose