2020 Vision

Austin Tracey

My apologies for the long silence. When last I wrote here, we had moved to the country and my husband was seriously disabled by his back injuries; he retired and we left the busy East Bay for Wine Country-quiet. I have been working on several projects in that time, namely my historical novel about the Orphan Train mama who lost her children and set about getting them back. That novel is in revisions and needs another deep dive. (Not this week, she said, juggling several pins, but one of these days soon.)

The Crow’s Nest

Another sideline has been our cabin, the Crow’s Nest, which we renovated from the studs out, and welcomed many guests, both as vacationers and as creatives, to come stay with us. Check it out on AirBnB here.

Young Luther Bailey, graduating from Southern University, before he became an engineer, home designer and building contractor. He built some 200 homes in Portland, OR, and Phoenix, AZ, in the 1910s-1940s.
Here’s a link to a recent story I wrote about him
(pg 10-11).

We’ve spent the past two years as innkeepers, and that was entertaining; I’ve been revising the novel, then resting (but still innkeeping) between rewrites. In the “rest” times, I’ve been to writing programs or conferences like the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Associated Writing Programs. I started another book project, a biography of my great-grandfather Luther R. Bailey, Doris’s father, the architect, and have gathered much of what I need for that project, including publisher interest.

I was buzzing along on this project and chatting with an agent about my historical fiction in early 2019 when our world came to a crashing halt. My stepson, who I raised from age 5, our Boy, Austin took his own life in February 2019. And that has changed everything.

Playful smile with sister Simone last Thanksgiving.

We are learning to live without our Boy, and it has been the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We have lived very small in this dreadful year. It’s felt unbearably sad and riddled with confusion and doubts. I have written little and worked almost not at all.

Meanwhile, racism and politics have raged, children are locked in cages, the earth is burning… The Russian River flooded and marooned us in our cabin-on-stilts; my husband had major surgery in May; fires swept the North Bay and we evacuated in the fall… Our son in law lost his childhood home near Sydney, Australia, to wildfires there in November; a tree dropped a huge branch and damaged our roof just last week. And we’re in the middle of a presidential impeachment crisis that we hope will strangle the ugliness of the current administration and begin to lead us back to center.

I got a semicolon tattoo two weeks after losing Austin, and have met others with this powerful symbol of suicide and rebirth.

It’s been a hard year, friends, neither creative nor productive. I set goals in December 2018 that are laughable now; we lead lives that are so other-focused that “2018 Julia” couldn’t even imagine. But I’m writing this — yes, pretty much the first “thing” I’ve written in months — to say that I will write again, we will keep living, our family is stronger for the terrible trials of 2019, and we are making plans for a different life ahead of us.

Nothing is yet confirmed nor written in stone (I mean anything, anywhere in life — but also, for our current plan), but if all goes as it should, we are looking toward a different view in 2020. We are looking at saying yes to life, a kind of resurrection, grabbing on to what we can and living it wholeheartedly.

Fingers crossed that it will happen. Watch this space.

A different window, a new view?

A Whole New World

It’s been a bit since I posted, mostly because my dear husband has had some health issues, which led to his early retirement, which led to us moving from the island of Alameda to the beautiful redwood forest of Sonoma County. He gets to enjoy baseball and all of his favorite sports programs as well as breathe in the fresh air and peaceful surroundings. I get to write on the deck outside, with sky and trees as my ceiling and walls. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing. It did, however, suck up a ton of my time, so I wasn’t able to blog.

I’m writing a historical novel just now, and have been for the past year, off and on, as I could around the adventures of health care, care-giving, and moving. The novel is about a mother who struggles to keep her children after her husband’s death. The year is 1854 and women’s rights are few; the law prohibits them from acting as their own children’s legal guardian when there is property or money involved, and the children are considered “half-orphans.” The setting is New York, and a strong undercurrent is the Hudson River, and the many rivers that sweep us off our feet. She makes a series of choices to protect them and some of those choices may be gross errors, but she has survival in mind. She can’t know the effect of her choices until it’s too late to turn back.

The story is based on my great-grandfather Will Gaston (born William Homer Lozier), who was an Orphan Train baby. After a ton of research, I was able to find his roots, and it was the story of his birth mother that really struck me. I wondered how could a mother give up her children. This literary historical fiction is my way of exploring that question.

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I’ve written about the subject of the Orphan Train and I spoke at the 2017 Orphan Train Complex gathering in Concordia, Kansas, in June. The more I dug into the research, the more kind of obsessed I’ve become. I thought this was going to be a nonfiction history, but as I dug deeper, I realized that the main character’s perspective was missing, and I wanted to give her a voice. Martha Elizabeth Lozier, my fourth great-grandmother, tell us your story!

So I’m writing a novel.

But that’s not all. I’m also working with a dear friend who has started an online/pop-up bookstore called All Things Book. I provide their social media presence and have been blogging about books there. My ATB blog is called Book and Bone and would love to have you follow along.

The other thing that’s taking up my time is our cottage — not the one we live in, but the second one on the property, which we call The Crow’s Nest. We’re hoping to finish refurbishing this little gem so we can offer it as a writing retreat for my writing friends. We’re an hour and a quarter from the East Bay and San Francisco, unless there is a lot of traffic (like Friday night), and trust me, the silence of the trees and the lack of passing sirens, airplanes, cars, and otherwise ambient noise–it makes writing downright pleasurable.

Here’s a pic of the house in progress (it’s a tiny house, 380 sq ft). Hope to have this baby up and available by end of 2017.

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IMG_6052So that’s what I’ve been doing, and this is where you’ll find me — on the deck in the redwoods, or in my little office, writing my novel, my blog, or getting the Crow’s Nest ready for company. Are you ready? Come by and have a glass of wine. News of the development/publication of the novel forthcoming.

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.

Girls Gone Wild

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My little monster…grown up.

I’ve been trying to get to work this morning. The key word is “trying.” I have been up since 5:30 a.m., doing laundry, making school lunches, getting a healthy-on-the-go breakfast ready for the girls, doing my nails and all the other myriad things moms have to do. I have makeup on one eye, hair gel on my fingers and am trying to do a last few things before running out the door to get to work early. My youngest throws her backpack over her shoulder and is heading through the living room toward the front door, toaster waffles in hand, when the little maple syrup cup spills on the carpet.

Instead of getting out the door on time, I am on my knees with a sponge, with maple syrup and hair gel and carpet lint all over my hands, watching my manicure smudge and the minutes tick by, knowing I’ll have to say at work: Um, sorry, it was the kids and the carpet and…

Raising adolescent girls is a challenge when all the pieces are in place, when all the parties are vested in the outcome. Raising teens in a single-parent household is a bit more difficult. For one thing, there are the hours between school and when I get home from work that are unsupervised; these are, in fact, leaps of faith that there is no drug dealing or knife throwing going on in my little house while I’m not there.

As a stay-at-home mom, I didn’t used to worry about the empty after-school hours because I was there, at home. My eldest was pretty well behaved, only telling a few fibs in her high school days, and she was a terrible liar anyway, with a blush and a smile and shifty eyes that gave her away no matter how hard she tried.

But as a single parent now, I sometimes feel as if the giant boulder has already rolled down the hill back over me, and I have to chase after it before I can even start that uphill climb again. My middle daughter calls me from home to tell me she’s broken a dish (another one, and don’t even ask how it happened). She asks where the vacuum cleaner is. I tell her to use a broom, for crying out loud. I ask her to do the dishes and when I get home, the sink is still full and the dishwasher just gurgling through the rinse cycle. What happened to doing the dishes, I ask.

”Oh, the dishes weren’t really clean so I ran them through again,” she says earnestly, her attention to quality control and the greater good almost as impressive as her end-run around the job of emptying and refilling the dishwasher.

Getting all the chores done is never-ending, as in every household. The fact is that our lives are busier than ever, with tutoring, sleepovers, yard work, social engagements, other-parent visitation schedules and the odd scheduling quirk like my middle daughter’s desire to be on the JROTC Raiders team, which meets three times a week at 6 a.m. (guess who drives her to school in the dark?). The dishwasher stays full of clean dishes, the mountain of unfolded laundry on my bed gets shoved over to one side and all of a sudden it’s Sunday at 10 p.m. and my daughters remember they have no clothes to wear.

Fortunately I have a co-conspirator, my sweetie, who is also doing the job of single-parenting, and we rely on each other for backup and moral support. My two girls and my sweetie’s daughter are a dynamic trio, who, like sisters or wolf cubs, scrap and bat and gnaw at each other. Last night two of them were in the bathroom, dyeing each other’s hair green for St. Patrick’s Day. They borrow each other’s clothes, texting each other, sleep together and drape themselves across one another in front of the TV and computer, practically chew each other’s food in the way that only adolescent girls can do. It works for me most of the time.

But the dark side of parenting sometimes rears its head. I had an event to cover a week ago and we were out for just a couple of hours. Our three, who are ages 12, 13 and 14, stayed home with a pizza and a movie. We got home at 10:30 and all was well, peaceful, nay, familial. But the next day, a resident of the apartment complex next door came over to tell me, “You got some wild girls there. They were over there screaming and running around last night!”

Wild girls – the idea is like a cold dagger in my heart. After all I’ve done to ensure their safety, their good manners, their reputations – how did it come to pass that I have wild girls? The locks open and the guilt rushes in like water; mother-guilt, Catholic guilt, for what I have done, for what I have failed to do, and what else are they up to, what is the next thing my neighbors, or their parole officer, will reveal to me?

All I want in the world for them is safety, well-being, for them to make it out of high school, then through at least a couple of years of college without any major accidents, traumas or disasters. I want no juvenile records, no visits to rehab and no pregnancies. I want no ropes made of bedsheets dangling from the upstairs ledge. I want no Romeos playing guitar or tossing rocks at windows.

Why can’t I have two or three nice girls who sit properly in their chairs and attend to their own knitting, who look forward to a long summer of sewing their own clothes and scrubbing my floors, and who don’t talk back, only open their mouths to ask how they can help next, in between curing leprosy and balancing the national budget? But no, we have wild girls, it seems, who will soon be wearing leather miniskirts, straddling motorcycles, talking back to teachers and selling heroin to babies.

I go to a class for parents of teens and when I told my tale of woe – I have wild girls! – to the group, they all laughed and said: Um, hey, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? Is it really so bad? How do you make the leap from your girls getting excited and expressing their emotions to them selling heroin on the street?

How indeed? I think as a single parent I am acutely aware of the perceptions that people have of us, we who parent alone, and want to be doubly sure that I don’t fail. In a nutshell, it’s that same old societal pressure that’s always been hanging over our heads – gotta play Mozart in the cradle or they will be mathematically inept. Gotta put the kids into soccer, violin and French lessons by the time they’re four or else they’ll fail to get ahead. Gotta choose a career by the time they’re 12 or they’ll never get into the right college.

When I actually step back and look at the big picture, I see three beautiful, articulate, creative, empowered young women who know what they want and what they don’t want; they’re not afraid to express themselves and, in fact, demand the right to do so.

When I give it a clear-eyed review, I realize that the girls are just acting like teenagers, with no evil intentions (or not many). And I’m thinking that, considering the alternative – repressed, afraid, bullied, tongue-tied like I was at their age, that it’s good to be a wild girl.

Just don’t tell the neighbors.

(Note: This was originally published in 2005; my “sweetie” is now my Mr. Husband, and the wild girls have all grown up to lead happy, fulfilled lives. They’re still wild, but in a good way.)

The Longest Night

I love Christmas. I love the smell of pine needles, cinnamon, cookies baking. I love bright lights on Christmas trees. Candles. Some Christmas music (some I hate, but that’s because it’s terrible music, not because it’s Christmas).

2014-12-09 10.18.01-1We’re in that strange in-between era now when the kids are adults, but none has yet married. There are no grandbabies. So there’s no Santa. No cookies and a carrot left out. We still do stockings, but we also play Cards Against Humanities later in the day, and believe me, that is a game that will put you on the naughty list immediately. Sometimes we do Santa gifts (unwrapped) and sometimes not.

It occurred to me the other night how much things had changed since my girls were little, and I crocheted, sewed or otherwise crafted most of their gifts; back when baked goods were all we could afford to give, and we went to Mass and still lit Advent candles.

Nowadays we have a crab feast on Christmas Eve, which has become almost the best part of Christmas. But this is a fairly new tradition for us. I started making Christmas Eve a special feast when I didn’t get the kids on Christmas Day. It was the only way to make up for missing the better day of stockings, gifts and more.

A vindictive divorce with a spiteful ex left me with little furniture and no ornaments. The first year I got the girls for Christmas, we strung popcorn and made paper chains, and I bought each of us a few ornaments for “our” tree, not the other tree with the familiar ornaments we’d always had. We went to a paint-your-own pottery studio and painted all the rejected bits (all I could afford) and every year I have had to look at those silly pig and cow ornaments (who puts pigs and cows on a Christmas tree? We did.) and feel bereft of what we’d lost. One of the few ornaments I bought was a blown glass Christmas pickle, which came with a tag that said it was a German tradition. We aren’t German, but what the heck?

IMG_4569Our Christmases together became more precious because we knew we would be ripped apart the next day, or thrown together after one hurried holiday, to try to get our bearings, adjust to the sugar rush or late night without sleep, start fresh in the morning. A divorced Christmas was painful for everyone.

Somehow, we made those negatives into positives. I was lying in bed with my husband the other night talking about Christmas traditions we shared, and he couldn’t believe that the Christmas Eve crab feast and the Christmas pickle were new, had not been in place for decades, for generations. But it’s true – I had just grasped at straws, followed whims, and made it work. And today, those random moments feel like solid traditions.

Our traditions and holidays keep changing. All of our adult children work in restaurants or hospitality, and that means weekends are booked; days off are Tuesdays or Thursdays. One of our girls, a pastry chef, works Christmas Eve, Christmas morning til noon, and Dec. 26 at 6 a.m., so there will be no overnight, just a flying visit in the afternoon, for her stocking and gifts. For the first time in several years, we might have that crab feast on Dec. 25 instead of Christmas Eve.

And we live in an apartment now. It’s harder than ever for all the adults to find a place to sleep (who wants to sleep on the floor?), and awaken to see what Santa has left. So we probably won’t do that, either. But we no longer have custody disputes or the back-and-forth of shared holidays. That tradition, thank god, is also gone.

So how will we celebrate Christmas this year? What will we do? Be a family. We are two parents of four adults and one teen, one cat, and one granddog who accompanies Daughter #3. We will probably have a son-in-law by next Christmas, maybe even a grandchild on the way.

Things change. We’re adaptable. We’re staying fluid and flexible, reaching out, letting it go, making it work. I didn’t sew a single gift this year, nor have I baked even one Christmas cookie. But the lights twinkle on the tree, my husband’s annual thematic holiday CD is playing in the living room, and somehow, one day or another, weather permitting, there will be cracked crab.

Tradition? Whatever sticks. Worried about it? Not at all.

IMG_4574Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule and a Happy Kwanzaa to all. And that goes for Krampus and Festivus, too. Party on, kids.

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