Contemplating what exactly life will look like after the passing of a close family member is a bit like staring at one of those thousand piece jigsaw puzzles. You know you’ve got to start somewhere, but all you want to do is close up the box, put it back on the shelf and go do something mindless, like watch bad TV.
But you can’t.
So, after the hugs and the hearty bowls of chicken paprika, my family and I started with just one puzzle piece – my dad’s briefcase.
This wasn’t one of those fancy attache numbers. It was a simple, leather case that had been bought probably around 1971 and contained the precious knick-knacks of a long, complex life. One filled with gold and bronze medals of accomplishment, dozens of pairs of Mad Men-era cuff links – gold initials in wide font, giant topaz ovals, classic onyx rectangles – all left-over from a time when professional men wore French cuffs almost every single day of their lives. And oh, the tie pins: a golf club, an American flag, a jumbo jet from when flying was glamorous. Twenty or so stamps hand-picked for a collection that never quite got off the ground. Certificates of authenticity, letters of thanks, and tiny tokens from a medical practice that spanned more than six decades – a pocket watch, a plaque, a silver pen with an inscription that read simply, “Doc.”
A collection of treasures unmistakably from a certain time, but also from a certain place. In both tone and style, my dad’s personal effects were decidedly Midwestern. In other words, lacking irony, restraint, snobbery and chic. Brimming over with the pride of having made it, and the humility of knowing that it could all be taken away any moment.
My dad came to Chicago from Europe on the heels of the Second World War. Like many immigrants, he came without a penny to his name and actually slept on a park bench and ate at soup kitchens for weeks before he got his first paycheck.
“Can you imagine?” he once told me. “By day I was performing surgeries at a big hospital. People saying ‘yes, doctor, no, doctor,’ and at night, I lived like a bum. But I liked the fresh air and you know, you do what you have to do.”
I really did think I was prepared for my dad’s passing. Not just for the void it would leave in my life, the closing of a chapter, but also the changes his death would visit upon my family. My mom will be moving in with us as soon as she’s able to tie up loose ends. She’ll be leaving the town outside of Chicago where I grew up, where she landed as a Czech immigrant in 1968. And she’ll be making her home in a semi-rural crossroads just outside of a college town in Virginia. That’s quite a change. And I want to help her through it without big-footing her and pushing her to do things she’s not ready for. Like taking a yoga class or making a friend.
I do know something about grief. That we think we’re fine and end up acting out of character – forgetting entire conversations, spacing out people we’ve met a half dozen times, missing appointments. Grief makes you revisit the past and thrusts you into the future all at the same time. It’s discombobulating, scary and oddly exhilarating. Missing pieces of your own puzzle turn up in places you never expected – a song you never particularly liked, a friend you’ve long since let slip away, a picture from a family vacation you can’t even recall.
With the loss of my dad, I have quite suddenly been hit with the fact that I will be losing my strongest tether to the Midwest, a region which I’ve come to realize has shaped me as much as my family culture, my ethnicity, my gender, my friends, and even my spouse and children.
It’s why I’ll talk up anyone in any old grocery line, tell them I like their hair and ask them about what they did over the weekend. Why – no matter how busy I am – I still feel a little weird about having someone else clean my house. Even if they only do it every couple of weeks. Even if I love it. My Midwestern upbringing is why I just can’t bring myself to get all that excited about the Ivy League. I’m not knocking it, I’ve just known too many immigrants, self-starters and non-academic intellectuals to place too much stock in rarefied institutions. And it’s why my European friends have always told me that I don’t seem American. I’ve tried to explain to them that it is less because I’m a European’s kid than I am a heartland girl. Europeans mostly know American media and television shows, and those come from the coasts. People from the heartland are an entirely different animal.
In the scant few days my husband, children and I spent helping my mother make the initial transition from wife to widow, the patently uncool charm of my birthplace felt pure and comforting. It was a warm towel fresh out of the dryer.
I loved being waited on at the Nordstrom cosmetics counter by a young, balding woman with a skin disease, and that it didn’t seem in the least bit odd. And being greeted at the hostess desk at a swanky restaurant by two retired women instead of the usual hip, nubile young things that smile and ask you to follow their shapely derrieres to your table. I loved demonstrating to my baffled children that I know how to bowl. My High School still has a bowling team for Pete’s sake. I loved that guys – young or old – would never miss the opportunity to hold the door open for me, give me their seat.
And I love that my dad was crazy about gangster movies, but when I gave him a boxed set of The Sopranos a few years ago, he threw every one of the DVDs in the trash.
“It’s where they belong,” he said.
My dad was a cultured man who spoke five languages, had an M.D. and a PhD, knew classical literature and classical music and certainly knew good content, but he just couldn’t appreciate what he called “filth masquerading as art.”
That is a solidly Midwestern trait.
But don’t let it fool you.
Heartlanders love dirty jokes and knocking back a few drinks. The Playboy empire was started in Chicago, after all, before migrating to the West Coast. My dad himself married a vivacious woman more than twenty years his junior, even if she did tell his friends that she was a good five years older than she actually was.
And for all of its chivalry and down to earth warmth, many Midwesterners are horrible, aggressive drivers. Especially Chicagoans. They speed, zip in and out of lanes, fly through yellow lights at the last minute, cut you off with a fist in the air and a string of curses they’d rarely employ anywhere but inside their automobiles.
Even after twenty years of living with and loving me, my husband still can’t stand my driving.
And as we pulled away from my mom’s townhouse at the end of the week – merely slowing down at the stop sign at the end of her street, then pulling out right in front of another minivan, forcing that driver to hit his breaks – there was that wistful feeling of satisfaction, a woebegone sense of fulfillment that a portion of that enormous puzzle of grief had been laid. The heartland piece.
Only about eight-hundred and fifty more to go.
I discovered a whole bunch of “pending” comments from bygone posts the other day. I don’t know why they weren’t brought to my attention via email as they usually are, but somehow they fell through the cracks. A few were from a really long time ago and my heart just sank at the thought of my never having replied.
I try to reply to every reader who leaves a comment – even if it’s just to say thank you. Writing is a solitary business, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I feel a tremendous sense of intimacy with the people who read this blog – especially those who comment regularly. Given that I tend write about pretty big topics – love, faith, death, etc., there is an implied trust that’s very special to me.
But it’s about so much more than simply saying thanks for reading. The comments I tend to get can be terribly intimate in nature, and sound much more like secrets from a close friend, a confidant. Some of my reader’s stories have made me gasp, my heart skip a beat.
I’ve had a mother write to me about the child she lost in childbirth – the utter devastation of that event made bearable by crazy moments of levity. Like when her family broke into her hospital room at 3:00 am and an impromptu party ensued. Yes, even after the death of an infant. Sometimes our best times are during our worst, and I like to celebrate that on COLD.
Readers tell me about the haunted house they live in, and the way the spirits whisper for them not to be afraid. It is such a privilege to be privy to a virtual stranger’s greatest fears, heartbreaks, most gushing stories of romance, confused tears, anger, yearning, loneliness. Private, beautiful stories that honor the special relationship between a writer and her readers. That transcend the page. It is the most fulfilling part of doing what I do, and it means a lot to me that so many of you are willing to share with me parts of your own journeys.
Taking to heart that writing is less about the stories we tell than it is about how we make people feel when they’re reading them, I do my best to make Cold a place where I think before I speak, which my friends will tell you is not always my inclination.
I guess that’s the nature of the beast.
Most of us writers strive to be better on paper than we actually are, often in hopes of becoming more of that person who lurks within us, and is a very large part of us, but lives in sweet perfection only on the page. Writers are like preachers that way.
And this wife, mother, writer, friend, and preacher of magic, I hope, is enormously grateful to any and all of you who stop by here. The gift of your time is nearly as great as the gift of your confidence.
And since I’m saying thanks, I owe huge debt of it to WordPress and WordPress editor Cheri Lucas Rowlands for selecting Cold as a recommended blog in the “Writing and Blogging” category as well. Out of the fifty million blogs you host, it’s a huge honor to be one of the few you single out. Especially since Cold is in such great company with blogs like Writing Through the Fog, Strong Language, Chicago Literati, Kristin Lamb’s Blog, Drinkers with Writing Problems and a couple of dozen more great blogs that I urge readers to check out here: https://wordpress.com/recommendations/
WordPress offers a wonderful tapestry of meaning, humor, sincerity, beauty, irony and imagination. I’m happy I made it my home.
Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate and just happiness to those of you who don’t. Until next time…
My husband was driving our seven year-old home from school this past week and she rolled down her window, sticking her head out like a dog. Spring has come late this year and it was a glorious day. She was giggling and putting her hands up, lost in abandon.
“I love the wind,” she exclaimed. “It blows you away to a wonderland city.”
Sometimes her innate sense of poetry just makes me ache.
This is a child who slithers around the house in a mermaid tail. Talks to herself in a variety of characters and voices. She must be pried out of her fantasy world for dinner, to make the bus, to get dressed, brush her teeth or pay attention in school.
I can’t blame her. When I was a student my own fantasy world was far richer and more absorbing than learning long division and my math grades reflected that. Sadly, so do hers.
Our ten year-old is no less dreamy, even if a hot competitive streak does tend to keep her more engaged in school and extracurriculars. She writes stories and songs, loves drama class, paints portraits, makes “art” movies that include long pauses, sparse dialogue and heavy doses of ennui, and has great comedic timing, which she puts on full display at her elementary school talent show every year. Unlike her younger sister, she is nearly a straight A student.
I say nearly.
Now let me share with you a conversation I had with her a few weeks ago:
Me: “We need to look up what course levels you were placed in for Middle School.”
Her: “Why? It doesn’t matter.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Her: “I’m not smart.”
Her: “I’m in the average math group and I get mostly Bs on my math tests.”
Me: “OK, so math is not your strong suit, but it wasn’t mine either. Or you dad’s. Doesn’t make us idiots. I mean, I dunno, I think we’ve done ok.”
Her: “Yeah, but you’re writers. Nobody cares about writing anymore, mom. Or anything else. It’s only math. If you’re not great at math or into science, you’re dumb. That’s the way it is now.”
I guess we could have run out and gotten her a math tutor, pumping up her grade to an A and possibly qualifying her for the “Honors” math she would need to ace in order to get into the more competitive schools later on. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is where it’s at as far as our current educational industrial complex is concerned.
But we didn’t do that.
It’s not because we didn’t want to invest the money or the time in order to give our daughter every possible advantage. Our monthly output for enrichment activities alone is like a mortgage payment. When push came to shove, our decision not to press our rising middle schooler harder was actually quite practical.
Math is simply not her strength.
If she was getting a poor grade, then certainly we would do something about it – but a B+?
Already, she’s gotten the impression that any career outside of STEM is risky, unwise and unneeded. My husband and I have kibitzed ad nauseum with each other and fellow parents about our children being under far more academic pressure than we ever were – and at a much earlier age. So, finally, we decided to put actions behind our objections and resist reinforcing the pressure at home.
Don’t get me wrong, going against this massive tide is exhausting and feels self-defeating at times – and we’re just at the beginning stages. The compulsion to help our kids achieve, achieve and achieve is great. We’ve gone back and forth about how to approach our children’s respective educations and by no means do we claim to have the right answers.
In our case, we just felt that if we sang along with the STEM chorus, my husband and I might be playing a role in pushing our daughter into a career where she might do fine but never truly shine or feel the level of satisfaction that we feel everyday when we sit down at our desks. A belief that we’re doing what we’re best at, what we are meant to do, has nurtured a zeal for our work that has helped us remain faithful during economic downturns. It has enabled us to shake off disappointments and defeats that might have prompted others to throw in the towel.
As we looked soberly at our daughter, it occurred to us that her energy might be better spent on becoming great at the subjects she excels at and loves rather than merely good at the courses that feel like a dentist appointment to her.
Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have a damn thing against STEM. Our son, our eldest, fits like a glove into this STEM oriented system. This is a kid who orders owl pellets off Amazon at his own expense and dissects them for fun, plucking out the animal bones and reconstructing a full skeleton of the varmint the owl had for supper.
More power to him!
And we’re well aware that historically, girls have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to STEM.
But a lot of that has changed dramatically over the past generation. Several of our daughter’s close girlfriends are tracking into STEM, so I doubt she’s lagging in the subject because of gender bias at school.
Math just doesn’t appear to be where either of our girls’ heads are at, or their passions for that matter. And we would no sooner push them to marry a man they don’t love because he seems like a “good provider,” than we would try to force them into disciplines or careers that feel closer to tasks than callings.
Life is too short and professions require too many hours for that.
And if our girls’ interests change – fantastic! We’ll switch up their summer schedules to include Calculus Camp in place of the art camp they beg us to enroll them in year after year. We’ll break out the dusty chemistry sets they got from my dad for Christmas a couple of years ago and let them blow up the kitchen. We’ll even rip down their posters of the Eiffel Tower and Ariana Grande and replace them with ones of MIT and Stephen Hawking.
Until then, we’re ok if they prefer wearing mermaid tails in wonderland city to white coats in laboratories. HG Wells, after all, inspired generations of scientists and inventors with just a pen and an imagination.
And maybe math wasn’t his strong suit either.
I’m so excited because this week my first novel, The Bone Church, will be featured at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’ll get to schmooze with readers and fellow thriller authors, go to receptions and fancy brunches, and do all the things that I don’t often do because I’m usually at home using all manner of Voodoo to conjure ideas for my stories. Or I’m wiping noses, cooking dinners and chaperoning field trips.
Not complaining here. It’s a great life.
But I’m especially over the moon because I get to be part of a panel discussing Murder in Another Time and Place. For a girl like me, murder (especially murder in a foreign locale) is like the Beatles. It’s like Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s, it’s…well, you get the picture. I get all beside myself.
I love cold-blooded killings, crimes of passion, politically motivated assassinations, ritualized serial murders – even an accidental death will do if it’s done right. And I love the world of fog and shadows, foreign cigarettes, trench coats and hidden agendas. I’m a sucker for a man with a thick and creepy Eastern European accent and rumpled clothes. I live for long train rides where the first class compartments smell of cognac, fine tobacco and a hint of sex. Bad women are a particular favorite.
And my fellow panelists include some of my favorite thriller writers: Diane Fanning (“Scandal in the Secret City”), Joe Kanon (“Leaving Berlin”) and Sarah Kennedy (“City of Ladies”). I’m honored. They’re award winners and historical experts and probably really fun people to boot. People who write entire books on all manner of psycho murderers in all kinds of times and places tend be a good time, believe it or not.
So, if you plan to attend the Virginia Festival of the Book, or you’re within shouting distance and are saying to yourself, “Hey, I love my books bloody,” then please come by the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville on Saturday, March 21st at 4:00 pm. You’ll get to hear great stories and ask questions and meet interesting folks who share your love of death, history and arm-chair travel. And there are some terrific bars and restaurants in downtown Charlottesville, so you can step out of one good time and go right into another.
And if you do drop by, don’t forget to introduce yourself. I love to meet Cold readers. Truly, I wish I could have coffee with every single one of you.
(Oh, and here’s the link) http://vabook.org/program/crime-wave-murder-from-another-time-and-place/
And just to beat a dead dame, here’s my Facebook invite, too: https://www.facebook.com/events/632393510225153/
She was watching an early video of Michael Jackson’s – “Blame It on the Boogie” – and I couldn’t help but notice her face. Her eyes were wide and focused, her lips in an open-mouthed smile.
She was beaming.
Her delight was contagious, so I decided to live a little. I dumped my mail into a pile at my feet and went to sit beside her. We watched “Blame It on the Boogie” three times, then “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You.” Over and over. I showed her “Beat It” and “Thriller,” then “Billie Jean,” but it was when we moved past the “Thriller” album – onto “HIStory,” “Bad” and “Dangerous” – that her interest waned. Not entirely, but it was clear her attention had gone from rapturous to merely entertained. She’d lost that look of unbridled joy that had drawn me to her side in the first place.
And I’d lost it, too, even if I was still a little hungry for the shot of bliss Jackson’s early videos had given me. It was the pop culture equivalent of a hangover – the kind of bluesy, reflective state that washes over you after watching Judy Garland in the “Wizard of Oz” and thinking, What the hell happened?
In “Boogie” there was a sense of wonder. Jackson moved with an easy grace and basked in his performance. There was a give and take with the audience that flowed like a perfect kiss. All sweet and tender but on fire at the same time.
His dancing was raw, almost childlike. And although he was on stage with his talented brothers, he was the only one you wanted to watch. As I sat writing this post, I had to call it back up on my screen, then get up and dance. I couldn’t help myself.
Fast forward to “Bad,” which was good, but forced, over-choreographed and detached. Jackson had wind machines blowing at him and sported a quasi-military outfit that jingled like a charm bracelet. His face, so handsome, had already begun its transformation – looking chiseled and waxy.
Everything about him seemed to say “go away.”
My daughter’s interest was piqued again when I showed her pictures of Jackson’s metamorphosis. Yet I found myself at a loss when it came to explaining to her why it happened. To talk about childhood trauma, or the trappings of fame, or the loneliness that some very talented people feel seemed trite. I didn’t know Michael Jackson, after all, and it felt silly to try and psychoanalyze him.
But as usual, she bested me.
“Frankenstein,” she said. She was looking at a picture of Jackson at his worst – towards the end of his life.
Frankenstein is a big theme for her. She loves the original 1933 black and white film as much as the 1974 Mel Brooks parody.
I’ve always thought it’s because she, herself, has so many scars – from the many surgeries she had to endure at birth, to the fact that no one could hold her until she was several weeks old and could actually tolerate the pain of being moved and cuddled. Whatever the case, she feels a kinship with Mary Shelley’s dark protagonist, and was able to make the connection between the fictional character and the very real Michael Jackson.
And as I looked at the pictures of Jackson that spanned from his youth in the Jackson 5 to his beyond the stratosphere fame, I felt the urge to hunt down a quote from Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel – one that I could only remember in vague terms, but I knew it would fit.
“I was dependent on none and related to none. The path of my departure was free, and there was none to lament my annihilation. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.” – the Monster.
I want to welcome back two of my favorite broads in the author community – Hunter S. Jones and Jennifer Theriot. Actually, Jennifer’s never been on Cold, so howdy, Jennifer and welcome! Pour yourself a beer or a whiskey and get comfortable. We’re pretty casual here.
Now, if you read this blog, you know I don’t spotlight authors very much. Not because I don’t love authors – I do. It’s mostly because I’m usually so busy musing about depressing Eastern European capitals, crazy Slavs and questionable habits like smoking, drinking and writing about smoking and drinking, that I don’t get around to it.
But I’m getting around to it today, because I love these two ladies. They satisfy all three of the criteria I require to feature them on my weird, little blog.
1. They’re fun
2. They’re not jerks
3. They write quirky, original stories
What more could you ask for?
Well, actually, there is one more thing…They’ve got a new book out! It’s called “Fortune Brawling,” and it’s book two of The Fortune Series, which chronicles the adventures of Dallas Fortune, a lady musician who’s trying to make her way in the honky-tonk eat honky-tonk world of Nashville.
When we last left Dallas Fortune, she’d been put through the ringer – having almost become a star, having almost had a happily ever after with a man she’d loved for twenty years. But an accident sent her into a tailspin, and led her to seek out a handsome fortune-teller. “Fortune Calling,” was a fun novella that whet our appetites for the ups and downs in the life of a good-hearted, good-timing and often self-destructive country music aspirant.
When we next encounter Dallas in “Fortune Brawling,” we get two guitars, two wild women, and one crazy honky tonking night in Georgia. The Ace is high and the Joker is always wild.
When Texas meets Tennessee the end result spells T.R.O.U.B.L.E.
And country musician Dallas Fortune in a tight spot. Guitar God, Billie Joe McAllister, has betrayed her once again. As if by magic, her BFF from Ft. Worth Texas, guitarist Jodie Marie Jennings, drives all night to come to her aid in a time of need. What happens at Bud’s honky tonk in Trenton, Georgia should stay at Bud’s, but it doesn’t. What went wrong? Who gets in trouble and who gets revenge? Who are JD Fowler and Tom Vanderfleet? What does the best fairy godmother in Country Music history do to save the day this time around? These questions and more secrets are revealed in this adventurous, light hearted and fun contemporary novelette.
Guitars. Hillbilly Music. Nashville, Tennessee.
It’s a quick read and a helluva time. Don’t miss it.
HUNTER S. JONES
Writer. Author of the international best sellers, SEPTEMBER ENDS and FORTUNE CALLING. She has lived in Tennessee and Georgia her entire life, except for one ‘Lost Summer’ spent in Los Angeles. Currently, she lives with her husband and books in Midtown Atlanta, GA. She has a B.A. in History and English Lit, and an advanced degree from the University of Notre Dame. 2015 will find her writing Historical Fiction as Hunter Cookston. Her favorite color is red, and her favorite foods are hot peppers, apples and sushi.
Jennifer Theriot hails from the Great State of Texas. She is a career woman, working as CFO of a Texas based real estate investment firm by day and does her writing at nights and on weekends. In her limited spare time, Jennifer enjoys being outdoors; preferably somewhere on a beach curled up with a good book. Spending time with family and friends, listening to music, watching a baseball game and enjoying a good bottle of wine are usually on her to-do lists. She’s mom to three grown children and ‘MiMi’ to three grandkids – all of whom she adores!
Her best-selling Out of the Box Series, OUT OF THE BOX AWAKENING, OUT OF THE BOX REGIFTED and TOCCATA OBBLIGATO~SERENADING KYRA are currently available on Amazon.com . The final in the Out of the Box series, OUT OF THE BOX EVERLASTING will be released in 2015.