River to Skate Away On

Becky at 5 with new skates
Becky at 5 Years with New Skates

Like most children growing up in Northern Michigan in the Fifties and Sixties, I learned to ice skate. I wasn’t talented, since my ankles were rather weak, but I enjoyed the activity. The holiday season transports me back through the years to the ice ponds of my youth. The current temperatures here in Texas have even stayed low enough to help the temporary rink at the corner stay frozen, and I enjoy watching the skaters from my second-floor perch.

In childhood, we often skated to music at the large ice rink in a neighboring town. Memories of frozen toes and the song “Sugar Shack” surface when I think of those years. Before the climate started to change (and before we knew it would turn into a crisis), a winter recreational area called Silver Valley, in the Huron National Forest situated near my hometown, offered toboggan runs, skiing, and frozen ponds for skaters. Being a cautious child, skating was the only thing I wanted to try, and I remember the rinks being much too crowded for my taste.

Log Warming Shelter at Silver Valley

Even closer to home, we had several other options. My clearest recollection is the time my dad shoveled the snow off a large area of ice on the creek behind our house. My mother was prone to worry, so the creek was a place she often warned her children to avoid during the other seasons, for fear we would slip into the water. With that same fear in the back of my mind, the idea of skating on that frozen version still seemed scary to me. I imagined the snapping turtles, snakes and minnows underneath the crust just waiting for me to fall through. My brother and sister agreed to try nature’s ice, along with a group of neighbor kids. Who was I to chicken out, so I finally agreed and followed my father toward the creek.

The surface was a bit bumpy, but I was just hitting my stride when I heard Dad yelp in surprise. My worst fear had come true, and he’d fallen through the ice! With a pounding heart I skated his direction, near the bank. As it turned out, his one leg had gone through just to the knee. He said it was a mushy spot in the ice caused by some running water entering the creek. Not sure if it was from a natural spring or some type of city pipe. That was all I needed, and I hung up my skates for the day!

One year, my dad made an ice rink right in our back yard. Just as he would come home from work in the warm seasons and turn on the hose to water the flowers, that winter, my father often got out the hose to add more water to form a new layer on our rink. That was also a little bumpy, I remember, but it was fun to skate in our yard and quite a novelty to share with our neighbors. I asked him about that, years later, and he admitted it was a lot of extra work, but he knew we liked it, and he hated to give it up once he got started.

1961 – Big Sister, Terri, and Becky  Skating in Yard

I couldn’t possibly write about ice skating without including one of my favorite songs, “River,” by Joni Mitchell. Sad but lovely.

Lonely Road

This time of year, especially during a cold snap here in Texas, I often think back to my harrowing trip when I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My story, “Lonely Road,” was first published in U.P. Reader in 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

Lonely Road

“It probably won’t snow much,” he assured me. His voice was confident, but concern flashed in his eyes behind wire rimmed glasses. Was that worry connected to the driving conditions or to the direction we were taking our relationship? I sat on a bench outside the mom-and-pop restaurant in Munising and quickly exchanged shoes for fur-lined boots.

Since we had no good way to communicate on the road, before cell phones, we agreed ahead of time to meet there for lunch. The waitress had alerted us to some messy weather on our intended route along the lakeshore, at the same time she offered dessert of apple or raspberry pie.

I was moving from downstate Michigan to join him in the Upper Peninsula city of Marquette, where we planned to give our marriage another try. He waited for a large logging truck to pass, waved a little salute, and then carefully pulled his dark Jeep and the trailer that carried my belongings onto the road.  I followed in my small, silver car and watched the first flurries of the season begin to decorate the landscape.

While I drove, I focused on our future together and hoped we had made a good decision. Typically a nervous winter motorist, I tried to push away any anxiety about slippery roads.  Fewer vehicles shared the two-lane highway with each mile, and the area became increasingly remote.  Pine and bare hardwood trees were thick, and homes or businesses became scarce.  The few towns and villages we passed were each marked by a lone stoplight or blinker. The flakes fell faster, blown by escalating winds.  For better concentration, I turned Van Morrison down a bit and switched my fan onto high for more heat.  Rarely catching sight of the Jeep through the thickening white, I reduced my speed to keep the car from sliding.

When I passed the first snowplow, I was relieved the county was prepared for the early blizzard.  Even so, they seemed to be having trouble staying ahead of the swiftly falling snow.  I fought the wheel to hold my course and regretted that my vehicle was so light.

Weather near Lake Superior is famously extreme and can change drastically without warning.  A perky voice on the radio suggested Marquette would receive only a dusting, and I expected to be out of the worst of it before long.  Although the clock read early afternoon, the sky was a deep leaden-gray.  A pickup with darkened headlights passed me, and I flashed mine, hoping they got the message. I stared ahead and followed imprints of tires that shifted with each gust.  Time slowed to a crawl.

The Jeep must have been well ahead of me, since I hadn’t seen it in quite a while. My fingers gripped the steering wheel too tightly, going numb, and I tried to relax them.  I shifted by body forward in an attempt to see the road more clearly through the effects of the howling wind.

Any expectation of heat for my toes long abandoned, I diverted all warm air toward the defroster to retain a clear view.  My wipers laboriously worked to clear the expanse of glass, but to no avail.  Ice began to form on the blades, and portions of my windshield became opaque.

I followed what seemed to be a single vehicle track, at times, and avoided the disappearing ditches. I wondered occasionally if I was even on the right side of the road in that tunnel of white.  Minutes felt like hours.  Although my teeth chattered from the cold, I detected droplets of sweat trickling between my breasts. Heart pounding in my ears, I knew pulling off the road was a magnet for trouble, but finally felt there was no choice.

In the stilled car, I turned on my emergency flashers and wondered how he fared.  His Jeep with four-wheel drive was more suited for the weather, but hauled that unfamiliar trailer.  Through the span of thick whiteness, I saw a barely visible, blinking light moving toward me.  Another plow, I guessed, and prayed its driver could see my vehicle where it sat.  In relief, I determined it was well on the opposite side, as it crawled closer.  When it stopped across from my snow-covered car, the driver cranked down his window and motioned for me to do the same.

“Broken down, ma’am?” the ruddy-faced man hollered.

“No. I can’t see where I’m going,” I called back.

“Good,” I was surprised to hear him respond, over the sounds of the gale.  “There’s a place back a bit, from the way you came. A parking lot to get off the road.”

“Didn’t see it,” I responded, shaking my head in the negative.

“Turn around, and I’ll lead you there,” he yelled and rolled the glass closed before I could answer.

My whole body vibrated from cold and fear. I searched both ways through the whiteout for any oncoming traffic and held my breath.  The car struggled for traction and finally completed a slow u-turn, while I joined the giant machine in a wintry parade.  After a mile or two, the driver reached his arm out the window and pointed a gloved hand to the left.  I spied a parking lot that held several cars covered in white, tooted my horn in thanks, and turned.

Through deep drifts exposing few traces of recent activity, I drove close to the building.  After my engine was quieted, I first heard a loud ringing in my ears, followed by silence only the insulation of thick snow and ice can provide.  I grabbed my hat and gloves from the seat and started the short trek up to what the dilapidated, crooked sign announced as the ‘Tioga Tavern.’

At a small table near the dancing fire, I took off my gloves and held a cup of coffee for comfort, more than anything else.  I assured the welcoming bartender that I wasn’t interested in something to eat. His eyes seemed curious about my situation, but he didn’t ask. Peanut shells embellished the floor, and a silent, old-fashioned jukebox rested on the other side of the scarred, wooden dance floor.  It must have been quite the hot spot on a Saturday night.

Not sure what to do next, I waited for the adrenaline to subside and willed the weather to clear.  I hated making him worry, but knew he might be driving on toward Marquette without realizing my absence.  I also feared he may have slid off the road and needed help. If I called the police, would they look for someone missing in the storm?

Besides the bartender, the only inhabitants that stormy afternoon were a few ancient men in flannel shirts and suspenders, who played some sort of a card game at a table, and several talkative couples at the bar.  While I sipped the hot, bitter liquid and argued with my inner self over what action to take, I heard a jingle from the door. A burst of cold air followed a laughing, young couple into the room.  They climbed onto stools at the bar and ordered hot chocolates fortified by peppermint schnapps. After they took turns visiting the restroom, they settled in to sample their drinks.

“Man, it’s nasty out,” the young man said to the bartender.  “Would you believe, we passed a crazy guy walkin’, back there! He was tryin’ to find a woman’s car. Said she might’ve gone in the ditch, and he needed to walk so he wouldn’t miss her.”

“I wonder…” started the man behind the bar, glancing my direction.

Jolted by their words, I took a deep breath and joined them. “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear.  Can you tell me what the man looked like?” I asked the newcomers.

“Hard to tell under all that winter gear, but he seemed to have a reddish beard,” the young man answered.

“He wore glasses,” his female companion said, “They were kinda frosting over.”

I grabbed my gloves, headed to the door, and opened to the wailing blizzard.  Like frozen sand, it stung my eyes and I raised my hands to protect them.  Peering beyond the expanse of the parking lot, I saw a hooded figure in a heavy winter coat adorned by patches of white. He trudged alongside the road with his head bent against the icy onslaught.

Wild laughter of reprieve bubbled up from inside, and I yelled against the wind. I ran toward him through peaks and valleys of snow, like in a dream where movement is almost impossible.  Since he didn’t see or hear me, his head remained down as he plodded determinedly ahead.  When he finally sensed movement, his head jerked up to meet my familiar face. He veered off what was probably the shoulder of the road and headed toward me. Finally close enough, I leapt at him, and he caught me in his arms.

“Are you okay?” he asked, in a voice nearly stolen by the wind.

“Now I am,” I answered, so sure our life would be good.

I solemnly looked toward his eyes.  He gazed back, removed his mitten, and tenderly touched my cheek.

In the many years spent together, we often traveled that same isolated stretch of highway. The sign for the Tioga Tavern still hung lopsidedly from the front of the building. No matter the season, the windows remained dark, and no visitors were seen approaching its door. Had that warm building and the helpful people within been real, or were they figments of my imagination? I may never again feel the complete certainty about anything as I did on that day.

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #6: Rose Franken’s “Claudia” Series

I should be packing for my upcoming move, down one floor to my new, balconied apartment. Fellow book lovers know exactly what happens when you start going through your shelves. I’m lingering and looking each book over before placing it in a box! While paging through my “Claudia” books by Rose Franken, I decided to stop and write this post.

When I was in high school, a friend loaned me a book that had originally belonged to her mother. It was already decades old, but named after the couple, Claudia and David, the blue and gold cover appealed to me. At that time, I wasn’t an avid reader and probably didn’t start it right away. That might be why I hung onto it, taking the book with me when I moved after graduation. (Please note, I’m much better about returning books these days. Marilyn, if you’re out there, email me your address and I’ll send this treasure back to you:)

As a young mother, I did finally read the book and loved the world of Claudia and David Naughton, as they moved from New York City to suburban Connecticut. One afternoon, while my baby napped and I dusted furniture, I switched the television on to encounter those very same characters! I realized the movie, Claudia, must have been based on the first in a series. The search was on for more books!

Over the years, I’ve been lucky to find several more titles from the series, like those above, in used bookstores. The one on the left is an omnibus, containing the first title, Claudia, and the second, Claudia and David. Come to find out, both of those were made into movies with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young, pictured on the red dust jacket. I also love my paperback versions, shown below.

Knowing of the collection, my sister found and surprised me with the “Armed Services Edition” of Another Claudia. During WWII, many complete books were printed in a special size and shape to fit into the pockets of those in the Armed Forces. The book has water damage, and I always wonder if that’s from the conditions where it was taken during the war. Other books in the series are more challenging to find, but I’ve borrowed many from libraries in order to read and enjoy the complete series of eight.

Research tells me the saga of Claudia, her architect husband and their children began as stories by Rose Franken that appeared in Redbook and Good Housekeeping magazines, from about the late Thirties to late Fifties. In addition to the movies, “Claudia” was a hit play on Broadway and also appeared serialized on radio and for a short time on television.

By today’s standards, I suppose the stories are rather sentimental and melodramatic. They do address many important and timeless themes, such as marital temptation, gender issues, serious illness, war, financial woes, racism, and grief related to death and dying. There is always an underlying lightness, however, and a certain sense of redemption. Claudia grows up and comes into her own throughout the course of the series, and David evolves, as well. Both husband and wife are examples of strong individuals who aren’t afraid to lean on someone else when that’s what life requires.

Rose Franken 1895-1988

In addition to her writings about “Claudia,” Rose Franken was a well-known playwright and director who also wrote and successfully published many other novels. She was born in Texas but grew up in New York. A single parent, her first husband died of tuberculosis, and she drew upon that experience when she wrote about fictional David suffering from TB. She eventually remarried a lawyer, with whom she moved to Connecticut and collaborated on successful serial fiction and many movies. I found her autobiography, When All is Said and Done, to be as enjoyable as her novels.

I don’t really need more books, unless I plan on investing in some new bookshelves. However, while revisiting online sources today, I was reminded that map backs aren’t just for mysteries. I see that a paperback version of Young Claudia was published with a map on the back, so I may need to keep looking…

In My Blood

A Spring Favorite: Pulmonaria (Lungwort)

Gardening can be a pleasant diversion, economic necessity, motivating challenge, or even somewhat of an addiction. As mentioned in a previous post, my childhood was surrounded by lovely gardens that produced both beauty and bounty. In adulthood, I slowly grew into my own on the gardening front.

My Small Vegetable Garden in Michigan

All of this stopped short when I moved from my home in Michigan and chose a “temporary” Texas apartment with no personal outdoor space. I hoped to get more creative with indoor gardening and had no idea to what extent I would miss having a garden area beyond my windows. After about three years, my plans and hopes to change all of this have finally come together!

Indoor Plants in Current Place

A move just one floor down in my apartment building offers me the balcony of my dreams. I’ll miss the direct view of sunrise and many moons rising, as well, but by moving to the other side, I’ll have sunsets and a lovely view of the Square. On the second floor, I’ll also be closer to tree level and sounds of birdsong. What will I grow in my balcony garden?

View of Square from Balcony

My gardening experience in Texas is limited, so research is in order. To further complicate matters, I move in mid-November, which isn’t peak season. As we all know, climate is quite unpredictable these days, but I’m gathering resources about year ’round container gardening in Texas. I’d like to have something that flowers (pansies?) and herbs or other types of plants that might come in handy for cooking. I’d love to try leaf lettuce in the spring! Covering plants during the winter for protection during frost or even bringing pots inside shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I’m excited! Looks like my hardiness zone is listed as 8a. I’d love to read ideas in comments if you live in a similar area and have container planting ideas to share!

Pansies

This new activity will certainly be a pleasant diversion to get me away from the computer on occasion. This could even save me money that might otherwise be spent on fresh herbs, which can be pricey. I’m definitely motivated and intrigued by this new challenge. As for the addictive part, only time will tell. Gardening is, after all, in my blood. That phrase reminds me of a  song I love, “You’re in My Veins,” by Andrew Belle. Hope you like it, too, and will give it a listen!

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #5: Prolific Garis Family

One of my favorite activities is visiting used bookshops or resale stores that feature books. Often attracted to vintage publications, I’m typically drawn to those reminding me of something from my youth. I enjoy sharing these “fantastic finds,” hoping to spark a memory for blog readers, as well, or to create a new curiosity that leads down an intriguing avenue. Since I write for both children and adults, I have a vested interest in understanding what pulls people toward certain types of books.

Uncle Wiggily” was a popular board game when I was a young child. I remember having mixed feelings about playing with my family or friends and sometimes felt a bit of nerves during the game. Not sure if those related to some of the unsavory characters along the path of play, like the bad “Skeezicks” and “Pipsisewah,” or maybe I just didn’t want to lose! At the time, I was only vaguely aware of stories written about this rabbit, “Uncle Wiggily Longears.”

Hop forward almost forty years to the middle-aged version of me scanning the shelves at one of my favorite used bookstores in Michigan. There it was…a childhood memory in full color, also in rather tattered shape. It was still quite a steal at $8.00. The book, Uncle Wiggily Goes Camping, was mine! Written by Howard R. Garis, I decided to pursue details about the author.

                                            

Further research revealed that Howard Garis wrote thousands of Uncle Wiggily stories, which appeared in the Newark News for many years and in books; I also learned he wasn’t the only published author in his family. During the early to mid-1900s, he and his wife, Lilian, wrote hundreds of juvenile series chapter books. Some sported their actual names, while others were written under various pseudonyms for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, including Tom Swift books as “Victor Appleton” and the Bobbsey Twins series as “Laura Lee Hope.” As you can imagine, I needed more (books and information)!

                                    

 I purchased the treasure above, from the Melody Lane series by Lilian Garis, in a bookstore while living in North Carolina. It’s a former library edition and found its way south from a county in Pennsylvania. I was thrilled to come across it and love the art deco appeal of the cover. The frontispiece illustration and end papers with the dated library pocket (1946) are amazing.

Lilian and Howard had two children, a son, Roger, and younger daughter, Cleo. As a young man, Roger also wrote series books, such as The Outboard Boys. Cleo penned the Arden Blake Mysteries during that same period. The front of Missing at the Marshlands, shown below, isn’t very interesting without a dust cover, but the end papers are beautiful, and the overall condition is very good. This one was bought in a Minnesota bookshop that housed a wonderful vintage section.

                            

In middle age, Roger wrote a biography entitled, My Father Was Uncle Wiggily. I owned a copy, at one point, but gave it away as a gift, so that’s a stock photo, below. The book was a joy to read and has just the right combination of nostalgic family stories and other interesting tidbits, such as tales about Howard Garis being close friends with their neighbor, the poet, Robert Frost! I remember a few hints at some competition between the Garis elders and children, especially as time passes and incomes fluctuate. Roger also tells about his mother’s disappointment in her unsuccessful quest to move from writing for children to more serious works. Overall, the book is a very positive and enjoyable biography, and I didn’t question or care, particularly, whether every bit is true or written through “rose-colored” glasses. Enter the granddaughter, Leslie.Because of my interest in the Garis writing family, I occasionally do a quick internet search to see what I’ve missed. Around 2007, Roger’s daughter, Leslie, wrote House of Happy Endings: A Memoir, which was reviewed as being the story behind the fairy-tale. She recounts a difficult childhood watching her father’s struggle for success, independent of his parents, while he fought depression and addiction. In later years, Howard and Lilian had come to live with Roger, his wife, and three children. Leslie writes candidly about secretly observing much of the goings-on in the large house while hiding in the dumbwaiter.

The book is raw and difficult to read but feels very honest. It certainly dispels any ideas of a Garis utopian life. Not a happy book, but it does contain a certain feeling of hopefulness in the author’s attempts to understand the dynamics between her grandparents and parents, and to come to terms with some issues that follow her into adulthood and even affect her own child. I’ve never come across this memoir at a bookstore but couldn’t resist taking this post full circle. At the time of reading, I borrowed it through the interlibrary loan system. I’m not sorry to have read it, but the story is quite sad. I hope the author, Leslie Garis, has found a bit of her own happy ending.

Don’t Eat the…Daisies?

 

daisies
Daisies

Southern Living says that some of the best edible flowers are borage (taste like cucumbers), marigold (cheaper version of saffron), hibiscus (cranberries), pansies (grassy/minty), roses (fruity), violets (sweet), and nasturtiums (peppery). I’ve also read that many daisies are sweet to eat. In addition, not only are the blooms of nasturtiums edible, but the leaves also have a peppery flavor, and the buds may be marinated to make something like a caper! I’ve tried nasturtium leaves and like the flavor. I may have snuck a few of them into our salads that last summer I lived in Michigan. Shhhhhh…don’t tell!

nasturtium
Nasturtiums

For as long as I can remember, gardening has been important in my life. From childhood, central memories of my father feature him either gone to work or outside tending our grass and gardens. The lawn was lush, flowers gorgeous, and vegetables abundant. His mother was also an avid gardener, so he started young by helping her at home. As a teen, he cared for the yard of a local general practitioner and his wife, and Dad learned a great deal from them. Carrying his knowledge and love of things that grow into the future, he did his best to make sure that our own yard always looked pretty, even on a tight budget. As the years passed, my mother had more time and helped him a great deal, as well. It was a passion they shared.

 

baby Becky with flower fixed
Baby Becky ponders whether to sample a flower

When their three children were still young, they wanted to be sure we understood that all parts of growing things aren’t always edible. Yes, our giant rhubarb was amazing, but those leaves are poisonous! Toadstools in the yard were NOT mushrooms, and berries growing on bushes were best left for the birds. Occasionally, we helped with some of the weeding or harvesting and were told never to eat anything out of the garden without permission. This concept caused a bit of family friction at one time, I remember. My paternal grandparents lived a few blocks away and grew tall sumac bushes in their back yard.

sumac
Staghorn Sumac

One time we were at their house and Grandpa took us kids for a walk outside. While in back, he urged us to try some sumac berries. I hesitated, but was too shy to say no. Besides, he was an adult, so should know if it was safe. I remember the red berries tasted quite sour and not at all what I expected. When we showed up back indoors with red stuff around our lips, Mom was first worried and then started fuming. Dad tried to smooth things over and assured her the red variety of sumac was safe. Turns out, my father was right and had learned about the safety of that plant the hard way, through a humorous childhood experience of his own. That’s a story for another day!       ~Becky

Becky and Dad wheelbarrow fixed
Me and Dad

Critique Speak

critique group 4

Another year, another critique group? I’m pleased to say that I’ve joined a third, forming a wonderful triad. How is this one different? In this case, writers gather twice a month, which doubles the motivation to produce. Situated in a smaller room, our number is capped at six. That means we all share something for feedback most times. Attendees don’t read their works aloud but do send pieces in advance through email. Instead of evenings, this half-dozen meets in the cool of the library while the Texas sun is still high in the sky.

Although several other members also belong to multiple groups, each combination develops its own personality. One gathering is specifically aimed at writers and illustrators of children’s literature, and the other two attract those who write for various levels. We critique novel chapters, stories, poetry, songs, memoir, and other types of non-fiction. Want to know more about queries, summaries, or elevator pitches? These are also presented and analyzed. Most importantly, not only do we assess possible improvements, but point out the positives of what’s working in each piece.

Beyond the share/feedback cycle, all three configurations circulate information about upcoming events of interest, in addition to facts about submissions for agents and publishers. We celebrate, praise, and console, since this calling involves both highs and lows. I find the camaraderie among people with different backgrounds who all share a love of writing to be so exhilarating, interesting AND comforting. When I first started my journey, I had no idea how important this activity would become. If you’re a writer or illustrator and haven’t yet found just the right spot, I hope that you’ll continue your quest!

Feel free to share in comments what you like best about your critique group or what you would look for in your search!       ~Becky

book fest
FRISCO BOOK FEST: Fergal O’Donnell and Gary Thornberry (current and former presidents of Write Club); Becky Michael (founding member of Write 4 Kids)