Sophie Redesigned Redesignd

No, it is not a typo. I am rewriting my first Sophie George novel, now one in five completed for a series I call Moxie Cosmos Mysteries.

Here’s the opening:

The Floater

Friday, June 12, 1998

To beat the jogging crowd (more like trotting at our age), I start my two-mile walk around Dorado Circle by about 5:30 a.m.  Today, at 6:25, I saw a strange car backing out of the driveway at Deborah Conyers’ house on Dorado Place, my neighboring cul de sac, and hugged the shrubbery to let it pass.  It was shiny black, with tinted windows, and as long as a hearse. A cold shiver ran along my arms at that thought.  Just a few months ago we buried Hank, Deborah’s latest beau, perhaps her one true love.  Gossips insisted she had become withdrawn and wondered if she could survive without him.  When the car turned the corner I walked closer, thinking how few women our age would be sending off secret visitors so early in the morning, although Deborah was a man’s kind of woman and I could imagine . . .

Her front door was wide open.  I then realized I should have looked at that car’s license plate.

I stepped onto her porch intending to knock lightly before walking in to investigate. To my relief, Deborah was standing just inside in front of a long oval mirror that was the centerpiece in her tiny foyer.  I stood there mutely as she switched on the wall sconces at either side of the mirror and leaned forward to scrutinize her face.  She arched her carefully plucked eyebrows under her pink visor to examine her eyeliner.  She backed up and, turning sideways, pulled the waist tie tighter on her sweats.  That’s when she saw me.

“Sophie!  For goodness sake,” she cried.  “Are you all right?”

“I was just wondering…” but I couldn’t say I was wondering, because of the car, the same about her.  She would think I was snooping.  “I just wondered if you had time to drink a cup of coffee with me.  But it looks like you have plans.  Playing tennis?”

“No.”  She laughed lightly, perhaps a tad falsely.  “Not me.  You caught me trying on my new look.  I’ll be 68 tomorrow.  I was just wondering if I could pass for 60, or possibly 58.”  The truth was she didn’t have a bad body, but what could I say about the bleached hair, pulled back into a ponytail and stuffed over the band at the back of her visor?

“Of course,” I replied.  “Younger, even.”  Like sixteen.

We live in Bridgewater Village, a condo development for retirees and snowbirds, bungalows built around a recreation center.  Nearly every woman here – and some men – try going blonde at some point.  It seems to be a late-life rite of passage.

“I owe my skin to Angela Della Santa’s grandmother,” Deborah now said.  I must have looked puzzled because she laughed and filled me in.  “Fifty years ago, this wrinkled old Italian crone told us girls to use olive oil to keep our beauty.  Do you want that cup of coffee?”

“How about a quick cup of tea?”

She beckoned me into her kitchen where I could see she didn’t have a coffee maker going anyway, and no kettle. She used the microwave to heat my tea.  I also saw that she had a gin bottle on the counter and a half-filled – or half-empty – glass beside it.  Perhaps sensing my wandering eyes, Deborah slid the glass back between the breadbox and a bowl of bananas.

“I like your sporty outfit,” I commented encouragingly.  “It’s definitely a new you.”  Until Hank appeared, she had been known in Bridgewater Village as “Madam Chairman,” an attractive recent retiree who wore tailored suits to preside over meetings of our Home Owners Association.  She seemed to enjoy her reputation as a professional tough cookie, someone too busy for chitchat, like the hard-edged, veteran, real estate agent in our midst who spoke kindly only to residents on the verge of moving to assisted living.  Most people disliked Deborah’s abrupt, take-charge manner and were relieved when her term was up.

Then someone spotted her at the Yacht Club with a handsome stranger, and reported in shock that Deborah had appeared uncharacteristically soft and feminine, almost kittenish, in shorts and halter.  A couple of months later she appeared on the society pages in a group shot of millionaire babes in satin décolletage. That led to speculation about who Deborah’s escort might be and what they were up to.  I try to keep out of these conversations, but I definitely would say she had shown two sides to her personality.

“This is my new uniform,” Deborah said, handing me the mug of tea.

“Uniform?  Do you have a job at a country club?”

“No.  I just mean that I took all my Madam Chairman suits back to Second Look when I finished my term on the board and traded them for things like this instead.  ‘Guess that will leave a few mouths wide open.”  So, she knew about the cruel talk.  “From now on it will be Nike outlet style for me, because our Bridgewater recreation center is going to be my only social life. I also plan to sell my Hank wardrobe.”  My own mouth fell open at this quirky but revealing remark.  Maybe she was over her grieving, putting the past behind her, and moving on with her life, but she sure sounded superficial.

“What do you mean by your Hank wardrobe?” I asked.

“All that glamour. A foolish dream. Hank’s idea of a ‘close and lasting’ friendship was all about ‘let’s pretend.’  Haven’t you heard? That fortune he inherited from an aunt was a total fiction.  The status house he ‘owned’ wasn’t his.  He barely was able to keep up his club memberships.  I spent my lifetime savings on those clothes to look good for him. They were from MM! Now I need the money.”

I didn’t know what to say. MM stood for Millie’s Modes, a fashion boutique in old Dorado Bay, lingering since the 1950s. Deborah looked at me and must have seen that I needed a clearer explanation.

“I hung on to them awhile after he died.  But when the weather warmed up again, and my date book was still empty, I decided that ….”  She paused, apparently thinking how to continue.  I could have finished her sentence.  None of his pals was going to pick up where he had left off.  Deborah never really had been part of the Yacht Club crowd. And by then everyone in that crowd knew Hank had not really been one of them either.  He had been a charming fraud.

“I have been wondering how you are getting along.”

“Is that why you came over?”

“I saw that black car drive away.  It scared me.  I thought perhaps there was a, well, problem here.”

There was a long silence, and I wasn’t sure whether to jump into it with some inane observation about village security, or change the subject. I couldn’t just get up and leave. Then she spoke again, very sober and deliberate.

“Sophie.  Can I tell you something strange and maybe good that just happened?  Will you promise not to tell anyone?”  Everyone knew I kept my word.  Often I was called upon for advice.  Not that I’m bragging.  It’s a double-edged sword. So I nodded.

“I was offered a part time job.  But it’s a little mysterious.”

“Tell me more,” I said with mixed feelings.

“That car you saw — but let me start at the beginning.”  She dropped to a chair, feet flat, elbows out, fingers tightly intertwined.  “I couldn’t sleep last night, so finally I got up and just for kicks tried on these new sports outfits.  I went to the mirror in the hall to see how I looked.  I confess I had chosen Capri-length sweat pants to show off the better part of my legs and the scoop-necked t-shirt to show just a bit of cleavage.  I was thinking it covered my waistline, but…” She pinched herself on two sides of her middle. “Just about one year ago, a month before I found him dead, Hank offered to pay for liposuction.  I’m ashamed to say that this morning I was wishing I had taken him up on that.  But life goes on, I said to myself, with all its imperfections.  I turned sideways to see how bad it was and whether I had bulges in back.  We don’t usually see our backs.”

At this point I shifted on the hard kitchen chair, put my mug down, and rumpled my paper napkin.  Where was this unnecessarily detailed self-assessment headed?  I began to suspect she had been drinking gin since she got out of bed.

“I decided to have a look bare naked, lifted my shirt over my head and threw it on the floor,” she continued.  “I was down to my underpants when the headlights strafed the living room walls through the front window.”

“That car I saw?”  She nodded.

“It turned into my drive!  It was five in the morning! I switched off the light, kicked off the sweats and headed back into the hallway, feeling my way along the walls.  After counting to ten and nothing more happened, I ran toward my bedroom, but the curtains were open there. I could see the car was in the driveway with its lights off.  I ducked into the hall bathroom and waited.  I heard a car door slam and two men with low voices talking as they moved toward the front porch.  They didn’t sound like anyone I knew.  In another few seconds there was a rap-rap that rattled the screen door.  What could I do?  I grabbed my clothes, pulled them on, then tiptoed to the front door to check through the peephole.  There were two men out there on the porch, one short and puffy-looking, and the other slim and suave with a little bit of a moustache.  They both were wearing black leather jackets.  At first I thought they were policemen — trouble in the neighborhood — and I put my hand on the knob.  Just in time I noticed they were wearing blue jeans.  I was not going to just open the door and let them in.  I asked who they were.

“Who were they?”

“They said they were friends of my neighbor across the street.”

“Roland Urquhart?”

“Yes.  I asked them, ‘What’s the problem?’ The suave one answered, ‘He’s not there.  We were supposed to go fishing.  We’re wondering if you noticed his car leaving this morning.’”

“I guess men get up early to fish,” I said lamely, but this was beginning to sound like a shaggy dog story.

“Then the suave guy pulled open the screen door!  Then the short one put his hand on the doorknob.  I tried to fasten the safety chain, but was too slow.  They pushed their way in and were looking me right in the face.”

“Good grief, Deborah.  You should have a panic button.  That was a break-in.”

“Yes.  But they weren’t burglars.  They just wanted information. Of course, I didn’t want them there.  They smelled like goats in their cheap leather, and also cheap cologne.  They filled the whole entryway with their big fake shoulders and yucky odors.”

“So, what happened?”

“The puff-ball glanced around the living room like Roland might be hiding behind my curtains.  ‘Did you see him last night?’ he asked.  I shook my head, but they both stepped around in there and kept looking.”

“What did you do?”

“I tried not to look scared.  I just said, ‘I beg your pardon?  Why do you think I should know where he is?’  Like that.”  She did her best to look snooty.

“Did you ask them why they had come to you?”

“Yes.  They said they saw my light on.  And they claimed Roland had told them I was his friend.”

“Are you?”  This would be interesting.  No one else in the neighborhood had been able to break down the barrier Roland Urquhart erected around his life.  He was civil, sometimes exchanged pleasantries, but did not go out of his way.

“When I said I seldom ever saw him, the suave one got a little, well, insistent.  He said, ‘We know he talks to you.’  I said I hadn’t seen him at all this week, which was absolutely true. By then they were wandering in and out of the other rooms, opening closets in the bedrooms, even the pantry in my kitchen.  They seemed to be sure that I was hiding him somewhere in my house.  I tried to reason with them.  I asked them why he would have changed his mind about fishing without letting them know. ‘That’s what we wonder,’ puff-ball said.”

“Why didn’t you tell them to leave?” I asked her.

“I was going to.  Or get out of there myself.  The suave one saw me looking at the door.  He stepped closer to me and I backed away until I was up against that narrow table where I pile my mail – I was stuck there.  I did think about those ads for a call button necklace for old ladies living alone.  I even thought about assisted living.”  Deborah paused.  If she was waiting for laughter from me, it was pointless.  I couldn’t imagine Deborah in assisted living unless she was running the place. I thought about the gin again, but she seemed perfectly lucid as she continued her story.  “It was getting to be daylight.  I was now hoping that someone would walk into the cul de sac – like you did –see the fancy car and be a little nosy.”

I could imagine other neighbors being nosy, but not brave enough to walk over to check out the situation.  Bridgewater didn’t have much hero material.  In fact, other than Roland Urquhart, I’m Deborah’s closest year-round neighbor, and most of the time I mind my own business, too.

“Puffy walked to the window and looked across at Roland’s house.  He accused me: ‘I bet he told you not to tell anyone where he was going.’  I looked him in the eye and said, ‘He isn’t friendly with his neighbors.  No one keeps track of him.’  But, Sophie, my mind was racing over the only conversation I had with Roland recently.  It raised questions in my mind.”

“What questions?” I asked her.

“We don’t usually chat when we see each other; we just wave.  And I usually see him when he is walking his dog.  But one day last week I noticed him standing like a statue out in his driveway. I was really a little bit puzzled about something I’d seen at his house earlier, so I went across to talk to him.”  Deborah squeezed her eyes tight shut as if trying to remember word for word.

“And…?”

“Well, one day when I had just pulled into my garage, a delivery van pulled up to his.  I wasn’t sure he was home, so I thought they might come and drop a package off for him at my house.  Anyway, I stayed in my car with the garage door lifted, and watched in my rearview mirror as they removed some cartons from a side door in their truck – about a dozen, all the same size.  Then Roland’s garage door opened and he came out. It was obvious he was expecting them.  I had no excuse to keep watching, but I was concerned. Maybe he would need more storage space, and since, I don’t have a car, I could lend him my garage.”

I thought Deborah’s neighborliness was a little excessive.  Nearly everybody has something big delivered sometime. Maybe not a dozen things alike, but it was none of her business.

“So, when I spotted him last week I went across and said, ‘It looks like you’re starting a new business.’  He tilted his head at me and I described what I had seen and offered to take deliveries for him.”

“Did he explain?”

“No!  He was rude.  He said he had to walk the dog and turned away from me.”

“That wasn’t exactly rude.”

“Maybe not, Sophie, but when I think back on it, I believe it was those same men who delivered those packages who came over here this morning.  And it didn’t look like fishing equipment.”

“You didn’t tell me what finally happened to them this morning.  How did you get them to leave?”

“The sound of another car got them excited.  I hoped it was Mr. Urquhart returning.  I said a little prayer, in fact.  But the car circled in the cul de sac and went away.  That’s when they asked me if I would do them a favor.  Puff-ball said, ‘Okay, Miz Conyers.  We believe you.’ They knew my name!  Roland must have told them.”

I noted that they hadn’t told Deborah their names, and wondered why.

“Puffy sat down on my sofa, looked real friendly, and asked if I would like to make a little pin money.  Suave kept looking out the window, his greasy hand on my clean curtain.”

“A favor?”

“He explained that if I agreed to keep my eyes on that house across the street, day and night, they would pay me two-hundred and fifty dollars a week, five-hundred in advance.  He said they need to know every time a person I didn’t recognize comes to Mr. Urquhart’s house, what car he drives, what license plate, and how long he stays.  Day or night.  And most important, if he unloads anything or picks anything up.”

“What did you say to Puff Ball?” I asked, now seriously doubting the verity of this comic sketch.

“Well, I said I wasn’t sure how I could stay awake to keep an eye on the house night and day.”

“And…?”

“He said to use an alarm clock and check every two hours.  Then his greasy pal had a better idea.  He said they could install a wire in Roland’s driveway that would ring a bell in my house.  They would call me every couple of days to find out what I saw.”

“And you agreed to do it?”

“They told me I could think it over until noon.  I asked them to repeat what they wanted so I could write everything down, that I needed to weigh the pros and cons.”

“You would be willing to give up your freedom to become their watchdog?”

“They said it could take months.  Think about it.  A steady income.  A thousand a month.”  She showed me her notes.

“Didn’t you think this was a strange request from men who claimed to be your neighbor’s friends?  And what about Mr. Urquhart’s right to privacy?”

“But since he is so strange himself, how do I know if Roland is a good guy or a bad guy?  I thought I might be helping an investigation.”

“But now you think these very same men unloaded those cartons at Roland’s house.”

Deborah just shrugged her shoulders.  She wasn’t sure what she saw.  I was a little taken aback to think she wanted the money badly enough to risk getting mixed up in this funny business without being sure what it was all about.  On the other hand, if she bought and sold her clothes at second hand stores, the money probably was a major attraction.  Maybe this wasn’t any worse than becoming a baby sitter or a home health care worker.  These two characters didn’t sound too nice to work for, but neither are some whiney children or cranky old folks.

As if reading my mind, Deborah went over to her piano and picked up a double photo frame.  One picture was of Hank from the shoulders up in a white uniform of some kind.  The other was the two of them seated at a table in a restaurant.  They looked tanned and healthy, and somehow right for one another.

“He looks like a movie star.”

“Yes.  He was charming — but gutless.  When the bank took his boat, then his car, and started foreclosure on his Cliffside house, he snuffed himself.”

I nearly choked on my second cup of tea, but it wasn’t that I was shocked by the news, because it wasn’t fresh; it was just her way of telling it.  The aforementioned gossips of Bridgewater Village already had tittle-tattled when one of them somehow found out what had happened.  He’d drugged himself to death.  Some pitied Deborah.  Others who thought she was opportunistic — or who were jealous of her looks — said she had it coming; they were happy to see her go down.  Officially, though, no one ever said a word to her about it.  In Bridgewater society, Deborah Conyers had always been outré.  Even in the suits, her sexuality showed, which just wasn’t the Bridgewater way.  Has she learned anything, I now wondered.  Because here she was in sports clothes trying to look like she belonged at the center of the Bridgewater “court” society, ready for a new and younger partner.

“Why don’t I happen to be here for lunch when they come back at noon, Sweetie,” I offered.  I don’t usually call people Sweetie, but I was anxious to protect her from herself.

“Oh, no, Sophie.  I couldn’t let that happen.  They told me that I could not under any circumstances let anyone else know anything about this.  The person or persons they were expecting might find out through the grapevine the house was being watched.  That would endanger Mr. Urquhart.  They called him Mister Urquhart.  Very respectful.  I am thinking now maybe he’s somebody important, and that’s why he doesn’t talk to us.”

I nodded, but I could see she still wasn’t comfortable about accepting their offer.  She stood without expression for a moment as if expecting me to comment, or maybe argue.  All I could do was throw up my hands.

“Your choice,” I said.  “I’ll be here if you need me.”

As I walked toward my own house on Dorado Circle I wondered how bad off she was, if she saw herself as a charity case if she did not find a way to supplement her income.  She did have the condo, and it was nicer than mine.  That made me feel a little better because she could always look into leasing it if things became desperate.  Too bad Bridgewater Village didn’t let widows take in roomers, although, truth be told, that’s what some of these late life “romances” were all about.

Whatever this job offer was, it came at a bad time for Deborah Conyers to be making clear decisions.  In her situation . . . well, it’s a matter of how much trouble one can get into, isn’t it?  She didn’t even know if Roland Urquhart was in danger or a gangster.  But if it involved sticking close to the house, I personally couldn’t do it.

By the time I took a shower and had a real cup of tea, I had decided it might be okay for Deborah.  As long as she let the mysterious nature of their offer be of no importance — none of her business — and as long as she kept her head down and mouth shut, act like a normal woman in a grieving period, she could make enough money to make ends meet for a while, long enough to think of something else.

The teeny-tiny, niggling doubt in my mind centered on the fact that she did not know if these men actually were friends of Roland or not.  They said they were, but in my mind, their behavior suggested otherwise.  And, anyway, she was absolutely right:  Why would Roland skip out on a fishing expedition?

 

***

 

 

Remembering Greg

In a few days our oldest child would have been 58 years old. He died last year in May, still 56.  His brother, sister, stepfather and I remember him every day, and wish for his sunny smile and big heart to still be available to us and to the rest of his family.

Greg was tall, handsome, hearty and had many friends. At his memorial gathering in Los Alamos,NM, where he was the economic development administrator for the county, one colleague said she would always appreciate the way he encouraged her to participate in meetings, offering her ideas, insisting they were worthy of attention. That was Greg. Positive. Generous. He loved to feed people, sing and play his guitar, and write proposals and plans to make this a better world. One of the mementos we exhibited during the memorial gathering here in Tucson was a page from a college freshman notebook. The subject was utopias, or,

“the ideal arrangement of a society for the humane benefit of all its participants.”  

That was what Greg thought about and worked toward, incorporating all cultures and all natural life. He was a conservationist, not just a hiker. He was a good listener, not just a great talker. He made strong networks and connected the very best dots. He was a constant son, brother,friend and lover, not just an explorer or tourist.

Above all, he was a father. He left a daughter who contains his “spark,” as we noted when we wrote a piece in remembrance of him for the newspaper.  I would say it is more than a spark. He passed the torch.

Here he is with his sister Ann and brother Tom about 15 years ago. I am proud to say they share his ideals and dedication to the common good. Their lively conversations, revealing all their good intent, made my life worth living.

Greg, Ann and Tom 2001

 

Here’s what Greg’s daughter wrote in 2015  for an assignment on the topic “Why do we need to follow rules?”:

Why Daddy is So Special

Daddy is special to me and he inspires me every day. He says the harder you work the luckier you get. I love him very much. Even though Daddy is strict I know that his rules are there to help me succeed. He is the best daddy ever! I love him very much and he is amazing! – Maya

And here’s what Greg’s daughter wrote last year:

“My dad has been an inspiration to me all my life. [HER BIOGRAPHY OF HIM FOLLOWS] “One day, May 4th, 2016, my dad suffered a heart attack and unfortunately passed away. Even though he has gone, though many people believe his legacy continues through me. That is what inspires me to try my best in school and work hard so I can be as successful as my dad.”

 

There’s a monster under my bed! True or false?

I saw a monster under my bed.

A  philosopher in the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Sciences, has been fine-tuning what is meant by “to lie.” Don Fallis strips the accepted definitions to the bare essentials, insisting that, to lie, one can’t merely hide the facts or deceive, but must “assert” that something is true that he or she actually believes to be false. The liar’s intention is that whomever is listening to him will accept his or her deliberate lie as the truth.

Fallis cites the semanticist Paul Grice’s “first maxim of quality,” which requires a social agreement that one should not say what is not true. If you say something you believe to be false, knowing the agreement to tell the truth is in effect [as in a court of law], then you have violated “the norm of conversation.”

In addition to verbal assertion, there are other forms of blatantly lying; plagiarism is one; the person who claims a work is his or hers knows he/she is going against the accepted norm by claiming authorship. 

Digging deeper, Fallis posits several less clear cut situations, for example, when you are lying deliberately, fully aware that the person you are lying to will know you are lying and yet also knowing that you will not be punished unless you admit the lie. It is a familiar dodge of children, especially among siblings. He did it! She started it! Another commonly-used tactic is a lazy child’s skilful refusal to go get something a parent asks for: I don’t know where it is.

That excuse also can be given when you lose something and don’t want to admit it. I imagine we all have been guilty of this behavior.  Or we may pretend we didn’t hear something someone has said because we don’t want to have to respond. Or we misunderstood.

I’m concerned about a problem of justice that even Don Fallis did not directly address: What if a person testifies in court according to different cultural standards? Suppose this person grew up in a society where it was necessary to lie in order to survive beatings or worse.

Suppose — for that person – lying is the accepted norm. 

Take it a step further: Suppose he/she even takes others into his/her confidence, believing they will understand that the purpose of the lie is to “win,” because the liar is afraid of any other judicial outcome and fully believes he/she is entitled to his/her preferred outcome. Now the moral responsibility falls on those whom he/she has confided his/her intent to lie. Do they care? What’s in it for them? Will they speak up? Will they even be asked to speak up? 

Alternatively, suppose the liar believes others know he/she is lying but also believes they cannot prove it. And suppose, even, that the others might wish to prove the liar is lying but cannot, so they remain silent. Or they might avoid being in that courtroom. Does that make them morally irresponsible?

Or what if they are afraid of the liar, or afraid of the consequences of being proved wrong? Will they enter into  an unspoken contract to say nothing? Is that contract with the liar? Or is it with themselves?

Ultimately,  the question is whether the person lying is inherently “bad” or simply has employed bad means for a good end. 

Professor Fallis referred me to a book by Sissela Bok. In the preface to the 1989 edition of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, the scholar quotes, of all people, a fiction writer, Iris Murdoch, who points out that we spend much of our life in truth-seeking. I am not convinced that is apparent today, a quarter century later. I believe we are currently living in an era of self-deception. That aside,  I like Murdoch’s observation:

“A portrayal of moral reflection and moral change (degeneration, improvement) is the most important part of any system of ethics.”

Out of that come more questions:

(1)  Do we have a clear system of ethics in the American courtroom today

(2) Is a deliberate liar capable of moral reflection?

(3) Is lying to get something you believe is your right to have — whether or not it is — any different than lying to avoid a beating? 

(4) Do our courts have the means and the will to punish liars?

 


[1] Don Fallis, “What is Lying?” Journal of Philosophy, 106, 1 (2009), 29-56. [Herbert] Paul Grice wrote extensively on the theory of meaning in language and communication. This reference is relative to intention bases semantics, in Studies in the Way of Words (1989 edition), Harvard University Press.

Christmas Decorations 1945-2015

Assorted polar bears, $19.95 (reg. $24.95) caught my eye, along with assorted owls, assorted elves, and battery operated candles. And then: table top fireplace (buy 3, get one free)! Such were the tantalizing holiday adornments on offer in a full page ad of the Sunday morning paper, November 29, 2015. Probably they come from China. Whatever happened to the tiny plaster figure skaters to set on a mirror “pond” surrounded by cotton batten “snow” and white-speckled, green bottle-brush trees?

Christmas was a colorful (if laborious) holiday in my childhood home, with Scandinavian tradition on one side and German on the other. Cookies stand out as the festive food, always homemade, sometimes taking hours to shape, bake and decorate. The favorites to eat were almond crescents, but the most admired were the cutout sugar snowmen, santas, hearts, and candy canes elaborately frosted to hang on the tree with the punched tin stars, bubbling lanterns, and jewel-toned glass balls. The kids might add paper chains and popcorn strings.

Christmas Tree 2013

When I married and had children, I kept up the tree trimming tradition, starting with the glass balls, adding three new handmade ornaments every year, one for each child. Church bazaars yielded hand painted, wooden rocking horses and clothespin soldiers, flannel gingerbread men and batik candy canes. I was thinking they would want to take them when they had homes of their own. But they have their own traditions. Most impressively, a daughter-in-law assembles her grandmother’s aluminum, revolving tree with an Evergleam color wheel. I confess, even I gave in to my husband’s suggestion that, living on a desert, we should have a faux fir with lights already wound into its branches. All we have to do each year is fluff it up a bit. And buy gifts for sixteen people.

In the Forties and Fifties, presents from our grandparents were always special: a dog or bicycle for my brother; for me, a doll house with electric lights, and a Sonia Henie doll with a hand knit skating skirt and sweater, even a stocking cap and socks. My parents’ gifts to us were modest. They hardly had time to shop, the social season was so frenetic.  Mother might be sewing herself a fancy dress for a winter dance, or making (besides hundreds of cookies) dozens of canapes for a cocktail party. Dad was busy preparing end of year business reports.

Still, without fail, Dad put up the outdoor display and organized the trip to get a freshly cut tree. Whether it was fir or balsam or Scotch pine depended on which woods my dad had been invited by a lumber baron friend to take one from, and which one looked spectacular enough for my mother’s discerning eye. One of my outstanding memories is of a gray day, standing in awe in a wide, tall and silent forest in Upper Michigan, watching soft white flakes flutter down, faster and faster, until my five-year-old brother, hip deep in packed snowbanks beside me, let out a frightened wail that echoed longer than a wolf’s howl in the oncoming dusk. Our mother huddled him close to her all the way home, while I rubbed holes in the steam on the car window, and peered into the darkness for the lights of farmhouses marking the edge of our northwoods village.

Perhaps that is what Christmas 2015 should be, not a time of luxurious trappings and feel good fantasies, but a time to strip down to the bare essentials; to stand in awe, perhaps even fear, and feel gratitude for the love that surrounds us.

 

Girls, Trains and WW II

The following book review was written for  www.bookpleasures.com   November 25, 2011

By Karen Dahood

Author Karen Dahood

 

 

 

 

 

_________________

TIMES LIKE THESE

E. E. Smith

Phoenix International, Inc., 2011

ASIN: B007RQRQIY

English writers are good at keeping their memories of World War II alive through novels and, over the recent commemorative years, television series that have filled us in on the main points, most recently in Home Fires. The focus understandably has been on Britain and France where so much action took place. It is rare now to get a personalized account of what was happening to people spending those years at home in the United States. That’s why the fictionalized account of 1945 by San Francisco writer Evelyn Eileen Smith is so important.

The reason 13-year-old Evelyn was forced to move with her mother to Shafter, Nevada, not much more than a railroad crossing, is simply that the mother was German, and Californians were considering rounding up German-born citizens just as we had rounded up Japanese, to put them in relocation camps so the rest of us could be secure. That meant Evelyn’s parents would have to learn to get along. The reunited family lived in the depot where her father was the agent and telegrapher, directing traffic on the Nevada Northern and Western Pacific railroad lines that crisscrossed in this empty landscape. Evelyn was more than annoyed to be deprived of her friends and opportunities in Sacramento, and to be stuck in a one-room schoolhouse with an uninspiring teacher, but she adapted. She took on the challenge of teaching English to a workman’s six-year-old daughter, and she eagerly submitted to lessons in classical literature from the former child actor who now operated the coal shute. Her father used his poker earnings to buy her a wild horse, and she enjoyed taming Dusty. There were worse dangers. She escaped death on a train track twice. And she accidentally boarded a train carrying wounded soldiers. As her father became more dependent on his supply of alcohol kept “out back,” and her mother began to flirt with other men passing through (not many did), things fell apart, and Evelyn’s destiny changed dramatically.

Smith is a playwright who has turned her hand to short stories and novels, including mysteries. Thus she has mastered the craft of plotting a story. Here her fluid narrative fits the time period, which I personally remember, and it made me nostalgic for those broadening biographies I read throughout sixth grade, and for eye-opening adventures of ordinary folks, as in The Boxcar Children and The Moffats.

Above all, TIMES LIKE THESE made me think about The Green Glass Sea, a novel for young adults about a Manhattan Project scientist’s adolescent daughter living with him in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the same time frame. Neither child could have imagined what was going on in the other’s geographical space – The Great American Desert or The Secret City – both artificially shaped by the fears that gripped the adult nation. Neither girl had worries about war; their concerns were about family and how to navigate out of childhood. When Evelyn’s dad relayed the news that the Second World War was finally over – that Japan had been successfully bombed – it marked the end of an era. Never again would childhood be so innocent.