"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Earthquakes, Bandits and Romance in Old California

Writing is a calling. Even when words dangle just beyond reach like the old phonetic combinations that hung on wires stretched across the front of my first grade classroom, phoenetic th’s, ing’s and ght’s waiting to be mastered. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, and a prolific talker before that, as my mother is fond of reminding me. And I've been a listener to old timers' stories. 

Now it’s time to celebrate. April 1st marks a monumental event in my life, the day Cholama Moon, my first novel, is released by Oak Tree Press. Already I have a review on Amazon—five stars and the stark truth, priceless. (Relax, there's no way to mispronounce Cho-lam-a. Tourists do it all the time.) 

The novel is the first in a series about the lives of two families, a white girl and her father, and an Indian girl born before the secularization of the Spanish missions on the Central Coast of California, when the Franciscan padres were back to Spain. The times were turbulent, the Spanish driven out first by by the Mexicans and then by the Americans in a series of quick and efficient revolutions. Lives were ruined in the process. Blood was spilled, especially the Indians.    

I’m gratified by the support I’m getting from readers for this series. The Paso Robles Historical Museum is hosting my launch. Buzz is building on Facebook. My launch will take place on Sunday, April 6th, 1-3 PM. Already people are curious to see what I’ve written about the area where they live, where I lived for fifty years. Paso Robles is a small town in the heart of the vineyards and a few miles from the epicenter of the San Andreas Fault, a seam in the earth where it is possible that one day California will split and drift off into the sea. San Luis Obispo is a beautiful county on the edge of the Pacific, the perfect setting for a historical novel.

It’s an honor to bring something to the table to share, but I’ve only prepared the salad from fruits that others brought me, stories and events from old timers and their local histories. Granted, I’ve done my homework. I attended Indian concerts in the Missions, made adobe bricks to repair the earthquake damage at Mission San Miguel,

tasted authentic Alta California banquets and danced the quadrille to the music of fiddle, guitar and bull kelp shakers, but all of this was produced by the people who have kept the history alive. I only tasted of the fruits of their labor.

I hiked the ancient trails and entered the sacred caves where the pictographs are protected from vandals. I visited chert piles at Montana De Oro and brought my project to the Salinan Indian Tribal Council to get their help. My husband and I were early and enthusiastic students of California history and now I’ve written a series that speaks to the heart of the facts I’ve gathered.    

The second book is already finished. Maria Ines, the Indian girl’s story, will be released later in 2014. I’m already planning the third, the story of her very angry son Miguilito, who survives in a hostile world not of his choosing.

It’s a pleasure to write western historical fiction, combining elements of make-believe grounded by true events and setting. I invite you to drop by Amazon and read the first three pages. If you like what you read, the book is available there or on Kindle sometime in late May.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Becoming a Daughter

This is a piece I wrote while I was care-taking my mother-in-law. It's for all care-takers who need to remember to breathe.  

This isn’t about me. My mother-in-law was always quick to remind me of this in the sharp tone she used to mask her fear that I would pull my support, pack my “overnight” bag and leave her to die alone.
She is (name deleted)  the red-haired lady who dressed for the TV camera and took the mayor and his council to task whenever she saw the need. For some, she was the voice of conscience; for others, the proverbial thorn.
For the last year that she lived alone I was her caretaker, the significant other who signed her outpatient release and unlocked her front door when she returned home from rehab with a knitting hip and a nagging fear that the world had changed in her absence. Now she's living in a lovely assisted living home, grateful for her cheerful caretakers and the five frail women who share her life. 
We didn’t start off the best of friends. Forty-some years ago she bought a black dress for her son’s wedding and refused to invite anyone from her side of the family. Frankly, she wanted better for him and she was not shy about letting me know.
I was the in-law who never seemed to please, but who hung in there trying. Some of the fault was mine. I didn’t share her vision of matriarchy with me on the bottom rung. I was unfinished when I married her only child and I acquiesced until her grudging intolerance became a pattern for us both.
A Portuguese daughter of Azorean dairy farmers, she had worked hard to raise her social status and she saw me as a spoiler. In the 50s she opened a photography studio on Higuera Street, and operated it for two decades in three-inch heels and picture-perfect makeup. In the 60s she bought a prime piece of real estate on Wilding Lane and designed her Tudor-style house. Her castle.
Over the years the two of us formed a history. Jaunts to old inns and cafes helped diffuse our differences. She taught me nuances of style on shopping trips to Monterey, Fresno and Santa Barbara. I drove her to San Bernardino and back the same day, a 600-mile round trip so she could buy a Pekinese puppy to replace her beloved Booper. On the way we dropped $60 on brunch at the Sheraton and giggled while a white-jacketed waiter kept our champagne flutes filled.
 When a heart attack forced her to give up photography she became interested in city politics. At 85, she still drove herself to City Hall three days a week and attended meetings that lasted until 1:00 A.M.
But the years caught up with her. One morning she missed the last two steps of her stairway, tumbled and broke her femur. Two months later she was released from rehab with a walker, a commode—and me.
The days formed a comforting pattern. I made out her checks and she signed them. She scrutinized the grocery receipts, questioned the calls I received on her phone and tried to make things the way they had been. In the mornings I read to her from my novel-in-progress. I slowed my pace to match hers. We took afternoon tea with pound cake made of lemons from her backyard tree.
We acted in single accord, respectful of our limits, but it was not easy. Visiting nurses and physical therapists patted my arm and wrote covert notes encouraging me. They understood that my mother-in-law was difficult.
At the hospital I heard one of the nurses whisper, “She’s the daughter-in-law, not the daughter!” 
The first time it happened, I smiled. But I realized that her son needed to be at her side; he’d missed the best parts of his mother, the adventures, her joie de vivre. He didn’t understand the glue that cemented his mother and his wife like a feminine Odd Couple; two women who never liked each other very much until we came to recognize the depth of our love.
One night, when I washed her feet and painted her toenails with vermilion polish, I looked up to find tears. She would never think to thank me, but I saw in her eyes that she was touched. We are not that different, I thought. When I am old and alone I hope someone touches me like this.
Now she’s waiting to die and I miss her already. Maybe Thomas Wolfe is right; we can never go home again, but we can travel to a place we've never been. My mother-in-law was right, too. This isn’t about me

Anne Schroeder writes and speaks on healing relationship in her memoir, Ordinary Aphrodite.