May Day was a big deal at my elementary school. Since the school was located by a park, our teachers took advantage of the bandstand and park benches as a setting for the annual event. We all hoped for a sunny day. A kindergarten queen surrounded by little princesses led the procession. Our tightly-corseted principal welcomed the crowd with honey-sweet words, alien to her normal voice. Older children frolicked around the park maypole, strewn with crepe-paper streamers for the special occasion, sang, and gave readings. Parents and grandparents, all wearing hats and bearing cameras, came to the outdoor celebration. This is the only picture of me as a kindergarten princess, taken in our backyard just before heading the two blocks to school. I remember that my grandmother made the long dress for me. While all the other princesses carried dainty little baskets with flowers cascading down the sides, my practical, creative parents cut fresh flowers from our yard, wrapped them with a lace doily and ribbon, and told me to be proud. I was, and didn’t think a thing about it until my brother laughed. He said the irises were so tall I couldn’t see over them and looked silly peeking around them as I walked behind the queen. (He loved to spoil my moments.)
It’s always fun to schmooze with the Illinois reading teachers at their annual conference. Springfield is such a delightful city, with its favorite son, Abraham Lincoln, appearing nearly everywhere. My husband reported a life-size wax Lincoln greeting him in the elevator at a sporting goods store. Abe’s name is on hotels, restaurants, parks, highways, streets, not to mention the awesome museum. Bronze life-size statues of him with his family stand in front of his law office on Main St. On this trip we visited his home and I could almost see “Old Honest Abe” walking through the door.
But mostly, I go for the teachers who still find it important to attend reading conferences and buy new books to take back to their schools and read to their students.
When you spend two days in a booth, you get acquainted with those around you. The women across for me were volunteers for the Lincoln museum, handing out Lincoln fans and info about the museum and library. When I needed a suggestion for a good restaurant, etc. I’d say “Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln!” and they’d instantly look my way with answers, sometimes hiding behind the fans they gave away (as in picture.)
Two thousand teachers attended this conference and I think most of them came by my booth, smiling, perusing the books. It makes me smile to think of the Bailey’s Chase novels being read to classes all over Illinois. I hope I get to visit some of those schools.
It was Sunday afternoon and Mama was putting her hair-styling tools into a small bag. Curious, I wondered whose hair she could possibly do on Sunday. She explained that Mrs. Taylor had died and she was going to the funeral home to do her hair for the service. “A dead person!” I was horrified yet fascinated. I’d never seen a real corpse in all of my eight years. Mama said she’d done Mrs. Taylor’s hair for years and it was the last thing she could do for her. I begged to go and watch, promising to stay out of the way. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends that I had seen a real, live corpse – maybe even touched one. My head spun with excitement. “You’ll just be bored,” Mama said kindly. I remember her whispering with my father and hearing: it’s probably better to see someone she doesn’t know than a loved one. I agreed; it wasn’t like it was Grandma or Pop. It wouldn’t bother me one bit. So, against her better judgement, Mama took me along on that dreary winter day.
The funeral director greeted us and led us to a back room. “We already washed and dried her hair,” he told us. I followed behind Mama and watched her set her supplies on a table. The room was stark and bright with the scent of chemicals floating in the air. I glanced around and my heart nearly stopped when I SAW MRS. TAYLOR! Her body lay on a table, under a white sheet. Her face as white as the sheet, her mouth open, and her long white hair standing out from her head like she’d been in a wind tunnel. I uttered a gasp and almost fainted. I remember stumbling backwards to the door, eyes wide and heart pounding with fear. Mama sighed and gave me her “I was afraid of this” look. The funeral director asked if I’d like to wait in the lobby. I definitely did and soon settled onto a velvety straight-backed chair, my feet not touching the floor. There, I spent the longest afternoon of my life, bored and embarrassed that I’d been such a chicken. I longed for a comic book or a coloring book, but my only diversion was reading funeral information. From time to time, the stoic funeral director attempted to converse with me, but for the first time in my life, I was totally speechless. Finally, Mama was finished and we went home. No one scolded me or reminded me of my bravado. At that time, I thought my mother was the bravest person on earth. Today is her birthday. I miss her and think of her every day. She was the sweetest, kindest person I’ve ever known. She was the model for Sparky’s and Grey’s mother in my Bailey’s Chase novels. (About the picture: I was seven. It was five years before my baby sister Becky was born. The photographer insisted I stare at baby brother, Steve, since my smile resembled a jack-o-lantern. This was a proof; Mom didn’t like the picture because Daddy wasn’t ready and brother John looked so squirrelly.)
My grandgirls (ages 10 & 13) were great resources for my Bailey’s Chase Novels. When choosing a title, my oldest grandgirl’s name came to mind. Chase also designates a place and is often used in street or village names. Perfect for my early thoughts of The Secret of Bailey’s……..
When naming the main characters, these cousins with super powers, Sparky was mentioned by a writer friend for the more vivacious girl. I needed a calm name – one with quiet dignity and intelligence for her cousin. My younger grandgirl’s name: Grayson, brought to mind Grey, in the English spelling and shortened for Greyling, the latter part a combination of foundling or orphan and changling, a magical character with the ability to change forms.
Names settled, I listened to the girls and their friends talk, noting their speech patterns and expressions. I was especially happy to hear that “Cool” is still popular, as in my heyday. When I needed a name for a magical fish, I asked Gracie, then seven, and she suggested “Hinta.” So Hinta it was, as was “The River of Dreams.”
I was pleased to know that young girls still read Nancy Drew books and that Nancy has evolved with the times. I watched the movie with the girls and found it true to Nancy Drew and her sleuthing abilities and courage. Also, I noted what level of homework and special report assignments were current and used them in the book. Even though most young girls don’t read Little Women, gifted students like Grey usually do. And most girls have watched the updated movie.
Many Indiana schools take the same field trip as Miss Dooley and her class, and all Indiana students receive a healthy dose of the works of James Whitcomb Riley, since he’s our famous Hoosier poet.
By the way, I had planned to give the girls cowboy boots for Christmas and I did. But when I saw the fanciful hats and fuzzy footed pajamas, I couldn’t resist. What grandmother could?
We had just finished sixth grade and were at a 4-H meeting at school. I told Shirley the blackberries were ripe behind our house and if she’d help me pick them, we could sell them for a dollar a gallon and split the money. She said she’d ask her mom and maybe come. “Early,” I told her. “That’s when you pick blackberries. We can pick all day.” I went home and forgot all about our business venture. I was still getting adjusted to living in the country, a new baby sister, and no telephone. With no air conditioning, I usually slept with my pillow near the window of my small room. At 5:00am someone pushed my screen aside, reached into my window, and grabbed a handful of my hair. I nearly had a heart attack! It was barely light but I could see my grinning attacker. “Shirley! What are you doing here?” I asked, completely forgetting my business proposition. She quickly told me she’d come to pick blackberries! I watched her mom’s black car slowly drive away. I opened the window and Shirley climbed into my room, perplexed that I wasn’t ready to go. By this time, my mom had heard us talking and opened my door, shocked at my early morning visitor. I quickly dressed while Shirley explained that she brought six sandwiches: three for breakfast and three for lunch. My mom couldn’t believe she had that much food, so Shirley opened the bag and showed us. There were three sausage-patty sandwiches with mustard, and three egg sandwiches. “They’re all half-sandwiches,” I said. “Yes,” she told me, “But there’s a whole egg on every egg sandwich.” I agreed and asked my mom to fix me exactly the same. She heated up her black skillet and matched Shirley’s meals, then made a thermos of sweet iced tea. She gave us buckets for the berries and seemed to be glad when we left.
To this day, I don’t ever remember a day being more fun than that long-ago summer day. We found the berry patches and picked diligently for a while. However, being kids, we tired easily of work and took many breaks. Shirley and I waded in creeks, rolled down hills, climbed trees, and swung on grape vines. We ate all the sandwiches, carefully separating breakfast from lunch, and drank all the tea. We ate nearly as many berries as we picked. I remember how we laughed and told each other every story we knew, true or untrue. We hiked through the woods, singing and pretending to be making a movie. We shared life experiences and dreams. When both buckets were full and it was almost time for supper, we headed home. My parents were shocked by the amount of berries and the fact that we had spent the entire day picking. Shirley and I didn’t notice the heat or the bugs or the briars. We were just two adventurous young friends having a good time. We probably cleared $5.00 apiece from my grandmother who made blackberry jam. Shirley’s mom appeared, as always, at just the right time to take Shirley home.
When I visited Shirley for the last time, I whispered to her, “When you get well, we’ll go pick some blackberries.” I thought she didn’t hear me, but after a few seconds, she whispered, “I wonder if they have blackberries in Heaven.” I assured her they probably did. And I bet they do. When I get there, I’m going to find Shirley and we’re going to go on the blackberry hunt of all time.
It’s always an honor to be invited to sign with the Indiana authors at the Holiday Author Fair in Indianapolis at the posh History Center downtown. In addition to meeeting many shoppers looking for that special book for someone’s stocking, it also offers the opportunity to reconnect with other writers. James Alexander Thom, one of my favorite authors, was as gracious as ever. Phil Dunlap and Jeanne Dams, also mystery writers, were both ready for a hug, since we’ve attended many of the same conferences over the years. But when Ms Maple said, “Last year I bought The Secret of Bailey’s Chase and read it to my sixth grade and THEY LOVED IT! Now I want the sequel” That was music to my ears. Merry Christmas, everyone!
His back hurt all summer. He couldn’t ride his horse or even bait a hook without groaning. He visited doctors, chiropractors, had x-rays. It’s just arthritis, they told him. He insisted on an MRI, which revealed a disturbing spot on a kidney. CT scans showed a mass on his right kidney which presented itself in every way as cancer. It’s small – I can remove it, the young urologist told us. Have you ever done this before? I asked this doctor who looked to be about fourteen. Oh yes, he assured me. I did hundreds of these when I worked at the IU Med Center. Don’t worry. How could I not worry over my husband of 47 years? It was like asking me not to breathe.
We’re great believers in the power of prayer, so we enlisted friends, relatives, church, and even Facebook friends to pray. Our pastor and elders came and annointed him with oil. We were ready. On the day before surgery, the doctor called to ask if we had any questions. Are you a Christian? I asked. Yes, I’m a Catholic, he assured me. Good, I told him. Get a good night’s rest and say your morning prayers. I’m sure he rolled his eyes. The next morning he met with us briefly before the surgery. My husband asked, Got your knives all sharpened? Weary with surgical humor, the young doctor said they didn’t use knives anymore. When I asked if I could pray over his hands, he appeared startled, like I might invoke some voo-doo on him or speak in tongues. But he offered his hands and I held them, surprised how big and soft they were – like oven mitts. My husband’s hands are big and rough. My son’s are smaller but hard. I offered a short silent prayer and released them. The young surgeon, in his turquoise shower hat, turned and quickly scuttled off to the OR. Soon our son, daughter, son-in-law, and pastor joined me. It was to be a four hour surgery, but before two hours passed the doctor called for me. All five of us crowded into the small room. Bad news: he couldn’t get quite all of it due to blood vessels. Good news: it is benign. Question: should I take the whole kidney or close him up? Close him, we all agreed.
The next three days were nighmarish. Pain, itching, headaches, constant nursing care, machines beeping, leg wraps, IV line, drain tube, catheter, no sleep, food or drink. Walking was tortuous but necessary. Days 4 & 5 a little better. Friends popped in with flowers and balloons. He tried to resond cheerfully but groaned when they left. After six days, he came home and improves daily, but still taking lots of pain meds, not eating or sleeping much. Relatives and friends bring nourishing food and short cheery visits. Tomorrow he gets the staples out, that tiny foot long railroad around his mid-section. We are grateful.