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 #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.

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)

Midnight Blues

 

raccoon

The junior high that I attended in 7th grade sat right across from my neighborhood elementary school and just a few short blocks from my house. It was close enough that I still walked home for lunches instead of eating in the cafeteria. I remember a day that spring when my mother had some sort of appointment around noon. She suggested that I invite my friend, Jean, to come home with me for a sandwich at lunchtime. Not sure if we ever got to the food, but we DID get into some makeup stashed away in the hallway cupboard.

The two of us had previously experimented a bit with foundation and a light touch of mascara swirled from those familiar red tubes (usually “sable brown” and only “velvet black” if we were feeling daring). This was the 1960’s when everything British seemed to be popular in the United States following the advent of the Beatles. Jean and I spent hours poring over magazines, admiring the exotic styles and appeal of not only the Fab Four, but those famous made-up faces like Patti Boyd, Jean Shrimpton, Jane Asher and Twiggy.

makeup vintage

During the minutes when Jean and I should have been building bologna sandwiches, we discovered a miniature red container of solid mascara, holding its own tiny brush. Water required and color, “midnight blue.” Dealing with that new format would have been difficult under any circumstance. Rushing to reach just the right consistency, applying the goop, and getting back to school in less than an hour was a horrible mistake. The key words here are “blue” and “clumpy.” There was no turning back, however, with not enough time to whip out the oily eye makeup remover for repairs. Besides, we were unconvinced that we looked all THAT bad.

The kids in Mr. Hickman’s science class that afternoon may have given us some sideways glances, but maybe they were just jealous? By the time I got home from school I looked like a bruised raccoon. My mother was appalled when I walked in the door.

The occasion seemed a turning point. I entered that difficult stage where many of us have been unwitting visitors. Still craving the safety of childhood, we were pulled into adolescence and gravitated toward the perceived thrill of adulthood. Mom was well-aware of my quirks and struggles with introversion and usually quite empathetic. We had some interesting years. Lots of tears, tons of worry, many mistakes, but happy times, too.

Strategies for dealing with sleep problems during my teens evolved from counting the numerous dolls on top of my dresser to leaving popular music turned on throughout the night for company. When my clock radio read midnight and problems grew too large for slumber, I sometimes crept down the stairs and stood in the hallway. If she heard me, Mom soon got out of bed and motioned me into the dining room. She clicked up the thermostat, and I settled next to her on the warming, cast iron radiator. Then we would talk.

~Becky

Baby Becky
Ella holding baby Becky; Terri and Philip
Three of Us
Terri, Mark & Becky (before the makeup bug bit!)

Unexpected Poetry

 

elevators

Doors closed, and I pressed the button for my floor, setting down heavy shopping bags that bit into my hand. Out of habit, my eyes turned to the plastic sleeve on the wall with announcements for upcoming tenant activities or events in the local Square.

Nothing colorful, this time, but just a plain typed page with no images. Black on white in an everyday font, it appeared to be a poem. I began to read and was captivated by the words. As I drank in emotions conveyed through the poetry, I rode the elevator for several extra floors. Before exiting, I committed the title and writer’s name to memory.

Further inquiry revealed that the author, Jane Kenyon, had lived an existence of beauty, love, and longing. A life ended much too early, her story captured my imagination. Born and educated in my home state of Michigan, Ms. Kenyon met and married the poet, Donald Hall, later moving to New Hampshire. She worked as both a translator and poet, often writing about nature and the struggle of dealing with depression. She was serving as New Hampshire’s poet laureate when leukemia took her at the young age of 47.

jane kenyon

I have since enjoyed reading many other offerings by Jane Kenyon, but that first poem, “Otherwise,” resonates with me more than any. The words serve as a stark reminder to appreciate the special gifts of each day. Take notice, it says, “one day…it will be otherwise,” and you will no longer have this.

Since that time, no other poetry has appeared in the elevators of my building. Maybe it was never there at all?

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

 

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

—Jane Kenyon  1947-1995

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #4: Northern Connection

Teenie Weenie small book

When I was a kid in Michigan, my father’s job required travel, and he was rarely home early in the evening for our nightly rituals. On the rare occasion that he was, however, Dad usually told us marvelous bedtime stories. We were especially enthralled by his tales about the Teenie Weenies. Not sure about my  older sister or younger brother, but I suspected that they actually lived under the large willow tree in our back yard.

I had no idea at the time that my father’s ideas came from comic strips and picture books about these characters, in addition to product advertising, like the examples below, that also contained short stories about these little people. His grandchildren remember listening to these entertaining adventures of the Teenie Weenies, as well.

Teenie Weenie poster

        teenie weenie poster 2

Years later, I found myself exploring the “nostalgia” section of a used bookstore near downtown Dallas, and there it was…a picture book that I never knew existed! The Teenie Weenies Under the Rosebush, written and illustrated by William Donahey, was not in great shape, but I didn’t care. Besides, it was marked $2, and I probably would have paid $20 for that memory.

That purchase prodded me toward more research about the author and his works. As luck would have it, not too long after the bookstore expedition, a weekend collectibles sale at a Texas mall turned up my charming Monarch toffee and peanut butter magazine ads shown above that each sport a story about the Teenie Weenies. It wasn’t until the advent of ebay, after I had moved back to Michigan, that I realized just how many vintage products besides books are out there wearing the likenesses of those intriguing little people…and often at a very large price tag!

The synchronicity doesn’t end there. I knew that William Donahey and his wife, Mary, who was also an author, were from the Midwest. In my internet research, I had read about a North Woods vacation cabin, of sorts, that the Reid-Murdoch/Monarch company gave the couple as a gift. It was fashioned after the company’s pickle barrels, for which Mr. Donahey had done some ads. The structure was made up of two sections, with the larger part rising two stories and connected to a shorter section that served as a kitchen.pickle barrel house old

Evidently the Donahey’s fame and popularity drew too many visitors to the vacation home, which became quite a headache for the pair. After about a decade, they gave the building away to a merchant in a nearby town and built a more private log cabin. What I didn’t know was that the location where the Pickle Barrel House ended up wasn’t far from where I had moved in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A pleasant spring drive about fifteen years back ended up in the picturesque village of Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior. Lovely bay with bobbing sailboats, silvery vintage diner near the Square for a fun lunch, and…what was that strange structure as we rounded the corner? A unique wooden building shaped like a barrel! There I am, below, holding my sweet dog, Boo Boo, in front of the somewhat peeling Pickle Barrel House. Since that day, the Grand Marais Historical Society has restored the house and made it into a museum. I regret that I didn’t make it back to see the results, especially since life finds me, once again, living in Texas.            ~Becky

pickle barrel house (2)

 

Heikki Lunta and Story Publication!

fantasy Heikki Lunta (2)

For many years, I lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I wasn’t a native “Yooper,” however, and never heard of “Heikki Lunta” while living in the Lower Peninsula. In the past, people had come to the U.P. from many different countries to work in the copper mines. There’s still an especially recognizable Finnish influence in many areas.

Finland
Finland

When I first heard of Heikki Lunta, I assumed that it was a mythological Finnish goddess or god. I was on the right track, but not quite right. Ukko is a god of weather, and Vellamo is a goddess of storms. There was no supreme being specifically for snow, which seems surprising, given that’s such a snowy part of the world.

Fast forward to 1970. As the story goes, U.P. promoters for an upcoming snowmobile race were concerned because not much snow had yet fallen that winter. A record was aired on a local radio station in which the singers pleaded with “Heikki Lunta,” a snow god of sorts, to send more of the white stuff. The whole idea took off, or “snowballed,” you might say.

Heikki Lunta sign (2)

These days, businesses like this one on the right often put up signs asking that deity for more snow. By spring, there are sometimes signs asking him to stop! At least one town in the Upper Peninsula has named its yearly winter festival after Heikki Lunta.

What does all of this have to do with my story being published, you might ask. Now living in Texas, I’m struck with the fact that many of the children here (and sometimes the adults) wish dearly that it would snow!

A few winters back, we did get a pretty healthy dusting, here in the North Dallas suburbs. My two youngest granddaughters were thrilled, and my daughter let them stay home from school to play in the snow. That’s the day my idea for a meeting of reality and myth, in “Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta” was conceived. I’m thrilled to report that my fictional story for kids and families, alike, now appears in U.P. Reader #3.UP Reader #3

Texas snowman
Texas Snowman

cowgirl boots b&w