April Showers

On the beach, gray day, puggle dog close up, people crouched at water's edge in the distance.

I have said my farewells to my eldest daughter and her lovely husband, as well as our German exchange student daughter (from 2011) and their friend from New York, all gone from here yesterday and flying out of SFO today and tomorrow. The house is quiet and empty. It is good to feel I can get to work again, and start to plant my tomatoes and lavender, and hear my own thoughts. I did a yoga routine this morning, first time since my surgery in January. I’m throwing sheets into the wash, filling the dishwasher full with the last of our last supper dishes, making a shopping list, thinking about what to do next. My mind has been so full of the immediate, the moments we were in, and I haven’t looked forward a bit. Time to restretch that muscle and see what I have on my new to-do list.

We took the month of April to brave the rain and the miles of travel and gathered to say farewell, at last, to our late son Austin. M & L came from Australia, F came from Germany, J came from Maryland, C came from New York, E&E came by train from Shasta. We met at the seaside–or rather, bayside, in Alameda, to sprinkle ashes and write Austin’s name in the sand, before the waves washed him away. The following photos are some of how we said farewell.

On the shore of San Francisco Bay
Two people in jackets and jeans, seen from behind, crouch at the edge of the bay.
Scattering ashes in San Francisco Bay
Orange fingers from eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos
Eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in Austin’s memory
Two white-skinned arms displaying new tattoos, one of a heart and one of an ampersand.
Memorial tattoos: Forever Five and Ampersand/Heart.
WHite-skinned baby sits on grass amid red tulips.
A visit with Austin’s namesake.
Blurred view down a long, full table in a restaurant.
Drinks and dinners with family and friends.
Running shoes, scattered petals on the sidewalk.
Many long walks.
Blurry photo of people waving lit sparklers at night.
A final farewell with lit sparklers.

And that says it all.

Resurrection

Two white-skinned hands wrapped in red prayer beads and a black rosary.

How can we be really sure of anything?

My youngest daughter Anastasia asks me where Jesus came in the line of human evolution―was he before or after Cro-Magnon Man?

I beg the question for a moment, try not to burst out laughing while I ponder the irony―some people don’t believe that there was a Cro-Magnon Man. But rather than delve into evolution versus creation, I simply answer, “After. Definitely after.”

Other questions are not so easily answered. I overhear her discussing with Simone the issue of whether Jesus had blond hair. One cannot take the queries of childhood too lightly, so I politely intervene and begin a discussion of how Jesus probably looked―long, dark hair, a beard, olive or tan skin.

“But no one really knows what Jesus looked like,” I conclude.

“I know what he looked like,” she says. Of course she does―she went through six years of catechism, has holy cards in her dresser drawer, wore the white Communion dress and veil. How could she not know? But the journalist in me perseveres.

“Well, there are really no pictures of Jesus,” I say.

Now, to get her response just right, you have to practice your most withering, scathing pre-teen tone of voice. Try saying, “You’re a f**cking moron,” over and over. That’s how Ana replies.

“There are pictures of Jesus―I’ve seen them.”

I bite back a laugh and tell her that the camera had yet to be invented for, oh, close to 2,000 years after Jesus departed the planet, and that any pictures she’s seen have been artists’ renderings. She is not convinced. Her mother is a f**cking idiot. She leaves the room in a huff.

I am grateful that there haven’t been harder questions put to me―like trying to explain the existence of God, or why there is hate and hurt in the world. Because inevitably such questions would bring up my own issues of faith, my own faltering belief system, and I would have to say, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

How to explain why I still have the rosary beads hanging from my rearview mirror but no longer use them for prayer, or how we used to say grace at meals but now find it difficult to even get to the same table in the same house at the same time? Why we still light the Advent wreath at Christmas, how we bless ourselves when we get onto the freeway, but rarely darken the doorway of any house of worship?

How can I explain so many things that I don’t know the answer to?  Like how to account for the marriage-shaped hole in my heart that took away the greater portion of my faith when it left? I don’t know.

close up photo of sliced orange fruits
Photo by Couleur on Pexels.com

When their father and I were still married, we lived in a house with an orange tree in the backyard. Whenever the weather was nice, we could sit on a blanket in the yard, and my little girls chased butterflies and picked dandelions while I planted flowers, weeded and hung out clothes to dry. We’d play for a while in the sunshine, then pick oranges from the tree and peel and eat them right away. We’d wash away the sticky juice from our fingers with the garden hose.

In those days I was sure of everything―my house, my family, my future, my faith. But how can we be really sure of anything?

The things we thought were set in stone have vanished, and we are flung out into the world on our own.

It is difficult to tell my young daughters that everything will be as they plan, that everything will work out exactly right, when I am no longer convinced, when I can no longer choke out pleasantries about religion, or the family we used to be.

But too much of that kind of pondering makes one rigid with fear.

So I go to my garden, where everything returns again in spring. I plant bulbs like dead lumps in the ground in the fall, and they make an appearance―thin spears of green piercing through the loam, then opening with a bounty of color.

pink petaled flowers closeup photo
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Is there anything more perfect than a daffodil in spring? Than a single white iris? The first rosebud to open, or new leaves on a birch tree unfurling like tiny green flags? Is there a lovelier sight than an apricot tree in full bloom, or the first tiny violets making their sweet way through the dead leaves of winter?

When I can’t explain anything to my daughters about the world, the heavens and life now or if there is one to come, I go to the garden and sink my fingers into the dirt, where everything is simple and real.

The dry bulbs go into the ground, they come up in the spring, they die and are reborn. It is the simplest resurrection. It is the smallest inkling of faith.

close up photography of yellow flowers
Photo by Maria Tyutina on Pexels.com

Work-in-Progress blog hop!

I know I wrote onIMG_5066 this topic about six months ago, but I’m working on new things, so I said yes to the invitation to share my WIP. I was invited by Laurie Baxter (click here to visit her blog post). Thanks, Laurie!

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News: #2 in the Hot Off the Press Series

Where did the idea come from for these books?
I wanted Veronika to have some more adventures, of course, but my friend Woody Minor told me a true story about a local Victorian house that possibly had Gold Rush coins hidden in the walls. I took that idea and ran with it.

What genre do your books fall under?
Veronika is a mystery. My Hot Off the Press series is suspenseful and romantic, but closer to NA mystery than anything else. You could also call them chick-lit but NA (New Adult) is the preferred term these days.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Veronika Layne chases a story about a Hollywood real estate house flipper, mysterious gold coins, and why someone is buying up old houses on San Pedro Island.

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?
Booktrope, a hybrid publisher, is representing my Veronika Layne series, as well as Tongues of Angels.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote this quickly, as a NaNoWriMo project — thirty days! But revisions took quite a bit longer. I revised for several months after that. it’s a short book, just 50,000 words, so it goes fast, both reading and writing.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I think you can compare Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News with anything that Dick Francis wrote — it has the same steeped-in-her-occupation as Francis’s jockeys or other MCs. You could also compare Veronika with Bridget Jones, for getting into sticky situations and feeling like a flop.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My friend Woody gave me the idea, but I have been nurturing Veronika Layne inside of me for some time. She has the characteristics of my daughters — smart, feminist, fun — with the shrewd journalist I longed to be. She has some of my insecurities but she hasn’t yet attained wisdom. I’m enjoying watching her grow as a woman and as a reporter.

I also included a character named Flo who was a real-life sweet friend and neighbor of ours who painted beautiful florals and still lifes. I have several of her paintings. The story about Flo is mostly true. Here’s some of the real Flo’s work:

IMG_5064 IMG_5065

I still miss Flo today, and was happy I could include her in this sub-plot about a talented artist who acts as Veronika’s surrogate grandmother. These paintings are in my office and I see and love them every day.

Epiphanies-R-Us

579300_10152390569614698_1755223128_n(This column first ran in July 2007, right before I became a Mrs. again.)

I drove up to the home county of Sonoma a few weeks ago to pick up one of our girls from a visit to her grandparents. I had some time to spare (shocking but true) and wanted some quality time with my parents, so I hung around for a while.

I picked some plums with my mom and she gave me some geranium and penstemon cuttings for the garden. I gave my parents their wedding invitation and I got to see the latest quilts that she was planning to show at the county fair. We talked and looked at pictures and made plans for later in the summer. After a while, and a glass of iced tea, it was time to go.

As we stood outside near the car, my mom looked at me and laughed a little laugh. “You’re me, you know,” she said.

Now I know plenty of other people who would bristle at such a statement if it were made to them, and plenty of times that I myself would have driven screaming away and never returned, but this time, finally, it is true. My mom raised five kids, and here I am, embarking on the next phase of my life, taking in two more to bring my total of children to five as well.

When I stood there with my bowlful of sweet Santa Rosa plums and my geranium cuttings and my packet of scraps for the next quilt I’m going to work on soon — har de har freaking har — there was a moment, I’m not going to lie, when I did want to scream. Just a little bit.

Because, you know, everyone wants to be themselves, not their mom, or dad, or elder siblings. No one wants to be the apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, and no one wants to be “junior” anything. We all want to be special and a bit more advanced or evolved — to do better in our generation than our parents did, if that’s even possible anymore.

But how does one do it better? I simply can’t beat the 53-plus years of marriage that my parents have shared, with five healthy kids who all graduated college and made something of themselves. I may never get the 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (including all the step-grandkids). Maybe our kids won’t even have babies.

My parents worked hard, played by the rules, did the right thing even when it wasn’t their personal choice or even what they could bear. They just did it anyway, for the sake of the kids or the family or the whole shebang, and here we are today: an agricultural water plant manager, an attorney and CEO, a financial analyst, a commercial construction manager and a writer, and our kids are coming up behind us, traveling the world and taking it by storm.

I learned a lot from my mother about how to feed a large family, and it wasn’t just “add more water to the soup.” She was a champion at filling our bellies in even the hardest of times. There were always bread and butter and vegetables and a main course on the table, and we learned our manners and how to say grace before meals, and took turns setting and clearing. We did our homework and got ourselves to school by foot or by bike or by bus, and none of us coasted; we all got jobs and did farm chores and learned to do the right thing, too, mostly.

Alack and alas, though, a daydreamer like me comes along and lives an uncharted life: Unexpected pregnancy in college! Scrimping along as a single mom! Married to a Catholic priest! Divorced! Writing a book about it! Single parenting again! Eek! May I just offer kudos to my parents for keeping the faith? I’m a peach now, but I was a prickly pear for a very long time.

Ah, well. What can I say? My mom says, “You’re me now.” Am I?

We spent the last weekend painting the kitchen what I call “olive,” but let’s be real here – it’s that classic ’70s paint color, avocado. Then I finished up the valance I was sewing, made from a novelty print featuring a cheerful vegetable motif, hung it up and we made ourselves some vodka tonics. The kids were scattered around the countryside but they’d all be back at the dinner table in a few days. We toasted our weekend’s work and got ready for the next week.

Dinner for seven? I am indeed my mother.

Guest Post: Kay Ellington, Author of Paragraph Ranch

Happy Groundhog’s Day!

Groundhog’s Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. I know, it’s not really what you consider a holiday. You don’t even get the day off from work or school. As a gardener, I find winters to be challenging, living on the plains of West Texas. The short days. The lack of warmth and sunshine. The demise of the perennials. Perusing seed catalogs only goes But Groundhog’s Day—whether the little furry fellow (are they always male?) sees his shadow or not– kicks off the beginning of the end of the dormant season for people and plants. After November and December rife with holidays and festivities, in January, we sit and wait—inside.

With Groundhog’s Day comes Valentine’s Day, the Day the Time Changes (my personal favorite), St. Patrick’s Day, and then we’re off and running again in the spring and the sunshine. As an author, Groundhog’s Day provides the perfect metaphor for assessing the work. In January I sit and wait and plan and write. By February 2, I are able to assess what I have done. When I come out of hibernation and observe the work I have written, sometimes I am comfortable with the craftsmanship and sometimes I see the glare of a lack of clarity and run inside the warren to revise.

I hope this Groundhog’s Day –and all of the ones going forward—provide you with a day to assess the new year, and to see if you’re happy with the direction you’ve taken, or if you decide to change course, it’s still so early in the year that your changes have plenty of time to take effect and be meaningful.

Cotton fields, pumpjacks, and Friday Night Lights defined the world KAY ELLINGTON grew up in West Texas. A gypsy of newspapering for three decades, her career took her from New York to California to the Carolinas–and finally, back home again to Texas to stay–and write.