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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Becoming a Daughter

Here's a reprint from an essay I wrote about my mother-in-law. It was published in the Tolosa Press. I want to share it with all the women who are going through similar experiences. My mother-in-law passed away in the most healing manner, clutching her rosary. It feels good to know that the journey of small steps ended with dignity and healing for both of us

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 Marybeth Schroeder, 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-one 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 Schroeder’s Photography, on Higuera Street, in San Luis Obispo, CA, 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

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sisterhood of the Traveling Scribes

My Sidney friend reading Ordinary Aphrodite
I’ve heard stories about traveling buddies—they’re like the Three Bears: some are too demanding, some are too wishy-washy, and once in a while, one is Just Right.

That’s what happened when my writer friend Arletta and I paired up for an unstructured trip to Seattle and Vancouver Island a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to learn travel methods that involve quirky detours and unplanned sojourns to land’s end.

A view of the Olympic Peninsula 
We were clear on our goals—we wanted to take a road trip to the Northwest to research our novels, write for long periods in our motel rooms, and see lots of museums and local spots along the way.

We wanted to start as friends and end up as better friends. And that’s exactly what happened. After thirteen days on the road I feel qualified to write a few words. I can’t really call this advice.
Call it Observations on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Scribes.

       1. Lay out ground rules in e-mails until you both agree—starting and ending dates, expense
        sharing and expectations, anything that would be awkward to discuss absolutely should be!

  1. Assess expertise. Like Click and Clack, the Tappitt Brothers on NPR, we brought different skills to our adventure. Arletta’s a whiz at city driving. I’m great with long distances. She’s OCD (her words, not mine) about researching sights along the way. She can find travel consultants in Canada that book amazing B&B’s like the Gatsby Mansion cheaper than on-line.
  1. Be adventurous. In my experience, freeway off-ramps hide creatures from the dark lagoon, luring the unwary traveler to her death. For Arletta, these same off-ramps are paths to adventure. We found ourselves quite happily lost a number of times on our way to glass museums, walking bridges, German colonies, artists hide-aways and short cuts on country roads. But her cool confidence was contagious.
  1. Make sure one of you reads maps. Arletta was intrepid with her extensive collection of maps, with each anticipated town circled. We had a GPS, but where’s the adventure in THAT? She enjoyed estimating mileage using the one-inch legend at the bottom of the page. Weird!
  1. Pack for the weather. We were blessed with fine, clear weather, probably the longest streak Seattle had all year. Rain boots, coats and hats stayed in the trunk and we could have made it fine in sandals, but, get real! We watch those Northwest weather reports and for California girls, Seattle means rain. 
  1. Check compatibility variants. We are both Virgos, both former social workers, both writers and white-haired grandmothers. On the ferry from Port Angeles to Vancouver, the customs form we had to fill out made us look like Irish twins. There it was in black and white—our birthdates—month, day and year—with almost every number the same. It was for me an incredible bonding moment—like running into someone in Paris from your hometown high school and realizing you both like horsemeat pot roast with frites.
  1. Be playful. We egged each other into doing things neither of us would ordinarily do. The third Embassy Suite cocktail comes to mind, or twenty-five cent BBQ wing night at a rowdy sports bar with a trivia contest where we acquitted ourselves nicely. (I won a contested point for our team by threatening our talents in a Karaoke medley of Neil Sedaka tunes.) We got the point. Baby bats are called “pups”. My wild guess was “dogs”, but coming so close was a sign, in my opinion, that we deserved the point.
  2. Going “Dutch” means half of everything. Meal tips, maids' tips, hostess gifts, everything. We divvied up on the spot so we had no convenient “forgetting.”
  1. Concede to the most bargain-conscious. Arletta could speed-read highway gas signs on the Interstate. She chose the fill-up spots and the hotels. We did Continental breakfasts, ate one meal out and supplemented  with PB&J. It worked for me.
  1. What happens on the road stays on the road. If we had had a gripe, we would have settled it there. Sharing common values—like minimal chatting in the motel, focusing on the positive, and being ready for whatever--allowed us to see more, write more and create memories that will stay with us always.
Me with my LAURA Award
I arrived home last night exhilarated and refreshed, with not a single regret. I'd pack up and leave tomorrow if my travel partner was ready, but she's still out on the road. Read Arletta’s version of the trip on her blog for details. She's the facts gal. I'm the feelings gal.  
I won a LAURA Award for short fiction. And what a surprise--when I returned home I found my essay at Women’s Memoirs blogsite. Life's not always about winning, but it's nice when it happens.

Now on to the next part of the journey.

Got any pointers for a great road trip? Any horror stories? Come on, ’fess-up.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Last night I:
  • Licked the last bite of Cheesecake Mousse Surprise from my Saturday night banquet spoon. 
  • Gave a standing ovation to the keynote speaker, Ellen Waterston, for a talk/read with a degree of creative talent I only dream of. 
  • Won a LAURA Short Story Award and had my photo taken with other winners. 
  • Ogled the WILLA trophy I hope to win when my first novel is published.

I’m engaging in the post-conference high-five. The last night of the conference is the time when anything seems possible. For just a moment a writer is allowed the luxury of forgetting that publication is a process, not an event. When getting a juicy, six-figure book contract feels like it’s only a submission away, thanks to the nice agent I sat across from at an interview table. I feel like I’ve just grabbed a golden ring, even if I’ve never ridden a carousel with such a ring, even if it’s a cheesy metaphor even if I had.

For three days I worked the room in high heels and a smile. (Clothed. Bare-naked is a gambit that would work in reverse--promise.) Had a surprising heart-to-heart with an agent while everyone else was in a workshop. Had three agents request submission chapters and synopses. Shared moments of connection with agents and publishers who were feeling warm and fuzzy, too, because they’re human, and they’re looking for the next breakout novel--and they hope as much as I do that it’s me.

This morning, as I pulled my suitcase out of the closet and unpacked my bureau, I felt vaguely sad. But last last night the bartender started making my signature drink before I ordered it, a sign that it’s time to leave.

Time, also, because I’m starting to weigh the costs of my trip for my family, three of whom had birthdays this weekend. Bad, bad person! I missed my daughter’s, son’s and husband’s B-Days in a single swipe. Tough Luck, I thought when I scheduled the trip. Now remorse has set in. Worse, the phone call that my mother went into the hospital while I was gone. Nothing serious. My sister and niece are with her.

Everything serves to remind me that my advancement comes at a personal cost. No one's doubting the importance of the Women Writing the West Conference. I received an award. I put my name up for a national office next year. I met a publicist and maybe my next publisher.

So when I get home, happy and committed, I’ll send out submissions and thank-you’s. I’ll start rewriting with purpose. My next few months will have enormous focus. The friendships I made and reconnected with are my “tribe”. They are women who can advance my career, my joy and my self-image, (and I, theirs.) The surprise of the conference was something I didn’t see coming, a chat with a young woman that will change both of our lives.

No regrets for the PB&J Girls as my friend Arletta and I start home. Coming off a writer’s conference is like jumping in the car after a family reunion where, for a few miles, everyone laughs about Uncle Ralph’s corny jokes or Grandma’s lumpy gravy—or maybe the connection we made with a shy cousin in the hallway when we both started to share our hearts.

So I’ll get my husband a great gift and take him to dinner in a few days. But, sorry, honey. We're taking the ferry to Victoria tomorrow morning. Gotta discover Emily Carr. Like we found the Panama Hotel in Seattle, of THE HOTEL AT THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET fame. See ya!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reinventing Myself (Again)

I now understand why agents can't represent a book they don't absolutely love. a year ago, I was convinced that my memoir, ORDINARY APHRODITE, was just an egotistical rant. I was embarrassed about my disclosures and I lost faith in my ability to discern between writing for the Universal "us" and just letting it all hang out. But something changed. G___, a member of my writer's group, approached me at a meeting and told me that the book had saved her marriage. She was the eighth woman to tell me the same thing, and I realized I needed to honor my vision.

Something I've noticed about aging--we spend a lot of time worrying about the body, but not so much on the rest. My nerves are affected by mysterious tidal surges, or the waxing and waning of the moon--some inexplicable natural force I can't pinpoint. I work myself up, only to let myself sink into complacency (at best) or lethargy (at worst.) Keeping myself on an "even keel" involves a mind-over-matter approach with thyroid supplements, exercise and good-old positive thinking.

Part of my strategy involves being proactive. Good Stuff In, Good Stuff Out. I attended the Central Coast Writers' Conference and heard Anne Allen speak about social marketing. And the moon and the tides aligned.

With a rebirth of confidence, I started talking up my book. I put a copy in my purse and I've sold it several times now. I've mailed out copies to women I met through social blogging sites I comment on. Sold a copy to the clerk at the drugstore, and another to a woman in Coco's while I was waiting to meet my sister and mother for lunch. More to women at the Pioneer Day tea I attended. While I was there, I jotted down e-mail addresses from women I had lost touch with.

Suddenly everything is fun again. I can see possibility instead of excuses. It's a new day! I'm getting more postcards printed, this time with info about OA's availability on Kindle and Nook. I put several display copies in waiting rooms--my doctors, my tire shop, my beauty shop, with contact info printed inside.

The Holiday Craft Fair Season is upon us. I'm having Staples print a poster of the breath-taking comments that readers made about OA. My tire store gave me a great display holder and I'll use that when I sell at the Octoberfest in Los Osos and the Twin Cities Craft Fair at the end of October. I'm loaded for bear, Baby!

My goals are to 1) increase my contact list for my next release and to 2) decrease my stack of book boxes in the garage by ten by Christmas. That's a reasonable goal. I'm building my network in hopes of finding a publisher for my next book, but I'm also having fun with the one that's already out.

Okay, so I sound like Queen of the Boast. Trouble is, I haven't found any way to energize myself without the collateral damage spilling out onto the world. Life is good. My unleashed energy is having unexpected results in (ahem) other areas of my life, as well. After all, self-esteem is self-esteem. When is life ever better than when we are living our passion, our life's purpose? I tend to go off on rampages when I believe in something. And guess what--this time I believe in ME!     

How about you? Is your  confidence rebounding (or lagging)? What are you doing about it?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Paying Peter

My heart is racing. My hands are steady. I’m READY!  It's the first of the month and my packet of bills are ready to pay. I might have said, “ready to mail,” but I went paperless two months ago. I’m probably the last person to go electronic, but I actually felt bad for the USPS and I wanted to do my share.

In our household, I do. Growing up, my mother kept the farm books, and that included the bills. My mother-in-law owned a business, so my husband was totally up with the idea. Actually, his specialty is long-range planning and his sub-specialty is delegating, so it works for him.  

In the early days, some of my girl friends' husbands acted like I was uppity. Usurping my male’s masculinity, and all that. But now, a lot of the wives have changed their minds. Some are divorced. Some couples take turns. Some split their bills right down the middle. One pays electric, telephone and garbage; the other pays television, insurance and phone. Dutch treat for date night.

Being responsible for myself is something I took away from an assertiveness class in the ’70s. I entered the room and took a seat along with five other women, each in their late fifties or early sixties, about the age I am today. But I was thirty-two back then. I saw a room filled with overweight old women and I thought I had entered the wrong door. The arrogance of my over-educated ego kicked in. As a college graduate I was embarrassed to be sitting next to these “career housewives,” admitting by association that I didn’t have all the answers. After all, isn’t my baby boomer generation heir to the kingdom?

But when they started to talk, I shut up and took notes.

What I remember about those divorced women is that they shared a collective unaccountability for their finances. Many didn’t know their exes’ Social Security number. Some were still reeling from IRS liens on tax returns filed by their husbands that they hadn’t read or understood. Some didn’t even remember signing the document that nailed them as co-conspirator in a tax-fraud scheme.

Later, I took an H&R Block tax course and worked for two seasons as a tax preparer. It helps to understand the way the tax system works (or doesn’t. I’d love to see a flat tax.) Before we send it out, I stick our tax return in front of my husband and give him a line-by-line review.   

According to experts, on-time bill paying is a great way to hang on to your earnings. Another is having on-line banking ability to track your balance. It keeps you out of those check-cashing store fronts. Like Grandpa used to say, “Pennies make dollars.”

 In the process of writing my first memoir about my grandparents and our farm heritage, I found their bank statements from the ’40s and ’50s. Nestled inside skinny little brown envelopes, each statement contained six or seven cancelled checks made out to the grocery store for $5.63, J.C. Penneys for $3.20, or a seed company. Even in the 50s, their monthly outlay was tight, with no excess or frivolity. I noticed that Grandma signed the checks.

Prying into someone else’s life changed me. I wanted to be more like them and less like I was, a spontaneous shopper with lots of shoes in my closet. In my memoir, I wrote about them and included the part about the checks to honor their frugality. I’m proud to say that the lesson took (well, sort of.)

Thanks, Grandma. And thanks, Marian, Claire, Rose, the ladies in the assertiveness workshop who showed me that financial savvy isn’t a man’s responsibility.

To be honest, None of them had the temptations that we do, today. But we work with what we have and we do the best we can. So it’s the first of the month and I’m going to try to pay Peter without robbing Paul. And, if I’m honest, I’ll make a promise to do better next month.

How are you about paying bills? Hate it? Love it? Avoid it?

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