Serial Fiction: Grandma’s Masks

Grandma’s Masks
Installment 4

As I promised in my post of Feb 4th, here’s another installment of my book-in-progress, Grandma’s Masks. If you missed the previous installment on February 20th, click here to read it. Or click the Serial Fiction tab to read all the previous posts of Grandma’s Masks.

Flea
How to Stop an Itch

Long ago, or maybe only yesterday, there was a young girl who didn’t belong where she was born. She did not look like anyone in her family, or even in her town. They had blue eyes or green eyes, but no one else had dark eyes the color of mink, like she did. They had smooth pink and white skins, but her skin was a freckled goldy-brown. Their noses were short and broad, but hers was narrow and crooked. Their fingers were wide and stubby, as were their toes, but hers were long and thin. Their hair was brown and straight as plank boards, but her burnt orange locks grew in curls that were painful to comb in the mornings. In short, everyone else was beautiful, and she was not.

She asked her mother and her father and her brothers and her sisters and her friends and her neighbors, and even the people she hardly knew at all – “Where are the people who look like me?” But all they said were things like, “Huh? I don’t know, don’t bother me,” or “Why do you have to worry about things like that?” And sometimes they even said, “You look the same as the rest of us.” Which she knew was a lie. She had spent many hours looking in her hand-mirror, searching for resemblances. But she never found any. Not one.

So one day she left her family and her town, and set off to find the people who looked like her. As she traveled, she asked everyone she met, “Where can I find the people who look like me?” But she got no answers.

This became quite discouraging after awhile, and although she was an independent girl who didn’t like to ask for help, one day as she was traveling between one village and another she suddenly stopped in the middle of the dusty, empty road and raised her arms in supplication to the sky. “Gods!” she called, although she was not at all sure there were any, “If you are there, please send me someone who knows where the people who look like me are.” She closed her eyes and waited.

The girl had heard the old stories about wizards wielding rune-encrusted wands, witches and wise women selling charms by the side of the road, fairies who lived inside tree trunks, djinnis who appeared in puffs of smoke, and other magical beings who seemed to enjoy granting wishes and favors. Sometimes they charged quite a high price for their services, but at this point the girl was so frustrated she felt she would pay nearly anything.

She opened her eyes, but no wizard, witch, fairy or djinn appeared to be walking down the road toward her. It was just as dusty and empty as before. “Well, I didn’t really believe it anyway,” thought the girl. “I knew it would turn out to be another lie.”

Just then she felt a small ping! of pain on her hand, as if something had bitten her. She looked at her hand and saw a tiny red dot. Her hand began to itch. Then another ping! on her upper arm, inside her sleeve. Her arm began to itch. A ping! on her shoulder, then at the base of her neck, followed by more itching. Something was biting her; hopping and biting its way up her body. Ping! on her earlobe. Ping! on the side of one nostril. Finally she felt the ping! on her forehead, right between her eyebrows. Her whole head was one giant itch.

She took her hand-mirror out of her pocket and held it in front of her face, searching for the bug that was biting her. She saw that she had a tiny drop of red blood on her ear lobe and another on her nostril, as if she were wearing ruby studs. Between her eyebrows was a much larger drop of ruby red blood, and nestling in the center of this drop was a flea. The flea was combing its hairy feelers while taking leisurely sips of blood.

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Be sure to catch the next installment of Grandma’s Masks, coming next Wednesday March 6th, when you can read more of Flea’s story. And please leave comments and tell me what you think so far!

Ghostwriting for a Dog: The Happy Smell

Goody Beagle here. What do you do when you feel that your life is going excellently well?

I have a suggestion. Go to a room where there is a cushiony rug that smells like a happy dog, and roll around on it until you have rubbed even more happiness into it. Even if your human brings the evil smell-destroying vacuum into this room and tries to eliminate the happy smell, she will not be able to do it.

If you want to stay away from the vet, I recommend that you do this at least once a day.

(PS – If you enjoy reading my posts about my fascinating beagly life, my human and I will be gathering the very best ones, expanding them a little, and making a book out of them! Check out some of my earlier posts by clicking the tab above called “Ghostwriting for a Dog” – and I’ll be writing more every other Monday here on this blog, so come back. Plus you could hop over to Amazon.com and buy my book that my human and I wrote in 2008, Dog Park Diary – it proves what a good writer I am.)

Haiku Friday: Money

Here is my haiku for today, on the topic of “Money”

money slips away
take your eyes off it, and poof!
like it never was

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

Serial Fiction: Grandma’s Masks

As I promised in my post of Feb 4th, here’s another installment of my book-in-progress, Grandma’s Masks. If you missed the previous installment on February 13th, click here to read it.

Grandma’s Masks
Installment 3

Emma, continued:

“Yeah,” agreed Lucy. “And the haikus have stopped too. It feels so weird, not to get those haikus. She sent me a haiku every day for the last – what? – fifteen years?”

“Twenty years for me,” I said. “Ever since I could read.”

Grandma had been writing haiku for over fifty years, one a day without fail. “That’s how I know I’m still an artist,” she told me once. “Even if I do nothing else that day, I’ve created something.” Earlier in her career she had published little books of haiku, but for a long time now she just wrote them. And shared them with Lucy and I. Only us. The haiku, along with the masks and the stories, were how we knew Grandma was specially ours.

Lucy and I looked at each other. How were we going to take all these masks down, wrap them in paper and pack them away? It would be like burying Grandma all over again. Only worse. At the cemetery it was just her body we buried.

I reached out and took down the mask closest to me. As it came away from the wall I saw that it had a folded stack of paper wedged on the inside of the mask. I unfolded the paper.

“Lucy, look!” I said, holding it out. “Grandma’s put the story inside the mask – I guess she didn’t want us to forget it. And guess what – there’s even a haiku at the end! How cool.” Cool was one of Grandma’s favorite words. I found myself using it a lot whenever I was in her house.

“Yeah, cool,” echoed Lucy, but her nose wrinkled as she saw which mask was dangling from my left hand. Looking down, I saw that it was the Flea. Not one of Lucy’s favorites, but one I had always loved.

Flea was sort of a rusty blackish-brown, with fat black hairy feelers hanging from his cheeks and a mouth full of sharp black teeth; I think made from bear claws Grandma bought on the Internet. I remember when she first showed me this mask, I had said, “Ugh! Grandma, fleas don’t look like that. They are just tiny black dots.”

“They do too look like this,” she said, and showed me a photograph of a flea, magnified about a thousand times. I had to admit that Grandma’s ugly flea did look like the picture. Except Grandma’s flea was more interesting. You could almost see him talking, the witty little devil. How do I know he was witty? Because of the story, of course.

I held Flea up to my face and peered out his eye holes. I opened my mouth and heard my voice saying Grandma’s words, the words she always used to start her stories, that we had heard her say thousands of times before. Long ago or maybe only yesterday …

“And so it ends, or maybe it is just beginning,” chimed in Lucy, which was the phrase Grandma used at the end of all her stories.

That was Grandma all over. Listening to her stories was like hearing through a prism, where the light splits events into many facets, often contradictory, and yet all holding pieces of the truth. They often woke you up in the middle of the night, and stayed with you for days.

Or years.

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Be sure to catch the next installment of Grandma’s Masks, coming Wednesday February 27th, when you will meet Flea and learn his story. And please leave comments and tell me what you think so far!

Sharing History: Writing Memoir

My parents in 2005

I’ve written before about my current WIP, which includes three different yet related memoirs – one my parents’ love story set during WW2, one my own story about discovering my true identity, and the third a photo book containing scraps of both old and new family stories written just for my family, illustrated by over 1500 photographs stretching from 1870 through 2013.

And here’s what I’ve discovered: this is hard! One reason it’s so hard is explained in my preliminary introduction to my parents’ memoir, titled The Boxes in the Closet. Here is that introduction:

Seattle, Washington
Present Day

After our parents died, Mom first and Dad two years later, my brothers and I cleared out the house they’d lived in for 45 years. Their deaths were not unexpected – Mom was 87 and Dad 94. To die at 94 cannot be called a tragedy. It is a triumph. But it is also an emptiness.

I would not have called my father a sentimental man – he was a realistic hardheaded businessman who liked to discuss (we won’t call it argue) politics, economics, business – you know, topics for “real men.” Yet in his bedroom closet, way in the back, we found scrapbooks of memories and boxes full of his letters to his brothers, nephews, and old army buddies, as well as battered notebooks full of written musings about life, love, romance, babies, art, poetry, nature, religion – what he would have categorized aloud as “for women” and not worthy of serious discussion.

One of the last things I found in Dad’s box was a single sheet of paper with song lyrics printed in his crabby hard-to-read handwriting. Now, my dad thought real songs had ended with Bing Crosby, and he was especially scornful of rock and roll, which when I was a teenager he labeled as “the element that is destroying the only country I know and love.” Yet here was this piece of paper that he had saved in his secret stash, with song lyrics from 1986 written by Bob Seger, who I would have sworn he’d never heard of, and if he had, would have dismissed as another low life rock musician.

My hands were steady
My eyes were clear and bright
My walk had purpose
My steps were quick and light
And I held firmly
To what I thought was right
Like a rock.
music & lyrics by Bob Seger

My father impressed with the words of Bob Seger, amazing. I cannot wrap my mind around him even listening for a minute to a rock and roll song, much less writing down the lyrics. Yet here they were.

On Mom’s side of the closet, we found more boxes, also full of written materials – journals she had kept on and off for sixty-plus years, scrapbooks of her children’s drawings, stories and schoolwork, and letters to and from a variety of people including her mother, her friends, and especially her two sisters-in-law, who she regarded as real sisters. Girlfriend letters, chock full of secrets that are usually whispered, or told when no men are around.

And then finally, stuffed into the darkest corner of the closet were two large boxes full of nothing but letters written between 1941 and 1945. Both my parents served in the military during the Second World War, Dad in the Army stationed in the South Pacific, and Mom in the Women’s Marine Corps stationed in Philadelphia and Washington DC. They were far away from their homes and families in the Pacific Northwest, for the first time in both their lives, and it was a time full of uncertainty and turmoil. They needed contact with those they loved, so they wrote letters – lots of letters. There were more than two hundred letters in these two boxes, from Dad to his mother and Mom to her mother, and of course from Dad to Mom and Mom to Dad. Except they weren’t Mom and Dad then, they were Armond and Lois, young twenty-somethings alive with hopes and dreams in spite of war.

Beat-up cardboard boxes kept for nearly seventy years, and moved from place to place to place until they at last found a permanent home in the back of a bedroom closet. My parents had a sense of history and of their place in it, a sense they must have inherited from their mothers – since it was my grandmothers who were the recipients of many of those letters. They must have been the ones who kept them, and returned or bequeathed them to their children. This sense of history has in turn been passed down to me. The gratitude I feel for this treasure trove that landed in my lap is beyond words.

These letters tell a story of love and loss, hope and fear, and how to cope with uncertainty by keeping your chin up. They cover Depression and War and Service and Patriotism, alongside fashion and movies and what they ate for dinner.

There are holes in this narrative, letters missing, probably lost, but still they give a tantalizing glimpse into everyday happenings and the most private thoughts of these complex beings, Armond Pearson and Lois Winter Pearson. The letters are significant not only for what they share, but what they leave out. They answer many questions but raise some too, and the answers to those questions will never be known now.

This is a memoir of Armond and Lois’ love story from 1938 through 1945, but it’s not complete. I wasn’t born until much later. I don’t know the whole story. This memoir is based on their letters from this time, and also on the stories I heard growing up, from them and other members of my large and noisy family. And sometimes based only on what I guess. Maybe this is true of all memoirs. All the stories can never be known.

And how little we truly know the people we think we know best.

Haiku Friday: Hens

Here is my haiku for today, on the topic of “Hens”

hens! remember this:
only one egg at a time
otherwise it hurts

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

Serial Fiction: Grandma’s Masks

As I promised in my post of Feb 4th, here’s another installment of my book-in-progress, Grandma’s Masks. If you missed the first installment on February 6th, click here to read it.

Grandma’s Masks
Installment 2

Emma, continued:

Lucy and I held hands as we walked sedately down the stairs into Grandma’s basement. This is where she had her office and her studio, where she worked and where she played. Upstairs I had been struck by how empty the house felt, how obvious it was that Grandma wasn’t here any longer. But as soon as we opened the door at the bottom of the stairs, there she was, waiting for us.

Lucy is more practical than I am; any talk of spiritual matters will cause her to pinch her lips and roll her eyes. So I knew better than to say I felt Grandma beside me. Lucy would say it is only the masks making me feel this way.

Maybe she’s right, who knows. There are hundreds of masks hanging on the walls of the studio, all designed and made by Grandma. Animals, magical creatures, gods and goddesses, heroes and legendary figures — you name it, if it had a face, Grandma probably made a mask of it.

“My God,” murmured Lucy, standing in the middle of the studio and revolving in a circle to take them all in. “This is the first time I’ve seen them all hanging up at once. I’d forgotten there were so many. I still don’t understand how she had the time to make them all.”

I shrugged: I didn’t know either. Grandma was always busy working – she ran a freelance writing business and wrote, or ghostwrote, hundreds of books. Making just one mask took hours, even days. First she sculpted a face out of clay, then made a plaster mold of the sculpture, and then filled the mold with hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny bits of paper glued together in layers. Then the paper mask was dried, painted, and decorated with bones and feathers and beads and claws and teeth and whatever else Grandma had in her vast collection of such things.

Making masks was how Grandma played. But it wasn’t the masks alone, it was the stories that went with them. I don’t know what Grandma made up first, the story or the mask, but it doesn’t matter. I think she made them for us. From when Lucy and I were very young, before we could read, up until just a few months ago, Grandma would call us up a couple times a month, and say, “Want to come play with me? I’ve got a new story …”

Even when we were teenagers and full of cool, we nearly always said yes.

“I miss her,” I said. “I can’t believe all her stories have been told.”

“I depended on those stories,” whispered Lucy.

I couldn’t blame her. Grandma was easy to depend on. You knew where you were with her. You could ask her anything, and she always told you the truth.

But she also told you stories in which truth was conspicuously missing.

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Be sure to catch the next installment of Grandma’s Masks, coming next Wednesday February 20th. And please leave comments and tell me what you think so far!

Ghostwriting for a Dog: Recycling the Rat

Goody Beagle here. I just want to make one thing clear. Beagles are not ratters. We are hunters, it is true, but we were bred to catch things worth catching, like foxes and rabbits. It is way beneath our dignity to hunt inferior rodents like mice and rats. We are not terriers, after all.

But Alex, my so-called brother, IS a terrier, at least partly. So if there is a rat in the house he should take care of it, right?

Well, he didn’t. The other day my human went to dump her recycling bin, which lives under the kitchen sink, and as she was transferring empty dog food cans and paper wrappers into a paper sack to take to the garage, guess what should pour out of the bin but a rat with a long hairless tail and sharp teeth – lashing the tail and gnashing the teeth and looking pretty fierce. Then Alex noticed him, of course. My human shrieked (she’s a wuss) and Alex yapped his sharp bark, and I bayed my special beagle howl.

I had known the rat was there for some time, because I smelled him. But it is not my job to take care of rats. It’s really not even Alex’s job – it’s The Cat’s job. So where was she when you really need her?

Asleep on my bean bag chair, as usual. She didn’t even wake up when my human took the rat outside to the big garbage bin in the garage. She’d trapped the rat inside a plastic garbage bag where he was violently thrashing (that’s lashing and gnashing and thrashing – I would be a poet if I weren’t a beagle.)

Do I have to do everything around here?

(PS – If you enjoy reading my posts about my fascinating beagly life, my human and I will be gathering the very best ones, expanding them a little, and making a book out of them! Check out some of my earlier posts by clicking the tab above called “Ghostwriting for a Dog” – and I’ll be writing more every other Monday here on this blog, so come back. Plus you could hop over to Amazon.com and buy my book that my human and I wrote in 2008, Dog Park Diary – it proves what a good writer I am.)

Haiku Friday: Closets

Here is my haiku for today, on the topic of “Closets”

in our hearts’ closets
guilty pleasures kept secret
we all got something

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

Serial Fiction: Grandma’s Masks

As I promised in my post of Feb 4th, here is the first installment of my book-in-progress, Grandma’s Masks, about two young women, Emma and Lucy, the stories their grandmother told them, and the masks they wore.

Grandma’s Masks

Grandma’s Masks
Installment 1

Emma

We opened the door and trooped eagerly into the house, just like we always had before. But we stopped in the entry way, bunched together as if uncertain where to go, since Grandma wasn’t here to show us. Only a moment, but a long one, while her absence shouted from the walls and echoed in the empty air.

Lucy and I walked to the top of the stairs. When we were kids we often held hands as we hurtled down these stairs, with our other hands holding the banisters as we swung our feet off the ground and skipped three or even four steps at a time. Grandma didn’t stop us. For years this was our normal way of getting downstairs, until Lucy broke her ankle when she was 11 and I was 14, way too big, in our mothers’ opinion, to be playing such silly games. Grandma just shrugged and called it “natural consequences,” which pissed off our mothers, who forbade us to do it anymore. I don’t think that’s why we stopped, though. It had a lot more to do with Grandma’s natural consequences. Broken ankles hurt.

Lucy and I are close, much closer than most cousins. This in spite of our age gap, and the fact that we aren’t at all alike. Maybe it’s because neither of us has a sister. Both of us have a younger brother, but this is not the same. A big influence in my life, and in Lucy’s, is the unbreakable bond existing between our mothers. Their need for one another makes having a sister seem like a necessity for happiness. Since our parents didn’t give us sisters, we had to make our own.

But maybe what really binds Lucy and I together is that we shared Grandma. She was ours, in a way that our brothers or mothers did not know.

Standing at the top of the stairs, I held out my hand. Lucy grinned and took it in hers. But we were no longer so carefree, or so foolish, to try to careen feet-free down the stairs. We are grown-ups now, or supposed to be – Lucy is 22 and I just turned 25. Plus we are bigger, not just older. All the women in our family are big women. Lucy is six feet one, and I’m not far behind; and we have bones and flesh to match. All those “s” words – slender, slim, svelte, skinny – do not apply to us. Grandma used to say our family had chubb. She certainly did. It’s a good word. To me it means warm, comfortable, fun, full of laughing kindness. This is what I tell myself when I go up another dress size.

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Be sure to catch the next installment of Grandma’s Masks, coming next Wednesday February 13th. And please leave comments and tell me what you think so far!