Does Your Family Read Your Books?

We have high winds today and Jackson is feeling the fever – here he is trying to climb the portal post. Spoiler alert: that’s as high as he got.

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is whether our spouses or close family read our books. I always find it interesting how widely this answer varies among writers – from those who cowrite with spouses, or rely upon them or close family to critique, to those whose families don’t even know they write. Come on over to find out more!

May the Road Rise to Meet You

Jeffe and PatrickLast week I posted to Facebook that I’d heard that my Uncle Patrick died. It was quite a shock, because we’d been in tenuous contact for the last few years. I knew he was getting older, that he’d retired, but not that things had gotten as bad as they had. The last couple of times I talked to him, he got confused about who I was, mixing me up with the Campbell cousins from Nebraska.Mom and Me - Christmas 1971

Patrick became my uncle just before my seventh birthday. Many of you know my father died when I was three, my mother widowed at twenty-seven. For a few years, it was just the two of us. Then my mom met and married Leo Kennedy. He was my stepfather for thirty years, until his death in 2003. With Leo, I gained another grandmother, Francie, and my Uncle Patrick and Aunt Jane. I also gained those Nebraska Campbell cousins (Francie’s family) and assorted great-aunts. scan0004

If you’ve read my essay collection, A Report from Driver #3 is about the aftermath of Aunt Jane’s death in 2001. At that time we knew Leo was sick – and I mention it in the essay – but we didn’t expect him to be gone a short two years later. As Francie had passed away while I was in high school, that left Patrick the last of that branch of the Kennedys. 

Leo and Patrick had been tremendously close. Leo idolized his older brother and followed his footsteps into the priesthood, though he later left the church. Patrick remained a priest all his life, serving at various parishes around Colorado. He treated me as his own family. My growing up is littered with visits to whatever town he lived in at the time – fishing in Brighton, fiestas in northwest Denver, cross-country skiing in Minturn, near Vail. He attended most holiday dinners at our house. On Christmas and Easter, he would bring the collections from mass, as they were always the largest, and had us help count them to keep his numbers straight. Over those dinners, over many years, he and Leo debated politics, religion and the church. I learned more about Catholicism, both old and new, from the two of them – and also how to argue a point. Or even play devil’s advocate. With a father who died much too young of black lung, they leaned far left. Patrick famously got in trouble with the Archdiocese for his relentless defense of what he felt the church should be doing for the poor. 

I once blurted out that they wouldn’t vote for Jesus Christ if he ran as a republican and they agreed that I was absolutely right.

There wasn’t a question of church doctrine Patrick wouldn’t answer for me – even if it reflected badly on the church. With an encyclopedic mind and a lifelong love of learning, he knew the answers, could cite and quote extensively. Patrick and Leo both taught me to understand the difference between the religion and the church, the difference between personal faith and spirituality, and man’s institution on earth. Patrick gave me my first communion in Francie’s living room, but never bothered me about attending church. He lived his faith, embodying compassion. 

After Leo died, and my mother remarried a few years later, we saw less and less of Patrick. With my mom living in Tucson half the year, I made it to Denver less frequently. Then even less so when I moved to Santa Fe and when she later sold the Denver house. I sent Patrick Christmas presents, though he never much cared for material possessions, another way he lived his faith. Mostly I gave him subscriptions to Wyoming Wildlife and sent food baskets, as he always loved to eat. 

I tried to keep in touch, as Leo would have wanted, but Patrick didn’t seem to need me to. He kept busy with the church and his parish. When he retired to the Catholic Priests Home, they spoke of him with affection when I called. In the end, his mind went, which explained his confusion when I talked with him.

The funeral mass last week was done in grand style at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver. The Archbishop presided, along with many bishops and priests – many who remembered me from the years. They spoke highly of Patrick, and wryly mentioned his contentious politics. It was a good service.

I don’t remember much about Leo’s funeral. He died much too young, after years of struggling with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). His was not an easy or peaceful death and that was a hard time for us. One of those things you bear down and grit through. 

Somehow, though, saying goodbye to Patrick felt much like letting go of Leo all over again, too. I wept during the Eucharist, which shouldn’t be emotional, and yet somehow was. The core of faith, that bread and wine become body and blood, that we transform and move on. We say goodbye, but no one is ever truly gone. 

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

 

My Grandfather’s Shillelagh

March2008 037

I’m still having fun raiding my mother’s former laptop for photos I never had copies of. She had this one of me and David framed and it’s always been one of my favorites. Now I have it in digital, too!

Yesterday I posted to the Contemporary Romance Cafe blog about The Rocky Road to Publication – which, naturally, included a riff on the Irish folksong. It amused a few people, but I think mostly no one knew what a shillelagh is, for example.

For those who did not grow up with a grandfather who took his blackthorn shillelagh on walks after dinner, it’s pronounced shi-LAY-lee. I know – Celtic spellings are weird. Speaking of which, please say Keltic, not Seltic. The Boston team is wrong. I don’t know how that came to be, but they’re just… WRONG.

At any rate, my grandfather, Pat McGee, boldly embraced the image of the Irishman – to the eye-rolling of some family members. He was born in Pottawatomie Indian Territory in 1906, a year before Oklahoma officially became a state. His parents, both also born in the US to Irish immigrant parents, named him Raymond Ivor, but he always went by “Pat.” Much more Irish – and not unlike the Paddy of the song, a standard nickname for any Irishman. Some of the family took his Irishness with a particular lump of salt because he used it, too, as a justification for drinking to excess. St. Patrick’s Day could get ugly. And Christmas. And, well, lots of occasions when my mother and her sisters were growing up.

Some of it was going on still when I was a girl, but I was largely oblivious. I loved my Papa to no end and those after-dinner walks in the golden light of evening loom large in my memory. To me, the fact that he had a blackthorn shillelagh and called it that, wasn’t a foible, but an emblem. I totally bought the schtick.

For me, it was real.

When he left my grandmother to live with the woman he’d been having an affair with all the years of their marriage – more Irish shenanigans – he took the shillelagh with him. Cirrhosis got him out in California. My grandmother held firm and refused his request to come home, so he died out there. I was a teenager at the time and respected how hard it all was on my mother, aunts and grandmother. Only years and years later, when I set out to write down my memories of him, did I wonder what happened to his shillelagh. Probably the girlfriend’s family disposed of it. She had died, too, by the time I tried to find out and no one seemed to know.

I think about it still. If I made my life a novel, it would be the thing I kept of his. I’d take it when I went for walks and remember that very flawed man who was a father to me after my own died. Who was probably a better father to me than he was to his daughters. Who instilled in me a love of books and Omar Khayyam and smooth Irish whiskey. Who taught me to pay attention to how a horse’s hoof really looks before I tried to draw it.

Who showed me that carrying a shillelagh can also be magic.

Wrestling with Stupid

This one almost doesn’t look real, does it?

So, I have this cousin who lives in the South. For you non-US types, when I say South with a capital “S” that refers to the states in the southeastern part of the country. Pretty much anything east of Texas and south of the Mason-Dixon line, which is an old demarcation, and people will argue with it (just as many people would argue that east Texas counts as the South), but it works in general. The South has its own culture, way of speaking and values. These values tend towards strong belief in Christianity and a fundamental racism that continues to persist in the white population.

For example, the last time I was down South, visiting an old friend, her teenage son asked me why I put brown sugar on my oatmeal because “only colored people do that.” I was shocked speechless. I suspect he thought that, by not using the N-word, he wasn’t being racist.  Being fundamentally polite and a guest in my friend’s home, I didn’t point out the multiple flaws in his argument. Still, I was terribly bothered that my intelligent, open-minded friend had raised a son who would think and say such things.

At any rate, my father is from the South, so I have family there. I’m not terribly close to them, since my father died a long time ago. Once my grandparents passed on, there was less connection. But my father’s younger brother had two sons and I’ve always valued my relationship with them, though it’s grown progressively more tenuous over the years.

On a visit about ten to fifteen years back, my younger cousin had a whole bunch of questions for me. He was a teenager at the time, with a keen and restless mind. I’m kind of an object of curiosity for them, having grown up out West in the Rocky Mountain states, with liberal ideas and a fancy education. There’s also a sort of mythology around my dad, who was selected to go to the  Air Force Academy back when they took two guys from every state, based on academic record and a senator’s recommendation. It was a seriously big deal for my small town father, whose parents quit going to school at 12 and could never have afforded to send him to college.

My cousin asked if everyone out West was really smart and talked like I do. He wanted to know if I thought all Southerners were stupid. He said he saw people walking around with t-shirts that had fingers pointing to the person next to them saying “I’m with Stupid.” He wanted to know what I thought of that. They were good questions and I tried to answer them honestly. We had several good conversations about who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do with his life.

Later, he decided to go to Seminary and become a minister. His parents called to tell me the news and how terribly proud they were of him. I was surprised, but hoped he’d do well.

He and I talked on Facebook here and there. He studied languages and old texts, which made him happy and we had fun talking about those things. Now he’s a practicing minister and engaged to a pretty blond girl from his home town. I ignore the preachier things he posts. Sometimes I’m tempted to comment. I rarely do. Keeping the peace.

But, the other night, during the State of the Union address, he posted “Obamar got purdy werds.”

I haven’t shaken the crushing sense of disappointment yet.

I wonder what happened to the boy who thought wearing shirts that say “I’m with Stupid” lowers people. The guy who worried that the way he talked made him sound dumb. I really wanted to ask if all that study of Latin and Greek had made him forget how to spell in English.

Now, I should say that I know plenty of people who don’t like President Obama’s policies. I’ve had interesting debates with people and they often present cogent, articulate arguments for what they don’t agree with. But for this guy, who I know is smarter than this, to appeal to his buddies by lowering himself, just makes me sad. Worse, I know that a huge part for my cousin is that Obama is one of those colored people.

I don’t know that I have a point to this (now very long) post. I didn’t reply to the comment, so what I wanted to say to him has been burning in the back of my throat.

No, sweetie, not everyone in the South is stupid. Just the ones who choose to act that way.

Teaching Beauty

At one point during the Christmas weekend, my mom, my aunt and I were all in my bedroom. My Aunt Karen was borrowing a shirt so David could do a little work on her back and my mom tagged along.

My mom sat down on my side of the bed and commented on the amazing view. I told her to lie down so she could see the sky the way I do when I wake up in the morning. When it’s *ahem* not pitch dark out, that is. I know, I know – the light is coming back around.

Karen pulled off her shirt, took the one I gave her and said how much she hates the moles on her back. She turned around to show us, and there they were, large flat moles all over her back.

“Just like Grandmother’s!” I exclaimed.

Karen nodded. Yes, she’d gotten her mother’s moles, turning up later in life. My mom said she didn’t remember their mother having moles. Oh yes, I remembered, Grandmother would take a bath every evening before bed and, if I was spending the night, I would keep her company and wash her back for her. The moles made me think of a Dalmation’s coat, beautiful, unique and special. Only seeing Karen’s moles did I remember that sense of delight and admiration. On some level, I always thought I’d have them, too. That when I grew up to be a lady like Grandmother, I would gain Dalmation polka dots to grace my own skin.

It’s funny how time changes things. How I’ve since learned it’s not something to admire. How Karen wishes she didn’t have them.

So much of what we think of as beautiful is taught. Carefully, carefully taught.