By Anne B. Howard
What I yearned to find, stumbling about that musty antique shop on a hot August afternoon, was relief by distraction. Shelter from a hornet’s nest of memories that conjured bitterness where a daughter’s compassion should lie. My ninety-year-old mom had developed dementia and needed my help, but the jagged edges of our bitter past had resurfaced and cut me to the bone. The burden of her vicious calls, her cruel assertions, and the delusion that I was plotting against her weakened my defenses and left me vulnerable.
I wandered from room to room, pausing to admire some old crockery bowls, a depression-glass cookie jar, and thumb through the tattered pages of a leather-bound copy of The Scarlet Letter. Eventually, in an obscure corner of an adjacent booth, the beguiling image of a flawless Ironstone Pitcher, cradled in its basin, caught my eye.
Drawn to the graceful porcelain lines, and subtle age-checked finish, I lifted the vessel from its nest to look for chips or cracks. Resting my palm against its rounded belly, I studied the piece from top to bottom, realizing that I’d known one like it a long time ago.
“Hello, doll…,” she whispered.
I pulled the pitcher to my heart. My eyes filled with tears. In a two-room house divided by a curtain, with no indoor toilet or hot water, I once had a mother with an Ironstone pitcher. My other mother. Mama Judy. The memory of her silken white curls, her crooked little fingers, and the doughy-softness of her embrace warmed my soul and filled my heart to the brim.
Those gentle hands squeezed the soft rag as warm soapy bubbles from her basin slid down my tummy and legs. The basin was lowered, so I could step in, and tenderly, she washed each little foot. From the womb of her lovely Ironstone pitcher, she poured and rinsed my body clean, cocooning me in love.
This was my “mother” for the first seven years of my life—not babysitter, as mom and dad called her—and I loved her so. My Mama Judy. In her tiny little house, with no television or modern conveniences, I felt safe and cherished.
In Mom and Dad’s newly built house, with the perfect lawn, fancy furnishings, air-conditioning, and two-car garage, life was scary, dangerous and sad. “I wish you’d never been born,” she’d say, and turn away.
Still, as I stood hugging that smooth white pitcher, in the empty back-room of a shop filled with objects from another time and place, I realized that mom’s cruelty no longer mattered. I was free to choose healing over blame. Mama Judy was with me, she was in me, and she made clear what I had to do.
She said to be gentle. To be loving. To forgive my mother, and to help her any way I could. “Do this,” she whispered, “and you honor my memory.”
Peace was the treasure I left with that day, from having made the decision to forgive what could not be undone. To forgive, and, from the reservoir of love I’d received as a child, to pour love into others, so they, too, might find healing and comfort.
Flash Memoir, for those not familiar, is a means of recording memories in small, snippet-sized pieces. Significant moments are captured, distilled, and packaged into stories that can be read quickly—often five to six hundred words—perfect for the digital age and hand-held devices. Just as important, for the memoirist, is that despite the therapeutic benefits of writing truth, it can be anxiety-invoking. Facing the blank page with one small, poignant piece of your story, and the goal of truly capturing a moment, is far less intimidating than attempting to compress and record large chunks of a difficult time.
By Nan McKenzie
When we were kids growing up on Whitefish Lake, there were no summer days filled with smoke. There were no days so hot that you could feel your ears sweating. There were bugs and snakes, huge thunderstorms, and infestations of tiny toads hopping to the water, thousands of them. But no smoke.
I think Montana is making up for lost opportunities now, filling our skies and homes and mouths and eyes with endless smoke from endless fires. Today, though, a blessed rain is falling, bringing my lawn and trees back to life, clearing the smoke from the air, turning into snow up high. I want to sit and read, wrapped in warm blankets and napping when it’s necessary, taking advantage of the phenomenon of rain, welcoming its presence after months of nothing.
The terrible fires have destroyed thousands of good Montana acres. Many people are living in fear of having their home destroyed, and many have already lost their homes. Sad, sad.
But next week is the first day of autumn, so surely we’ll have more rain, and maybe even snow before long. Some roads in Glacier Park and other places have closed because of snow and water running down the roads. Conversely, it seems too early for winter, since we didn’t really have much of a summer.
It’s a good day to work on editing another book, so I’ll get after that now and quit whining about bad weather.
Nan McKenzie, September 18, 2017.
By Ann Minnett
I’m a CASA/GAL (Court Appointed Special Advocate/guardian ad litem).
Background about CASA:
What does this have to do with writing?
Fellow CASA volunteers read my first book, Burden of Breath, because it deals with the long-lasting effects of childhood abuse. Our local executive director’s reaction to my writing surprised me. She said, “Lucky you, you can make up a happy ending.” She meant that my writing might ease my own concerns because child abuse cases, the courts, the foster care system, all of it, are often messy and sometimes end with us wondering… Were the children’s best interests served?
I set out to do just that—bend events into a happy resolution–in my manuscript inspired by the question, What if the estranged parent comes back? I concocted a gripping story with an end in mind. My critique group read the final twenty pages last week, and they would have none of it (the ending, that is). My main character behaved one way, but the all the secondary characters and my wise critique pals believed the main character would behave very differently.
I will change it.
The truth is that I can’t make a happy ending or a la-la-la outcome when the story doesn’t lead me there. This strange writing process is not to be controlled. Rather, I start by asking a question, apply my experiences, and hang on in amazement at what happens on the page.
LESLIE BUDEWITZ: September is a month of mixed feelings in these parts. A signal of a fresh start almost as palpable as January, as the weather begins to change and the kids head back to school (we all feel it, don’t we, no matter what our age), mingled with a sense of loss, as another glorious Rocky Mountain summer slips behind us.
In Book News, Christine Carbo and I will be on a panel together, along with mystery writers Gwen Florio and Mark Stevens, at the Montana Book Festival in Missoula, Sept 29-30. (We don’t know the date or time yet, so check in with the Festival or one of us, if you plan to go.) We’ll be talking about modern mysteries set in the west, how place influences character, and much more. I hope to see you there!
Meanwhile, delighted to say that Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine will publish a short story of mine next year titled “All God’s Sparrows,” featuring the real-life—and larger than life—character, Mary Fields. I’ll share the pub date and ordering info as the date approaches.
Enjoy these last glorious days of summer, and thank you for spending them with us.
LISE McCLENDON Okay, it’s not quite slippers-by-the-fire weather yet but in case you’re stocking up for chilly weather, my new mystery, The Frenchman, is coming out very soon. This is the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series and we’re back in France this time. Merle Bennett is writing her own novel while taking a leave of absence in the Dordogne, so, yes, this is a story-inside-a-story. When that Frenchman, Pascal, runs into an old nemesis and goes missing, Merle must rally the troops to find him. After an exclusive run I’m back on all e-book platforms (yay!) Amazon Nook KOBO iBooks Also available in paperback. Happy autumn reading 🍁
Book Signing by Karen Wills author of River with No Bridge Saturday, September 16, 2017, 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Montana Book and Toy Company, 331 North Last Chance Gulch, Helena, Montana.
This month’s issue of Cowgirl calls the novel a “compelling and touching story.” Booklist’s review of the novel called it “a gripping, sometimes heartbreaking story of immigrant survival in the West.” The August Historical Novel Society Reviews sums up with, “I love pioneering stories and gritty women, and Ms. Wills’ engrossing tale provides both.”
Sunday, September 17th at 2:00 p.m. the Lewis and Clark Library at 120 South Last Chance Gulch will present Questions and Answers on Writing a Historical Novel with Karen Wills.
Karen looks forward, as always, to a visit with friends in Helena.