Small Towns, Big Stories

“Living in a small town…is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you. People in large towns are like only-children.
― Joyce Dennys, Henrietta Sees It Through: More News From the Home Front 1942-1945

 

Hi, Friends,

I’m sharing my April newsletter here with my WordPress friends and it starts with a tiny commercial and a big ask.

From now through April 17, the e-book version of Casualties will be available to download for only $1.99.

Now I need all the help I can get to put the word out there. In fact, this is a great opportunity for you to check out the story and see what you think. If you’ve already read it then you know my book and you know your friends. If you think there’s a match, will you help us all to meet? Just share this post or this link with them: Casualties For $1.99. It takes them to a page where they can pick from Kindle, Nook, iBook or others to purchase and download.

Thank you. The “commercial” is now over and we return to our regularly scheduled musings, updates, and this month’s fabulous book giveaway. The theme? Small towns, the people they harbor, the books they inspire. And spring. Let’s not forget about spring.
Small Towns & Real Life
Readers often want to know how much of Casualties is based on my real life. The question makes me squirm more than I let on. No, I’m not Ruth and she isn’t someone I know. No, Robbie is not based on my son (although he remains suspicious). As for Casey? He’s my mystery man. He appeared completely out of the blue all set and ready to roll onto the pages of my story. It is true, though, that my experiences gave me a lot of raw material to draw from and I used it with abandon to make something new. Nowhere is this more true than when I created the town of Gershom, New Hampshire where Ruth grew up.

 

There is no Gershom. I didn’t take my hometown of Jefferson and slap another name on it. Those who know the area will recognize bits and pieces of several towns scattered in that part of the White Mountains (one, Lancaster, NH, is featured in the photo at the top of this letter). As I wrote, though, I realized that certain places could not be altered. They were stamped too deeply in my memory — in my bones, really. Robbie goes to find the brook he fished as a boy. I know the sound and smell of that brook and the bone-numbing chill that lasts even into August – it runs down the mountain past my parents’ house. I know the sound of gravel when Ruth’s car reaches the dirt road to her grandparents’ farm. It is the sound that used to wake my then four-year-old son from a deep sleep and cause him to twitch with anticipation as we drove the last mile of our trip on “Gramma’s Bumpy Road.”

 

This was the remote place that frightened and thrilled me when we moved there in 1966 from suburban Connecticut. This was the place that quickly seemed too small for all I hoped to do and see in the world. This was the place where I was introduced to a telephone party line and the realization that in a town of less than a thousand people, you didn’t need a party line to share information. This was the place where I “came of age” with all the joys, humiliations and growing pains that come with that. This is the place that, no matter how far away I’ve gotten from it, remains home.

 

Nearly a year ago, I went back home to Jefferson to share my book with the people who helped me write it. Some of the landmarks encountered in my story when Robbie goes north to see his relatives and when Ruth finally winds her way up the dirt road to her grandparents’ home were waiting for me last spring when I arrived. Here are a couple of them. You can find more here: Robbie’s Places.

This Month’s Giveaway 

 

 

Kathleen M. Rodgers also grew up in a small town. She understands the dynamics and, boy, does she understand families. Her grasp of the complexities that reside in both villages and families is on full display in her latest novel, Seven Wings to Glory, released April 1. I was invited to write a “blurb” for this fine book and here it is:

“From the start of Seven Wings to Glory, Kathleen Rodgers skillfully shows how no town is small enough and no family perfect enough to be outside the reach of war, racism, and the heartbreak life hands out on a regular basis to all those who love. She especially shines when she gives us a young man who could easily have been seen as a villain but is much more complex than that and requires more from the central characters and his small town than they may be prepared to give. With this wonderful sequel to her novel, Johnnie Come Lately, Rodgers opens the reader’s eyes and heart.”

This month’s giveaway is a signed copy of Seven Wings to Glory. If you’d like to enter to win, just comment here or, if you are already a newsletter subscriber, just reply to me before midnight PST on Sunday, April 9. I will use an app from Random.org to draw a winner.Thank you for being with me on this journey and for sharing your thoughts with me in emails and discussions. I have loved every minute and look forward to more!

Gratefully,
Betsy

P.S. Here’s your moment of Zen: spring in the Desert, spring on the Coast. And for my family and friends back in Jefferson – may spring find you soon, very soon!

 

Reconstruction Day

On Good Friday last year, my step-daughter checked into the hospital for the second phase of post-mastectomy reconstruction. As we packed to go help her through the recovery, I found myself pondering the word, “reconstruction” as if I’d never heard it before.27288_10151213158720924_692673827_n

Reconstruction is what people do after tsunamis, floods, fires, and wars. Builders in New York and New Jersey can’t keep up with the demand to put back what Hurricane Sandy took.

It is a short leap from “reconstruction” to other “re” words: Restore. Revisit. Reword. Reinvent. Replace. Remove. Remodel. Renew. Hope lives in these “re” words. I too have at times clung to them like a drowning person hugs a hunk of driftwood. Revise. Retrench. Remarry.

But does any amount of rebuilding truly replace what is gone? The answer is no, of course not, though, years ago, I believed that attaching “re” to the front of a verb meant I could erase a mistake or some damage I had done to myself or others. In order for “re” to work, you have to incorporate bits and pieces from the past even if they are not wood and brick, flesh and bone. Sometimes the only things left to work with are lessons learned or memories shared.

My stepdaughter and her husband have been caught in a storm for the past seven years. It took their child. Then it took her uterus, her breasts, several lymph nodes and countless ounces of bodily fluids or bits of flesh required for medical tests. It attacked the economy, their livelihoods, drained their savings and stripped away any illusion that life was fair.

They don’t go on about it but we know that rebuilding is painful. There are daily reminders of what has been lost: bills, surgical scars, chronic pain, pink ribbons crossed in solidarity with other women and pink roses planted to remember their little girl. Each day is an anniversary of what might have been.

Still, there she was last year on Good Friday, heading into surgery to continue the reconstruction of her breasts. There he was, telling her a joke to make her laugh and then holding her against his chest and telling her how much he loved her. It was impossible to see that surgery as anything but an act of faith, if not in the future, then in themselves and in each other and in that one moment.

It’s been nearly a year since then. In that year, there has been a shift in the tides. Things are still not easy for these two we love but the cancer is gone and they celebrate that. He has completed a Master’s degree while working a full time job. She works on her art and at her job with a wellness center that specializes in helping people with pain and with problems like autism. We are often mystified but delighted by the running jokes and movie references that  crack them up on days when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Without ever saying it, they remind us every day that while the instinct to rebuild or restore may be in our DNA, acting on it is a conscious decision that takes courage. Rebuilding is an integral part of the healing process, not an attempt to conceal the pain or damage. They remind us that true healing doesn’t mean that the pain goes away or that things will be “good as new.” It means understanding that nothing is permanent and then choosing to really live, right now, in the best way possible.

For them, for all of us, every day is reconstruction day,  an opportunity to begin again. And again. And again.

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Fruit-Salad Family Tree

Deep breath. Here goes.

My ex-husband, the oldest of six, is also my stepbrother. In my birth family, I am the oldest of five. In the family that formed after my mother married my-then-husband’s father, I became one of eleven. All my in-laws, in fact, are now my siblings. Except for my ex-father-in-law who is now my stepfather.

And that leaves out, of course, the marriages formed by the former spouses of my mother and stepfather. And the fact that my son could, I suppose, be viewed as his father’s nephew.

It is at this point in the “begats” that someone usually makes a crack about Appalachia or, as one former acquaintance did, starts air-strumming and humming the tune from “Deliverance.” I try to forgive. They know not of which they strum.

All this is top of mind because I recently embarked on a quest to understand more about the families we forge outside our families of origin – our circle of friends.

I asked, “Are friends really the families we make ourselves?”

The responses are still coming in and they are amazing, unique, and are forcing me to revisit every assumption I have ever made about the ties that connect us to other human beings. I look forward to sharing them in future posts and sparking a conversation we can continue.

I’ve learned one thing already, though. Our first families seem to guide how we go about building those families that come next. These “first families” are the ones into which we are born but they can also include the ones made for us in the wake of divorce and remarriage, the so-called “blended family.”

Ours was thrown into the processor around the time that most of the kids were still in their teens or just verging on them. A slash of legal blade-work and siblings suddenly lived in separate houses or separate towns; teenagers who may have been classmates, friends or strangers were suddenly sharing the bathroom, competing for the keys to the car and parental attention, and carrying wounds and questions that go unspoken or, if asked, unanswered. Who were we now? Who were our parents? What were we supposed to feel about these other people thrust into our lives, never mind the ones that were suddenly and completely absent?

Nearly four decades later, most of my sibs and steps can recall those early days pretty clearly. As one stepbrother puts it, “there are wounds that don’t heal completely.”

But time has been kind in many respects. For one thing many of us are older now than our parents were when all of the big changes went down. Life, we’ve learned, is not simple and it goes fast. My stepbrother who speaks movingly of wounds he can remember also says, “with age comes perspective and, I hope, wisdom, and I now have more empathy in my heart. Two grown people, each married with children, fell out of love with their spouses and fell in love with one another and made some extremely difficult choices so that they and those they love could have a chance at happier lives.”

“Being forced to have new brothers and sisters is always a tough sell… no one likes to be forced to do anything, but I guess we all just conceded at some point that it “is what it is” and, wanting to support those we love most, we just went along for the ride…for the most part.” – My stepbrother

He points out that the ride has been both individual and collective. We’ve all grown at different rates; geography, experience, and personality continue to make clear how different we all are. But, as one of his sisters says, “that is family” no matter how it came into being.

Although alliances are generally strongest among the siblings born to one side or the other, we rarely describe our family solely in terms of the one into which we were born, except to keep things simple for the uninitiated. As one stepsister puts it, “When asked about my family, my response usually involves a a quick rundown of my immediate family and then with my hands waving — step families here and there and the other.”

Within those who are “here and there” are a grandmother who loved her her son’s stepchildren as she loved her own grandchildren, a stepsister who has never hesitated to use her legal expertise, not to mention her clear-eyed sense of humor, to help any of us or our kids, brothers from both sides who have roasted pigs together, cleared land, and solved the problems of the world over the round oak table in the kitchen of our parents. There are the survivors of 12-step programs whose perceptiveness and caring have touched us all whether we were ready for them or not, an engineer, self-employed contractors and small business owners, a marketing executive, a woman who has made her living doing for other families what their own can’t, musicians, a singer and actress, mothers, artists, fabulously-fun aunts. The compassion, intelligence and resilience of this group shine, perhaps all the brighter for what it took to achieve them.

“I kind of brag about being from a large family, and all the practical experience it provides. I used to think that we were unique in the level of drama that took place. Turns out, not so. But still, it is our story. Unique to us.” – My sister

As I consider my family these days, the blender metaphor fades and our family looks more like one of those odd but beautiful “fruit salad” trees. These don’t spring from a single seed; branches are grafted in place. Each branch bears its own unique fruit but weathers the same elements, draws sustenance through shared roots.

What does your “first family” look like? How about your currently family/families? Do you agree that friends are the families we make ourselves?

First in a periodic series on friends, family and how they are sometimes the same

(For a look at a real “fruit salad tree, go to http://www.fruitsaladtrees.com.)

Welcome

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The man in this picture once told me something I have never forgotten. “Don’t be afraid to say no to people when you have to, but don’t say no to yourself.”

He said this just after he hired me as a reporter for a paper called the Gloucester Daily Times, the daily that served Cape Ann, an island about 40 miles north of Boston and a world unto itself. I must have looked confused or maybe he just wanted to be sure I understood because he went on.

“There are going to be days when you’re heading home and you’re tired, or you’re on your way to cover a story and you’re running late. That’s when you’ll see something out of the ordinary, maybe a group of people gathering unexpectedly, a fire engine rushing by, a child or an animal doing something that everyone would like to see. These are opportunities. You can stop, find out more, take that picture and make your page that much better. Or, you can keep going. That’s saying no.”

He was talking about the job, of course. I was 21 and Peter Watson was doing one of the things he did best: mentor. He offered his experience and insight but then let you decide whether to use it or not. I confess there were times when I did not. Shame still flickers when I recall hearing a story idea from one of my readers and then forgetting it until I ran into her again, when it was too late. And on a glorious summer day, I shot one funny, beautiful, or telling photo after another, only to find I had forgotten to reload my Canon AE1 after my last deadline. [Digitals were still in the distance at that point.]

The lessons were painful but effective. In saying no to those opportunities, I let him down, made life more difficult for my editors and everyone else who had to put out the paper. And the residents of Rockport, who opened their pages every day to Page two found less than they would have if I had seized the moment or had been prepared for the lucky photo op that came my way.

It was the regret, though, that lingered. This is what Peter was trying to tell me. You don’t get those opportunities back. I was haunted for longer than you would expect by the missed opportunities because the ones I had the sense to grab taught me so much.

Peter and his beautiful family remained in the center of my life even after I left the Cape and, eventually, journalism. No matter what I was doing, though, opportunities came, often disguised as inconveniences or things that seemed outside my comfort zone or simply things I thought could wait: jobs, love, a cup of coffee with a person I’d just met, writing. Writing always fell aside. The urge to put off, avoid, give into fear or fatigue has continued to reside in me like a virus, ready to flare.

Peter died on November 24. The last time I saw him was in May. We’d said our farewells inside the house but he called to me and I waited while he walked toward me. It was not an easy walk. His balance was compromised by the tumor in his brain and he was very tired. But he took one step after the other. He put his arms around me and hugged me, harder and longer than he ever had before. He said, “Good bye, old friend.”

We talked often and I planned to see him again but it didn’t happen that way. I am so grateful to him. He could have stood in the doorway and waved, pretended that this moment was like any other but he didn’t. He acted on whatever instinct made him come to me and say that good bye.

A week after he died, when the grief was raw, the month of December looked completely different than the one I had planned. There was a eulogy to write, a trip east to plan. Family was coming, there were errands, gifts and for a time it seemed overwhelming. That was when another friend I have known and cherished for most of our lives, Rae Francoeur, got in touch with a proposal. She knew I’d finished my novel and was submitting it to agents. She told me that if I had my blog up and running, she could “tag” me in something called The Next Big Thing Blog Tour. The problem: I had to have my blog up and running in time for the new year.

I could say no. For over a year, my blog has been languishing on my hard drive and in drafts on WordPress. What would a few more weeks matter? Then came the echoes of Peter’s words.

This time, I know there is no one I will be letting down if I don’t do it. The world is not waiting breathlessly for another writer or another blog. But I also know that regrets sharpen with every year that passes. The opportunities to connect, to grow, to try something new, don’t always come when we want them but they come. I can say not now and tell myself there will be other moments like this one. Or I can say yes and see what happens.

Yes.

Check in next week for the “Next Big Thing Blog  Tour.”