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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category


This is Emma and Rudolf, close to their wedding day.

I only know Emma in flashes. In the first flash she stands with the man she loves, my great-grandfather Rudolf. She is persuading her parents to overlook his less than aristocratic birth, to see instead what she sees—a man with a fine mind and a drive to succeed. She wins that battle, though her family never really forgives her for taking Rudolf’s name, leaving her “von” behind her.

In the next flash she stands on a rough pier in Bremen, enormously pregnant, clutching her toddler daughter’s hand, keeping an eye on her energetic son as he runs back and forth, shouting, “Wir gehen nach Amerika! Wir gehen nach Amerika!” Rudolf stands with her, holding their tickets. He has $3,000 dollars in his pocket along with the Kuypchinski’s address. The Kuypchinskis are their destination in Wisconsin, the bit of home they will find waiting for them in America.

I see her next in bed in one of the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cabins, dreadfully seasick, and in labor. The ship rolls in a storm, back and forth, back and forth. She heaves, and pushes, heaves, and pushes. At last she gives birth to a tiny daughter, Alitor.

Emma spends the remainder of the voyage in the bed, Alitor beside her, and small Meta in a basket on the floor. She tries to keep a hand on Meta’s basket, but seasickness and birth have weakened her, and the basket slips from her fingers and slides across the cabin when the ship rolls one way. It slides back to her when the ship rolls the other. Emma keeps grabbing for the basket, and losing her grip, and watching her daughter sail away from her, only to return, time after time.

I see Emma next in her house. Snow lies deep and pristine all around. Branches snap and crack in the cold. Emma’s mother-in-law Anna sits on the porch, holding Alitor wrapped in shawls and blankets. It is Wisconsin, and midwinter, and that night Alitor begins to cough. In a flash and an eternity, baby Alitor is gone. Emma’s arms are empty.

Emma (left) Bill (second from right) and cousins, I believe.

In the flashes, Emma is never center stage—she is the woman at the stove, a gentle presence at the heart of a family whirlwind. Her eight surviving children grow strong and musical. They start a band, and travel the area, providing dance music at house parties. They court, and marry. The family thrives.

That’s what’s important to Emma: family. Emma and Rudolf’s farm becomes a safe haven for more and more of her family. They set off from Klein Morin in Posen, journey to that pier in Bremen, cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island and New York, then venture home to Emma in Wisconsin. They stay until they have enough English and money to navigate in America, then buy their own farms close by, or, in the case of the daughters, become farm wives or maids for wealthy families.

Emma, front and center, with her children behind her.

And still Emma is there, in her house at the farm. She is there the night the house catches fire. The family wakes and flees the blaze searing their backs and heels. Morning finds them with the clothes on their backs and a box of pictures—all they salvaged from the fire.

Rudolf, their sons, their friends, and their scattered family rally around to rebuild. And still the family in the Old Country keeps on coming. When Emma’s first child after Alitor, her son Wilhelm, marries, he brings his wife Gladys to the farm. His first two babies are born in the new birthing room just off Emma’s kitchen. It feels very modern and convenient, does that birthing room—purpose built with cupboards for all of the linens and paraphernalia birth requires, and close to the stove for hot water.

When Bill’s family moves into their own home a few miles away Emma misses her grandchildren terribly and woos them with gingersnaps with they come home to the farm each Sunday for chicken dinner and baseball. It all feels very American.

When Bill has a truck accident the children come back to the farm to live, while Bill’s wife goes to work in a furniture factory to pay their mortgage. Emma feeds the children, and her youngest sons—still little more than boys themselves–drive the children to school each day in their Model A’s and play with them when they aren’t working with Rudolf on the farm. Her oldest daughter Meta takes a shine to Bill’s oldest daughter. And so the farm becomes home to her children’s children.

Emma, with two of her daughters

Those are good days for Emma, at the center of the family from Posen, and the family from her body. And then one day Rudolf goes to bed, sick with some mysterious malady. The doctor says he can smell the cancer on Rudolf. Maybe he can. Rudolf lies in the birthing room just off the kitchen, dying in the bed where his grandchildren were born. He becomes convinced that Emma is trying to poison him, and refuses to eat. His grandchildren stand in the birthing room door and throw shoes at him until Emma makes them stop.

Emma and Rudolf, in their driveway

When he dies Emma goes on keeping house for her youngest sons, the two designated to stay home and care for her in her old age. Bill’s children grow up. Her granddaughter, my mother, moves across America with her own husband and young daughter, to start again. And then, amid her dwindling family, Emma herself begins to slip away.

It’s little things at first: A burned pot of potatoes, laundry left wet in the basket rather than hung on the line. The gingersnap jar stands empty. The vorgarten–the flowers she loved and planted on the gentle slope between her new house and the road–lies indifferently watered and poorly weeded. It gets worse. Emma, for whom home and family has always been everything, forgets them. While her sons work the family farm she begins to wander. Her sons seek her out when she goes voyaging alone and confused on roads and paths that have become foreign to her. They find her clothing first, and then Emma herself, naked, lost, seeking the home and children she can no longer find.

https://magicdogpress.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/emmas-family/
Emma, with two of Bill’s grandchildren.

Emma, who has been the center of the family, swings in increasingly irregular orbits. She cannot hold, and so they put her away. It’s called the County Home. Emma’s grandchildren call it the Poor Farm. It’s where families put people like Emma in those days before nursing homes. It’s where the county also houses the orphans, the indigent, and everybody else who no longer comfortably fits in the world.

And there Emma stays. Alone. My mother says they didn’t visit her because “she wouldn’t have wanted us to see her like that.” Maybe she’s right. I know my mother loved her—she wept bitterly when Emma died three months after I was born. At least the people at the County Home probably kept Emma clothed, inside, off the roads and out of the Wisconsin winter. But even now, nearly sixty years after my birth and her death, I think of her, spending her last days in a strange place, amid strange people, strange sounds, strange food, and strange smells, far from home and family. I wish it could have been different.

I never knew Emma, but the world she built lives on for decades after her death. The year I turn ten the whole family meets at the farm for a picnic and baseball. Dinner is an enormous cauldron of what Emma’s family call “barbecue” but most people call “sloppy Joes.” Emma’s daughters cook the barbecue over a fire outside the back door of Emma’s kitchen that green, humid summer day. We, Emma’s family, fill the farm to bursting, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren running, laughing, arguing, and eating. Women wear light summer dresses. The men wear plaid shirts and khakis, or bib overalls. One or two bold sons-in-law wear bermuda shorts. The air is filled with German and English, spoken in rich Wisconsin dialect.

The last flash comes one winter’s day. I am young and lost, and far from home. Somehow I find myself back to the farm. I sit in Emma’s kitchen with Great Uncle Fred, who has custody of the pictures rescued from the fire long ago. Thin winter sun pours over us, and over the pictures Uncle Fred has spread on the old formica table. His thick brown farmer’s fingers gently slide the pictures around as he tells me stories and laughs gently. Across the kitchen stands Emma’s stove, not far from the birthing room door. The winter house smells sharp, like cedar and damp wool. The sun warms my head, though icy air swirls around our ankles. At last I understand that though Emma and I only shared the world for a few short months,  I have found my family right where Emma left it for me.

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penimage

“We’re going to the State Pen,” Dad said one night as he waited for Mom to finish filling his soup bowl and buttering his bread.

“The Pen?” my brother Matt asked. “What for?”

“We’re gonna chop their alfalfa. They didn’t get enough to bale, but they need to clear the fields so it doesn’t ruin the next cutting. We’re gonna do it. I’m gonna go talk to’em tomorrow about it; there’s a lot of restrictions.”

The next night at supper he was full details. “They didn’t want to let you girls in,” he told Mom, Sally, and me. “There haven’t been any women contract workers inside for over fifteen years—only the guards. But I told’em, ‘You haven’t met my girls. They’ll be fine. They’re my crew, and if they can’t do it, I can’t either.’ The warden talked to a few people, and they finally said it was okay, but there are some rules.”

“What rules?” asked Sally nervously.

“You can’t go into any building without a guard. There’s a bathroom in the dairy barn, but if you need to use it you have to get a guard first. No talking to prisoners. They’re not going to be allowed in the fields we’re cutting. There’s to be no contact. Absolutely none. And no provocative clothing.”

I wondered if he was joking. I was frightened at the very thought of being inside the prison compound, with no walls between me and thousands of dangerous men, and what with one thing and another our wardrobes were the very definition of ‘non-provocative.’

Still, though, Sally and I made a special effort. The day we started work at the Pen we dressed for the occasion by donning long-sleeved flannel shirts, buttoning them up to our necks and around our wrists, pulling bib overalls and then coveralls on, braiding our hair tightly, and stuffing it up under John Deer “gimme” caps. It would have been funny, if it weren’t over a hundred degrees out, and our trucks un-airconditioned. We were boiling hot, but we felt safer for our camouflage.

We drove our unlikely caravan up to the massive concrete walls and stopped at the heavily barred gates. Guards with guns stared down at us. Dad got out of the pickup and walked up to the guardhouse. Uniformed men carrying what looked like machine guns came out. They walked toward the trucks. I gripped the wheel nervously. Dad stepped up on the running board.

“They’re gonna search the trucks,” he said. “The scale’s outside the walls, so you’ll have to stop each time you go weigh, pick up a guard, have him ride to the scales with you, and drop him off on the way back. They have to be sure we’re not smuggling anything in.” I opened my door, dropped to the ground, and watched as the guard poked around in the dust, alfalfa leaves, and desiccated chopped corn that had accumulated under my seat. To my mortification, his probing turned up an unexpected mummified mouse. He sneezed, buried the mouse again, and backed out, satisfied. “It’s clean. Go on in.”

I hastily shoved the mouse corpse out the door with a gloved hand, then climbed back into my truck and pulled it into gear. The massive gates swung open and we chugged through, then waited for Dad to get back into the pickup and lead us to where the prison farm foreman waited. Men were everywhere. They turned as we drove in, gaped, and called to other men who came running and gaped, too. I pulled my John Deer cap down to my eyebrows and drove by, trying not to look at all the murderers, robbers, arsonists, and rapists. And around us all, on the high towers, stood the guards, staring down at us, machine guns at the ready.

We pulled up to the farm office. The warden came out, a gun holstered at his hip. He talked to Dad, who came back and told us, “Just follow the warden to the field. The bathroom’s in there—” he gestured to the dairy barn—“but you have to come here first and get a guard. Remember that. No going in buildings alone.”

Sally and I shook our heads. No, we wouldn’t go into any buildings alone. The murderers, rapists, arsonists, and robbers circled like sharks, keeping a safe distance, mindful of the guns overhead. Our caravan pulled out of the prison yard. Matt’s truck, pulling the bagger on the trailer, turned right and chugged out of sight around the dairy barn. Sally and I followed Dad and the warden’s pickups down a dirt road. The road wound out of the farmyard and past a massive gray building on the right. A huge yard, fenced with cyclone fencing and topped with tangled razor wire, ran beside the road on the left. Guards patrolled the perimeter. Inside men in blue denim shirts and jeans lounged, played basketball, and smoked. They looked up at the sound of our engines, stared, and ran for the fence.

“How do they know?” Sally asked, tugging nervously at her cap.

“I don’t know,” I answered, and tugged at my own, resolutely not looking at the crowd of men who now stood packed along the fence. We left the prison yard behind for a row of pigsties, then we were in familiar territory—fields. A cornfield came first, followed by a fallow field, and then the alfalfa field we would be cutting.

A man in a blue denim shirt and jeans drove a tractor in the fallow field. He stopped and stared as we drove by. Sally and I drove into the field and pulled up behind Dad, resolutely ignoring the man on the tractor. We unchained the chopper and Sally climbed into the high cab, fired it up, and backed it carefully onto the ground while Dad set the jacks and unhitched the trailer.

Matt drove up in the other truck, climbed into the idling chopper, shoved the throttle ahead, and we were off. Dad and the warden chatted by the field while we filled the trucks. The convict from the neighboring field climbed off his tractor and joined them. The three men talked until Sally’s truck was full, then the warden led her back to where the bagger was set up and Mom waited.

I pulled into the field and Matt filled my truck. I followed Dad’s pickup back to the bagger. Dad stayed to help Mom empty the trucks, and Sally, Matt and I were basically on our own. When I got back from dumping my truck I interrupted Matt and the convict from the fallow field, leaning against the chopper, talking. Sally said she saw the same thing. All day, Matt and the convict talked between trucks. When Sally or I showed up the convict hot-footed it back to his tractor. By the time we pulled up he was industriously tilling his field again.

The day heated. The alfalfa had been lying in the field for far too long. It chopped into a fine powder and coated us with light green-gray dust. The trips fell into a pattern: the fields, then the pigsties, then the prison yard with the watching men crowded along the fence, then the farm yard, then a wait if the guards were transporting a prisoner from the old prison to the new maximum security building, then the bagger—if the warden hadn’t asked for the load to be weighed—and then the whole trip in reverse. A guard rode with me the first time I took a load outside the walls to the scale, jouncing along on the passenger seat, gun in hand. He waited while I weighed the truck, then we jounced back. The next time he simply waved me through. The whole thing would have been monotonous, if it weren’t for the guns, the convicts gazing enthralled at pale green women completely encased in flannel and denim, and the pickup loads full of convict farm laborers.

The pickups—tiny Datsuns packed with men—seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time careening past the field we were cutting. When we met on the road the men filling the cabs and beds of the pickups and standing on the running boards grinned maniacally and nearly fell out of the trucks with the vigor of their waving. And then there was the jogger. The jogger never waved. He simply ran, every day, long, even, single-minded strides, his dog running with him, tongue lolling.

And, back at the field, there would be Matt and the convict. We learned his name was Reg. Reg told Matt he had been framed for armed robbery. The warden said Reg was in for murder. “Reg is a nice guy,” the warden told us. “He was a Golden Gloves boxer; his hands had to be registered as lethal weapons.” Reg was in prison because of a woman. “He just can’t stay away from her,” the warden told us. “Problem is, she cheats on’im, then he gets mad and loses his temper. Last time he took a swing at some guy made him jealous, and killed’im. So now he’s here.” He shook his head at the perfidy of the woman, forcing a nice guy like Reg to kill somebody and go to prison. “If he could just make a break, get away from her, he’d be all right.”

“But he said he was in for armed robbery, that he’d gotten drunk and was asleep in the car and the guys robbed a liquor store and—” Matt started.

“Son, in here they was all framed,” the warden said gently.

Every time I pulled into the field Reg would be ambling back to his tractor. Once Matt came over and swung up on my running board and stuck his head into my cab, grinning.

“Reg has been in here too long.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked, curious.

“He said, ‘You’ve sure got some good looking sisters.”

I laughed. Sally and I, though we both cleaned up fairly well, were, if not frights in those days, certainly very, very plain. We had set out to be. Matt laughed with me. “Let’s go, ugly girl,” he teased. And away we went, still laughing.

That night at supper Sally and I were discussing the jogger. “I didn’t know they could have pets,” Sally said. “What is he, a special case?”

“Maybe he’s blind,” pondered Matt. “It’s nice that he gets to have his dog in prison with him.” Matt’s dog had been hit by a car a few years before, and he still missed him.

“But he runs. The dog follows him,” I objected. “He can’t be blind.”

“I’ll ask Reg,” Matt said. Reg had quickly become our authority on all things penal. Matt wasted no time. After my first trip he came over to my truck and said, “I found out about the jogger’s dog,” he said.

“And?” I asked.

“The jogger’s a mass murderer, in for life and then some. They let him run for exercise. The dog runs with him so they don’t have to send a guard. The dog’s been trained to kill him if he leaves the road.”

I lifted my eyes and looked up the road. The jogger ran by, strides long, even, powerful, looking neither to the right nor the left. The dog ran beside him, tongue lolling. I imagined him running, running, then leaping for the wall, hands tangling in the razor wire at the top, the dog savaging his back.

“Let’s go, ugly girl,” said Matt. We filled the truck and I started for the bagger. One of the farm pickups careened by. By this time I recognized the faces, though I had spoken to none of them. When they waved I waved back, lifting my hand nervously. At the bagger I sat in the truck, ran the chain belt unloader, and watched the convicts in the yard playing with a little black and white kitten. They had named it “Cop Car.” Cop Car looked fat and sleek. As I watched a prisoner picked him up and tickled his round little belly.

The day grew warmer. I had emptied my water jug, and now had to go to the bathroom. I held it for several trips, too embarrassed to ask a guard to take me to the restroom. I considered peeing in the field, but had no idea when or from which direction one of the convict pickups might come. Sally was in little better condition. Finally we gave up and went to the farm office together.

I knocked on the door. A guard stuck his head out. “Yeah?”

“We need to go to the bathroom,” I muttered, red-faced.

“Just a sec.” He disappeared and then emerged, carrying his rifle. “Follow me.” Sally and I slunk through the pathway of prisoners in his wake, knowing that every person in the farmyard knew exactly where we were going, and why. At the door of the barn the guard stopped. “Everybody out!” he shouted.

Men filed out of the barn and lined up in two rows. The guard went down the rows, checklist in hand. When he was satisfied everyone was indeed outside he cocked his gun and led Sally and me past the gauntlet of eyes and into the barn. At a door halfway down the dim passageway he stopped, knocked, pushed the door open, and looked inside. “It’s clear,” he said. Then he turned his back and stood, feet apart, gun cocked and ready, while Sally and I scuttled into the filthy bathroom. We looked around nervously.

“We could get AIDS,” Sally said nervously. And what are those funny lights on the floor?” I tore my eyes off  the filthy black sink and looked at the floor. Little circles of light lay everywhere. We looked up, tracking the lights to their source. The bathroom walls were full of bullet holes.

We had come too far to back out now. We raced through the process, dropping our pants, peeing from a safe distance above the seat, and foregoing washing our hands so we wouldn’t have to touch the filthy taps. I balanced on one foot and flushed the toilet with my boot. We opened the door to see the guard’s broad back. When he heard us he turned. “Finished?” he asked impassively, then led us back outside and to our trucks. Of everything I experienced at the penitentiary, going to the bathroom was the scariest.

It was easy to forget that the truckloads of men who smiled and waved at us were in many cases guilty of terrible crimes. We were farmers, working with other farmers, as we had for years. These farmers never spoke to us, but they talked to Matt, and to Mom—even though it was against the rules—and they waved. Sally and I soon thought nothing of waving back. The trips past the prison yard were the worst, though passing the new maximum security building with its narrow window slits was almost as bad. Matt told us that he had seen a face on one trip. The man had had to turn his head sideways to fit both eyes in the narrow window slit, but he had done it. He was looking out the window, watching us. After that whenever I passed the big concrete building with the neat little prison cemetery nearby I looked for faces.

I left the penitentiary a changed person. The convicts had become more than beasts in numbered denim shirts; they had become people. It was easy to forget their crimes. Even the mass murderer with his dog had lost his aura of terror—and I found that loss of fear more than a little frightening. Was I losing my natural survival instincts, or was I simply becoming more humane? I didn’t know.

We spoke of Reg often, laughing ruefully at Matt’s conviction that he had been imprisoned for too long if he could find us attractive. Early that fall Dad told us over supper that the prison had called again; we would be bagging their corn. We looked forward to going back and seeing the familiar faces grinning and waving from the racing pickups, to hearing what Reg had to tell Matt about prison life, to watching the prisoners play with Cop Car. Sally and I still dressed for the occasion in loose, concealing, aging clothing, but we only put on the John Deere caps when we drove past the prison yard.

We arrived on a crisp, cool morning. The guards saw us, opened the gate, and waved us in. We roared past and out to the field, looking for the racing pickups full of convicts. The pickups were there, but the faces had changed. Reg still chugged around the fallow field in his tractor. “That has to be the best-tilled field in the state,” Sally and I joked, but we were relieved to see him there. Maybe he could tell us what had happened.

Matt filled my truck and I made the trip to the bagger, passing Sally on the return trip, as usual, and arriving at the field to see Reg jogging for his tractor. Matt waited for me to stop, then swung up on my running board and said, “A bunch of’em got sent back inside the walls.” “The Walls” was how the convicts referred to maximum security.

“Why?” I asked.

“They were growing pot in the cornfield and the guards caught’em.”

“Really? In the prison cornfield?” I snickered.

Matt chuckled along with me. “Yeah. Sally and I found their little garden on our last pass. It was sort of sweet, really. There was a watering can, and a blue shirt. One of the guys must have been out peacefully tending his little garden when they caught him.” The image of the convict gardener tenderly caring for his pot plants, nurturing them lovingly amid the cornstalks until the guards came crashing in like Demon Kings, struck me funny. The sheer gall it would take to do such a thing in a prison farm awed me. Matt and I started across the field. Sure enough, deep in the heart of the cornfield was a little clearing, trampled corn, a little tin watering can, and a twisted blue denim shirt. We left it as a sort of memorial, though to what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps initiative. Perhaps quiet rebellion. I missed the familiar faces.

Cop Car had grown into a teenage cat, and no longer liked to have his tummy tickled. His convict owner had been released. The days passed hot, sticky, and long, even though it was fall. And then one day everything went wrong. It was hot and still. The prisoners in the medium security prison yard stood by the fence, staring and hooting at Sally and me. The chopper kept plugging. I had to go to the bathroom, but was too embarrassed to ask the guard to take me. My head and neck ached. Sweat stung the in scratches on my hands and arms. Early in the afternoon I pulled into the bagger, engaged the chain drive, and waited for the truck to unload. Dad was operating the bagger. I wondered where Mom was, but then she appeared at my door, a plastic bag full of little ice cream and orange sherbet cups in her hands.

“Here,” she said.

“I didn’t know anybody’d been to town,” I said, surprised. I took one, peeled the top back, and let the icy goodness slide down my throat.

“Nobody was. Reg stole them from the prison cafeteria for us. Here, take some more; there’s a whole bag. And take some out to Matt.”

I choked. My mother was knowingly giving me stolen ice cream. “He ripped them off? From the prison cafeteria?” The thought of Reg risking getting sent back inside the walls for ice cream cups horrified me.

“He just handed them to me and said, ‘You guys look awful hot out here.’ What was I gonna do, tell him to take’em back?” She laughed ruefully. I ate the ice cream gratefully and took several out to Matt, who reacted much as I had—first with shock, then with laughter at the sheer improbability of it.

But the laughter wasn’t the end of it. Those ice cream cups made me question myself. Would I have thought to bring ice cream to the convict farm workers, hot as it was? I doubted it. I hadn’t really seen past the number-stamped denim shirts, the guard towers, the razor wire fences, the guns, the dog trained to kill a running man. I had been thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” convicts, who slept within walls here, and free contract workers, who slept within walls half an hour away. Where was the difference? Reg’s ice cream cups said, “There is none.” They spoke of our common humanity, rather than our putative differences. “There is no “us,” they said, “there is no ‘them.’ There are only people, some kind, some terrifying, most a mixture.”

As a general rule people don’t get into the Washington State Penitentiary for parking violations. Most of the people there had done some very bad things. Reg himself was in for murder. I had always believed that it was right and proper that dangerous people be locked away from the rest of us. But then I thought of the ice cream cups, and I realized it wasn’t quite that simple anymore. I could no longer simply write off men behind bars as “them.” Instead, it had become “we,” hungry, thirsty, hot people, who felt better for the kindness of a little stolen ice cream. “Us” and “them” had become moving points, defining the person using them more than the people defined.

I would have liked to have thanked Reg, but the rules were there, and there for a reason. “Tell him thank you,” I told Matt.

“Will do,” he said. “Let’s go, Ugly Girl.” Then he swung up into his cab, still licking ice cream off his little wooden spoon, shoved the header into gear, grinned, licked his ice cream again, and we roared across the field and past the forlorn garden. The mass murder and his dog jogged by. Reg puttered around in his fallow field. Everything looked the same—and utterly different.

 

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“All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, says Tolstoy in the beginning of Anna Karenina. The same point is made nightly on the news: happy news doesn’t grip viewers like violent, frightening, or tragic coverage–preferably close to home. It follows, then, that an author who wishes to sell is well advised to choose a violent, frightening, or tragic subject.

When I began writing memoirs, I started out like many other people–I was writing to exorcise personal demons, to document my way through a dark and frightening land. I wrote thousands of pages of that journey.

And then I got pregnant, and everything went to hell. Or at least I thought so. But a funny thing happened on the way to Perdition. I kept having these wonderful, shining moments, moments that have come increasingly often as the years have passed.

When people learned I was a single mother the invariable reaction was a sympathetic face, and a pitying, “Oh, that’s so hard.”

But by then it didn’t feel hard. It felt scary sometimes, but mostly it good, and safe, and fulfilling and rewarding. I didn’t want to be rude, but accepting sympathy made me feel like a fraud. Yes, I faced hard times–but doesn’t every parent? Yes, single parenting carries its own set of challenges with it–but doesn’t any endeavor worth the effort?

I am not a fool. I watch the news. I read. I know that not every single parent’s experience is like mine. But neither is mine like theirs. And so I set aside the memoir that might “sell”–the story of sad, dark, and frightening times, and I chose to write my first memoir about something that quite likely will not sell–about my son and myself, and our boring, happy family.

The book doesn’t document every second of every day–or even every year. What it does document are the moments in our shared life that changed me–the moments when my son raised me, instead of the other way around. It holds those moments that I suppose most parents have, when they look at their children and feel grateful, awed, and humbled to have been chosen to share their lives.

It’s not all beer and skittles, of course. The challenges are there. But somehow it feels very right to have my first memoir be not about the pain and the dark, but about the joy of my life.

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Years ago, back when I lived in California and drank tea and ate scones at Paddington’s in Beverly Hills and wore designer clothes I sat in my friend Anne’s garden (here’s her picture–isn’t she cute? And she’s looked like that ever since I’ve known her. I wish I could have a DNA transplant). It was late spring, the time of year in California when the skies are still blue, the hills are rich green, and the breezes blow soft.

Anne and I were talking about our friendship. “I remember the day I met you,” she said. “Kevin had just finished interviewing me, and he was showing me around the office. It was after hours and you were cleaning and moving furniture. You were wearing bib overalls and had your hair braided. I looked at you and I knew that you were an old friend I had just met.”

I laughed when she told me that, even as I cringed a bit at her description of me. She was right, though, from the day we met, Anne and I have been old friends. We still are. I admire her serenity, her wisdom, and the love with which she embraces her life and family. She’s a remarkable woman, and I’m proud to have her as my old friend. When I met her she was a designer and I was a writer. Over the years our she has morphed into a photographer and I have morphed into a designer who paints and writes. If her blog is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt–one of her photos is on its way to winning a National Merit Award.

Anne was right all those years ago, we were old friends who had just met. Today we are just old friends. Because we are, I am much better at recognizing other old friends when I stumble upon them.

Take Barbara Ardinger, for example (that’s Barbara, over there on the left). Barbara was my old friend from the time I saw the words Ars Gratia Pecunia in one of her comments on a list-serv where we were both members. Translated, the phrase means, “Art for the sake of money,” and when I read that I felt like I’d come home. The words glowed on my monitor, and I knew without doubt that the woman who wrote them was an old friend I had not yet met. I also knew that I must have a sampler with those words stitched upon it for my very own. Because she is Barbara, Barbara did it for me–and she did it in colors and images that are designed to promote prosperity. It seems to be working; if Certain People in Offices Far Far Away hadn’t gotten so damned greedy I’d be doing very well indeed. (Stop, Bodie…step away from the computer…easy…easy…now take a deep breath…) Ok, I’m better now. Moving right along.

I was right. Barbara and I are old friends, even though, technically speaking, we have not yet met. And yet I have never wavered in my conviction that she is an old friend. A smart-mouthed old friend, with a killer sense of humor. I’m going to be talking about her for a few posts here, because there’s a lot to say about her. Also because I’ve invited her to come visit, but I haven’t yet whittled the list of questions I’d like to ask her down to manageable size. Until I manage that, I’ve got control of the keyboard, the monitor, and the mouse. I can say what I want.

So back to Barbara. As I said, she’s got a killer sense of humor. Take, for example, the book for which she is perhaps best-known. It’s called Finding New Goddesses, and I’d really urge you to click here and see what Barbara has to say about it because it’s fun and engaging. For those of you who don’t have the time, the premise is that we should be as free to discover the goddesses that rule our modern lives as the ancients were to discover the goddesses that ruled theirs. Barbara backed her argument up with a book about this modern pantheon, which she discovered as she navigated her urban Southern California life.

I’m going to give you one of the new goddesses, but first I should mention that Barbara is a wonderful editor, that she loves the theater, and that she’s a regular on Women’s Radio, an amazing site that networks blogging, webcasts, book reviews, articles, and discussion groups into a remarkable whole. You should check it out. More about Barbara tomorrow, but for now, meet one of my favorites among the New Goddesses, for obvious reasons.

Artissima: Goddess of Drawing Covers and Kicking Ass

Here She stands upon the summit of Mount Parnassus, head, shoulders and starry boots above color-blind drawing hacks and naïve art directors.

“Do not mess with The Book,” Artissima says in Her voice like thunder. “Be not secretive of deadlines nor stingy of communication.”

Carrying Her pencils, crayons, paintbrushes, and styli, Artissima descends from the mountain and betakes Herself into the publisher’s office. “Now see here,” She says, “a book cover, like magnet, must attract, not repel. You must,” She says, pointing at an illustration with a Very Large Pencil, “use images that are both eye catching and refer to symbols with Layers Of Meaning. Do you get it?” She pokes the art director with a stylus, purely to get her attention. “This cauldron tells us that the author is floating in the stew of her over-wrought imagination.” Artissima winks, which is a Sight To Behold. “You know how authors are. Every little carrot or turnip or bit of grease in the stew is some damn metaphor or other. They just stew and stew around, and We Must Draw What They Are Thinking.”

The publisher blinks. “But we have artists—“ he begins.

“—oh, no,” says Artissima in Her voice of thunder. “Oh, no, you do not! Software is not Art. Software is created by programmers and nerds. Art is created by Me.” She pokes the publisher in the eye with a sharp stick. “Got that, bub? Got that??”

“Uh, yes,” he says, retreating behind his desk and picking up a contract to shield himself. “And the spirals?” he asks, to change the subject. “What do spirals signify?”

“The spirals,” says Artissima, drawing three interlinked spirals in the air with her biggest brush, and the air begins to gleam and glitter, “the spirals are curvilinear shapes that create a feminine and welcoming tone. See here,” She says, “there are no sharp divisions of space so that the essence of inclusion rather than isolation is created. Got that??”

“Yes, ma’am,” says the publisher. “You betcha,” says the art director.

“And also,” says Artissima, “the spirals say that the author’s mind has been, shall we say, bent and curved by substances of an illusory and creative nature. The author spirals into the ethers, where It Is My Job to Catch Her And Bring Her Back To Earth. Trust me,” the goddess adds, “I know what I’m doing.”

“Oh, Artissima,” say the publisher and the art director, “now that we understand, we do trust you. We do, we do, we do, we really do! Oh, Artissima, please draw this cover for us. Please draw the cover for every book we ever publish.”

“Damn straight,” says Artissima, and She settles down at Her Cosmic Drawing Board. The drawing begins.

So if you live in Southern California and find yourself in need of some really lovely portrait photography, give Anne a call; her contact info is on her website. And if you live anywhere and find yourself in need of an editor, a theater buddy, or a new goddess, call Barbara; she’s your best bet.

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