Maybe We Weren’t That Different

On the surface, one might think my dad and I were not much alike. I’m liberal; he was conservative. I always vote Democrat; he never voted a straight ticket in his life. I saw him cry maybe three or four times in 46 years. I sometimes cry over a dog food commercial or when the fading sunlight catches my child’s face just right, all in the same day. He was rational and logical and a planner. I tend to be impulsive and approach life with the thought of, Why not? I’ll figure out a plan B later. I anger easily and have little patience. My dad demonstrated patience every day of his life — whether teaching a bunch of loud-mouthed eighth-graders or dealing with three daughters arguing over who needs the bathroom next.

I think because of those differences, he didn’t really know what to do with me. He shook his head in subtle disbelief — a lot — when I was around. I was the one who fell out of line. I moved away. I didn’t listen to advice (much). I had no interest in cattle ranching. I’d stay up all night reading when he’d told me, “lights out,” five times before. I wore socks with holes in them so I could afford to travel. I ate Cheetos and drank Dr Pepper for breakfast if the mood hit me. I mowed circles in the yard versus straight lines like he taught me. I chose to live where temps hit 50 below and bears hang out by the front door. Did I mention he shook his head a lot around me?

In fact, my very first memory at age 3 or so is of my dad shaking his head at me, grinning, as I tried to climb over a sagging barbwire fence. He waited to see if I could do it on my own, then quickly picked me up and over when my shoe caught the top wire.

Now that he’s gone, I miss that feeling so much, physically and metaphorically.

But something happened at his funeral that makes me think maybe we weren’t as different as I thought.

After he retired from teaching, my dad worked in my hometown county in Texas helping the area’s veterans and their families get access to benefits they might be eligible for through the VA. His office was in the county courthouse, across the street from the fire station. One of the firefighters came up to me at the funeral to tell me how much he enjoyed getting a wave from Dad in the mornings.

Then he asked me if I knew Dad was trying to help a homeless vet who slept down by the river and who hung out near the station some days. He said my dad would watch for the guy and bring over forms for him to complete. Several times, same forms. Tried to help him fill them out right there in front of the station. Told him about resources. The firefighter friend said my dad would always say, “I’m working on it!” when asked about the man who wandered around town, obviously needing services but not trusting anyone to help him.

I was so proud to hear this story. But it didn’t really surprise me. My dad was the kind of man who would stop on the side of the road to fix someone’s flat or run into a neighbor’s burning stable to get horses to safety.

But hearing the story did make me feel closer to him. Because my husband and son and I, every fall, put together a warm blanket and pajama drive for the homeless folks who stay in Denver shelters as winter moves in. It’s gotten really big over the years, and it’s something we look forward to all year. Last year, we collected nearly a thousand blankets alone. Now, knowing my dad had a soft spot for a homeless vet in my hometown … makes what we do even more meaningful.

I’m sure we had other things in common, too. The love of animals. A strong work ethic. Good books. Credence Clearwater Revival. Stubbornness when pushed.

But the next time I’m home, I just may try to find that homeless man. Maybe I could at least bring him a home-cooked meal or some clean clothes.

I don’t think my dad would shake his head at that.

photo 1

Hemingway. Barbie. Therapy. Mother Teresa. You Know You Want to Read This.

* Special promotional note: I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because proofreading my own work is for sissies. Kidding. Kinda.  

* Special non-promotional note: This article first appeared in the awesome The Write Life magazine earlier this year. Reprinted here with permission. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend this cutting-edge, digital publication.

Now, on to the actual post. I wrote this in response to the question:  Why do you write?

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This is Ernest Hemingway. (public domain photo)
This is Ernest Hemingway. (public domain photo)

 Ernest Hemingway once said that there’s nothing to writing; all you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. E.B. White was quoted as saying that writing is not only hard work, but also fairly bad for your health.

And even though Hemingway was likely drunk when he was quoted and White can’t really be trusted because of the whole talking pig thing, there is some truth to their words.

As a professional writer with 25 years of experience (obviously, I began writing in utero), I agree that writing can be a soul-wrenching thing. After all, writing means staying up until 3 a.m. to finish a chapter you’re working on, even when you have to get up at 6 a.m. for Real Life. It’s revising and revising until your corneas get angry at you. It’s putting your words out into the universe only to have one reader simply comment, “Meh,” in a one-star review on Amazon.

So why would any sane person do it? Why do we writers continue to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard when we could be watching Downtown Abbey or Duck Dynasty instead?

For some of my writer friends, the need to write is like the need to breathe air. Others say they write mostly because they love to tell a good story, and the world needs more good stories.

Me? Well, I think it comes down to three factors.

1)  I write because it’s not socially acceptable for me to play with Barbie dolls anymore. Even though I was a tomboy in every other way possible growing up in a ranching family in South Texas — with the scars to prove it — there was one “girly” thing I loved. And while the feminist in me today reels at the thought, here it is: I loved to play with Barbie. And Skipper and Ken. Only I renamed them Cherry, Hayley and Holden, respectively.

This is Barbie. (photo from Mattel)

This is a headless Barbie.

That’s right. I played with plastic girls with sparkly tube-tops and unrealistic 38-18-34 measurements. But unlike a lot of Barbie fans, I didn’t care what she looked like, or what dresses she wore. I didn’t envy her twist-n-turn hips, blonde hair or blue eyes.

To me, Barbie was a mere tool for my vivid (and probably not quite normal) imagination. I put those dolls in situations no doll in the history of dolls would ever want to be in. They were probably praying every night for Mattel to come and put them out of their misery.

The stories I created were soap-opera-level in intensity. There was illicit activity going on in the broken elevator shaft in the Dream House. It wasn’t unusual for miniature furniture to be thrown in anger from the penthouse. There was a scene involving beautifully crocheted clothes (made by my unsuspecting grandmother) being torn off in passion. (Note to Mom: I watched Showtime when you weren’t looking.)

Now that I’m a grownup — or at least pretend to be one — I still have the same crazy imagination, and stories still pop into my head all the time. Only now, I pour the drama into short stories, novels and other types of writing.

I think Cherry, Hayley and Holden would be pleased.

2)  I write because I can’t afford therapy. Most writers I know aren’t necessarily rolling in the dough. Yet we tend to have varying degrees of tormented inner lives that make us great candidates for therapy. So for me, writing is a great, zero-percent-down alternative.

In all seriousness, writing is how I try to make sense of the world. It’s how I deal with my constant restlessness. It’s how I delve into my past and figure out my place in the here and now. It’s how I deal with the ugliness and goodness out there, and inside.

Through placing characters at tough crossroads, I can consider how I would react in that same circumstance. Through placing characters in situations I have actually been in before, I can work through what I could’ve done differently, and how that would’ve played out. And I can help those characters find strength and courage and humor when life becomes one hot mess.

This is therapy.

This is therapy.

I can even face my fears — and write my way through it all until I see light at the end of tunnel, or at least until I can get it ALL OUT and move on.

Sure, I could spend months in a therapist’s office and come to all the same conclusions. But you’re not allowed to drink copious amounts of vodka at a counseling appointment, are you? Plus, writing doesn’t demand a copay.

3) I write because I want to make a difference. (Cue the We Are the World music now.) Throughout my childhood and in college, I always believed I would one day do something important that would help make the world a better place. Basically, I wanted to be a kick-ass combination of Susan B. Anthony, Mother Teresa and Ann Richards.

This is Mother Teresa.

This is Mother Teresa.

After college, I took up causes. I was knee-deep in political campaigns and volunteering for activist organizations. I was working at animal shelters and marching for better elder care.

And I was frustrated.

I felt like I was scratching on a well-trodden, muddy surface, and any difference I’d made was quickly gone when the next rain hit.

Today, I still do some of those activism things. But I also understand that through the effective use of language and storytelling, I can sometimes reach readers in a pretty darn deep place — a place where thoughts and ideas linger long enough for questions to be raised, and a search for answers to begin.

In fact, when a reader tells me that my work has touched them somehow, and made them think about something a little bit longer than they would have otherwise, that’s when I know that what I’m doing with my life — this whole writing thing — does matter.

After all, books and stories and poems have been known to change lives, you know. And if my work can trigger just one little change in just one person, then, well, it’s worth it.

* The following words are registered trademarks: Amazon, Downtown Abbey, Duck Dynasty, Barbie, Mattel, Showtime, and probably some others I’m failing to mention. Please don’t sue me. Refer to #2 above.

Putting Up the Tree — and Missing My Mammaw and Granny Like Crazy

Well, first I’ll get the mountain-snob snarkiness out of the way: It’s just plain weird to me to put up a Christmas tree in Colorado when there is no snow on the ground, no howling wind outside your door, no traipsing through knee-deep drifts to find the perfect tree, no fire burning in the wood stove. You get the picture. That was always our life when we lived at the top of a mountain. And I loved everything about it.

Down here in the foothills, we put up our tree today, and it was 60 degrees and not a flurry in sight. I wore shorts. We got our tree from a commercial seller.  It was too warm for a fire in the fireplace. Blah, blah.

But there are a few things that didn’t change. First, we made kettle corn to munch on while we decorated our tree (Grand Fir, $34.99. Ooops, snark returns.) We played Christmas music (on Pandora instead of CDs – hey, you can’t stop progress). And we pulled out all the same ornaments we use every year.

And that’s when I always start to miss my grandmothers, both of whom have passed away, so bad it’s a downright physical thing.

My grandmothers (Mammaw on my mother’s side, and Granny on my dad’s) could not have been more different, but I have such great memories of time spent with them both at the holidays.

I’m lucky that we lived fairly close to both of my grandmothers, and that both liked us girls to help them decorate for the holidays after Thanksgiving.

With Mammaw, it was fragile glass ornaments and shiny, gold-beaded balls she’d made herself. It was a pristine white angel with real feathers as wings as the topper. Some years, it was a full, lush tree flocked with fake white snow. It was white lights and a silver-trimmed tree skirt, probably bought from a department store. It was Eddie Arnold on the stereo. It was quiet and beautiful.

When my grandfather passed away (Mammaw left us years earlier), my mom shared some of Mammaw’s ornaments with me, and I cherish them. There are a couple of delicate antique ornaments in gold and red and silver, and two of her ornaments she decorated herself with old jewelry and tiny sequins and pins. They are as classy and lovely as she was. And they make me miss her so much. Our conversations. Our games of cards. Her Thanksgiving turkey and dressing. Her walking around with that kitchen towel on her shoulder as she cooked holiday meals. Her long, lean, soft hands that, as she got older and sick, she’d ask me to hold.

And then there are the items I have from Granny that take me back to the holidays at her house. She was a ranch woman, but she also loved to crochet. Those rough, calloused hands were like magic when it came to yarn. I have crocheted icicles and snowflakes she made – their hangers are old bread ties in green and red and blue. I specifically bought big, round, frosted bulbs this year to put on our tree, based solely on the fact that she had some similar on her tree every year. (They were from the 1960s, I swear, and we often worried that they’d get so hot, they’d catch the tree on fire.)

This is what a mesquite tree looks like, for you non-South Texans.

And her tree! Oh, I loved Granny’s approach to her tree. It was usually just a cedar tree we’d cut from the pasture, lopsided and wispy and perfect. She didn’t have a tree stand; we’d just plop the tree trunk in a bucket and fill it with rocks to hold `er steady. Ornaments were mostly handmade by either her or us kids. We always added store-bought tinsel of some kind, and red-and-white candy canes. Lots of multi-colored, twinkling lights were a must, too. She’d hang mistletoe up (real mistletoe, people!). Plus she had some plastic pine garland we’d hang over the entrance to the living room, from the dining room. With fake red berries. There’d be nails up there from the year before to tuck the garland behind, or we’d just use scotch tape.

After we decorated our tree today, we made cookies as a family, and I found my Granny’s old recipe for Cherry Cream Delight, which is basically just Cool Whip, a can of cherry pie filling, cream cheese, and graham crackers. Man, I loved that stuff. And I think I’ll be making it this year.

It’s nice to have my grandmothers’ things around me during the holidays, since I can’t have them here with me anymore. But what I wouldn’t give to, just one more time, hear Granny say, “No need to rush off now,” late on Christmas Eve, or to hear Mammaw shooing us out of her kitchen on Christmas Day.

Miss you both.

What do love most about your grandmothers and the holidays? I’d love to hear about others’ memories, too.