Maybe it was the fish tacos and too much pinot gris at dinner. Or the craving for dark chocolate and crushed peanuts that followed. Who know why I, or anyone else, spent Tuesday night tossing and turning between fits of waking and sleeping
That was the night I found myself in the living room of an old two-story house with a stoop, its exterior shingled in navy squares of asbestos. Inside was a group of people who were dressed as though they were going to church, one that required dresses for women and suits for men. A woman in a royal purple wrap and black patent leather pumps, sat on an olive green couch. She looked familiar, much like someone whose face I knew from Goodreads.com but had never met in real life.
I didn’t know what I was doing in this place more than an hour from my house and feared it was a start-up church, the kind that focused on the Old Testament, perhaps used the New Testament in ways Jesus would not have liked. I’d been done with bad news churches for decades and had no interest in squirming through a sermon that would leave me snippy.
Now, the good news in this story is that these people, all middle-aged and white, had gathered in the middle of nowhere in a starkly furnished house to play a kind of charades that involved no alcohol or shouting. Even the silent gestural clues were modest. Such civility intimated me into silence. I had no idea a party game could be so dull. When there was a break, I plotted my getaway and stood to leave, but something amazing happened before I acted on it. As I opened to door to leave, President Obama and the First Lady came through up to the door and entered. I decided to stay a while longer.
Rather than shake hands or politicize, the Obamas, too, came to play charades. They were crazy about the game. Before taking a seat, Michelle said to me, “I heard about your novel, Cooley & Rose. I want to read it.”
Thrilled – how did she know me? – I excused myself to go to my car to grab a copy, even though, until that moment, I had no idea how I’d driven there. Dreams are like that. Details come when you truly need them. All the way to the car and back, I reminded myself to take a photo of Michelle holding my book, to ask someone to take a picture of the two of us. Once I was inside, however, I was so awed by the power of word-of-mouth, especially the mouth that knew a First Lady, that I forgot my intentions. I left with no recorded memory of the moment, and nothing to help sell my modest indie undertaking. The disappointment was crushing.
And it was the next morning, too, when I woke from my dream. I still wanted those photos.
Last week, a friend went to Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore and stayed at an inn for a few days and met the couple who was running the inn while the owners slipped away to to a Jimmy Buffett concert across theChesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach. After my friend learned the wife grew up in South Norfolk, she told her of my novel, Cooley & Rose, which begins and ends in her hometown.
The substitute innkeeper downloaded the e-book and immediately read it. What follows is a portion of the email she wrote to my friend.
“Just finished reading Cooley & Rose. I love it and imagined the place she wrote about to be places from my childhood. My sister did the same. She even mentioned a Mrs. Dowdy being “saved.” That was my maiden name, and my great grandmother was extremely religious . . .”
If you think this is a shameless plug for Cooley & Rose, you’re only half right. There’s a story here.
Because I thought the reader would be interested, I wrote her the following:
“I think that your religious great-grandmother was probably the woman that my grandmother referred to as “Sister Dowdy.” I don’t think I ever met her, but my grandmother talked about her often, and the name stayed in my mind for all of these years. I liked the sound of “Dowdy,” so I used it.”
I went on to give her some of my family background – the names of my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great aunt and her husband who was the local pharmacist.
She replied to my email. The first line read, “I think we are related!” Then she told me why. In short, our great-grandmothers were sisters. As adults, they lived only three houses away from each other.
Now, I also have unknown cousins on my mother’s side, and only the Chesapeake Bay separates me from this one, whom I hope to meet soon.
What I haven’t told her is that about 15 years ago, my HOBL and I went to the town where she lived and looked at property, and we came across a charming old brick church that was for sale. In my mind I began envisioning it as a house, then as a home, but my HOBL nixed that idea when he learned that the town didn’t have a clay tennis court.
If it had, my new cousin and I might have discovered each other sooner.
NOTE: Goodreads.com is giving away three paperback copies of Cooley & Rose. Deadline to submit our request is Sept. 15, 2013. Paperbacks are for sale at Amazon.com, and e-books are available for all readers. Visit your favorite online store.
For most of my life, I had no desire to marry. From what I saw, marriage didn’t have much to offer a woman except a life of drudgery, more submission that compromise, and no time of her own until the kids were grown and gone and the husband still employed or dead.
Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but having grown up as the youngest in my family, I had already lived with too many bosses, and I could see no reason to commit myself to another.
If you’re a reader of this blog, however, you know I changed my mind when I was 41 and found myself becoming engaged to marry in a circumstance more fitting for a creepy thriller than real life. There was no bent knee, no diamond ring, no roses, not even dinner. If you don’t know the details and want to know more, scroll down to the title with the word “stalker” in it.
The idea for this post came early this a.m. By the time I rose at 6:30 a.m., my hunk of burning love (HOBL)had already cut back the limbs of the floribunda rose bush that had sprawled across the side courtyard toward the door to the house, picked our first tomatoes, lopped of the top of a bush that had been tall as a small tree, and fed the three dogs and the cat. Amazing, right?
But he wasn’t always like this.
When I was in my thirties, a friend of mine, who was ready to meet the father of her future children and thought I should be, too, despite my protests, told me to stop being picky. “Find a good guy,” she said. “One that’s trainable.”
By this point, she had started applying her hiring skills to her love life. For her, finding a husband had become a priority project.
“If he has a shirt you hate, throw it out. Bad haircut? Take him to a different hair cutter. You can change the small things. But you’ve got to find a great guy.”
At the time, I truly felt I would never have any need for this information, but the fact that she had set herself such guidelines amazed me. Where was the romance?
Then came the moment I learned my HOBL wanted to marry me, and in a flash, my friend’s advice returned to me, and I knew that I had found a man that I could marry without being shackled to domesticity or his every whim and whom I could train.
Right away I threw out his red, white and blue, paisley shirt and urged him to stop smashing the hair on the top of his head flat.
Other than that, my training of him didn’t seem to take. I taught him how to cook a variety of seafood, to make salad dressings and mashed potatoes, which he loved, but he’d forget how and couldn’t be bothered to read a cookbook. I showed him how to separate clothes for the wash, but our underwear ended up smoky blue or pink. I reminded him that a closed door to my writing shed office meant I was working and not to disturb me, but he did anyway, with our three dogs at his heels.
Then this year, everything changed. Some evenings I came in from my shed to find him cutting up vegetables to roast with a pan of fish filets nearby, ready to be broiled. He started separating the wash and using the wrinkle-free setting. He saw what needed to be done in the yard and did it! Without nagging or to-do notes from me.
No long ago, I called my friend, now a happily married mother of two teenage girls, and said, “You didn’t tell me the training would take 18 years.” She laughed.
I bragged to everyone about my husband and even advised my niece to find a good guy who was trainable, and, after running my mouth, something came to me that probably everyone else already knew but hadn’t mentioned. My HOBL had trained me.
I had added color to my black-and-white wardrobe and cut my hair. I no longer freaked when dishes from late night snacks set in the sink unwashed overnight. He taught me not to act rashly or over-react, that perfection is more of a nasty compulsion than a virtue and that lies, such as “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look big,” from him or “No, you aren’t going bald,” from me can be a small gestures of love.
Update: Interested in winning one of three, free paperback copies of my novel, Cooley & Rose? Or other new novels? Go to Goodreads.com, and participate in its First Books giveaway. The promotion for Cooley & Rose will run through Sept. 15, 2013.
Ten months ago, after visiting his hometown of Winston-Salem, my father told me about his cousin’s daughter who was near my age and, like me, was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic in her forties. In hindsight, I guess the important detail was that we shared an odd medical history. At the time, however, I was shocked andthrilled to find out I had a female cousin my age. It had always seemed that men had overrun the Perrel side of my family. But I was wrong.
Becky and I met on Facebook. When I studied her picture, I saw we had we had the same full face, the same small teeth which a friend once described as “a row of pearls;” and chestnut-colored hair. (Yes, that’s my original color.)
I learned that she, too, loved to read good books, both fiction and non-fiction; had developed into a foodie who hoarded bottles of capers; and had traveled a lot. I saw the big difference between us last winter when one photo after another on FB showed her with her HOBL, both bundled like the Michelin man with mounds of snow everywhere. Ugh, I thought. How can that be? I spent three winters in Columbus, Ohio, and, when I returned to Virginia Beach, I prayed I’d never see snow again. But my cousin, although she kept houses in North Carolina, had made New Hampshire her home!
She also told me that I had a slew of cousins, most of them female, so a few weeks ago, my HOBL and I set out to meet them.
Our first stop was to meet Becky in Holden Beach, an outer banks island eight-miles long just north of the South Carolina line. It’s a lovely, slow-paced place that reminded me of Virginia Beach before it became an overgrown city.
There, I again noticed her teeth, the similar shape of her face, and then I saw we were the same height and wore the same shade of orange polish on our toenails. The first hour there, I suffered a small case of first-date jitters that started to dissipate as we lunched al fresco by the inter-coastal waterway and vanished completely by mid-afternoon as we noodled in a pool and gabbed, taking time every once in a while to float in comfortable silence.
I won’t tell you about every second of our two-days there, although it was Becky who took us to Mary’s Gone Wild, but so many occasions pointed out how simpatico we were. At a Celtic store in nearby Southport, we learned that each us had been thinking of buying a ukulele. So we did. Orange ones. Not because we wanted them to match but because we both love that color.
From Holden Beach, we went to Winston-Salem, where I’d often gone as a child to visit my grandmother’s family. The night we arrived, we dined with Becky’s mother, Billie Jane, a kissing cousin to my father. Newly turned 85, she’s a beautiful and gracious woman, a former yogini, with a soft voice and a great sense of humor. She flattered me greatly by saying that once she started reading my novel, Cooley & Rose, she couldn’t stop to fix her 5 o’clock supper. She had to keep reading.
By then, I’d already developed a sore throat, and by the morning, the day of a birthday lunch for all of the cousins born in June, my voice was fading. Becky, her husband who had returned the previous night from Singapore, and my HOBL went without me. While they were gone, I napped, then met her neighbor who commented on much Becky and I looked a like.
When the three returned four hours later, my husband said, “I wished you’d met these people 20 years ago. They are so much fun.” In particular, he named three of my senior cousins who came and went in a big Cadillac and made him laugh the whole time in between.
But, thanks to Becky, I didn’t miss everything. She took individual videos of all but one of my cousins, saying “hello,” and more, and watching and listening to Kent, Kay, Mickey, Gail, Helen and so many more made me both teary and happy and wanting to return soon.
Saturday morning I woke unable to speak, my neck swollen, and knew I needed to head home to my bed and, most likely a doctor, even though my cousins had organized an early birthday party for her mother the next day that would include other cousins and their families. Cousins I’d been following on Facebook. Lucky for me, the wife of one stopped by Becky’s house the day we arrived, so I was able to meet Karin, but I had so looked forward to getting to know Jan, Pat and Tim.
In a bare whisper, I asked Becky if maybe my HOBL and I could stop by and see Tim, who lived nearby, on the way out of town. She located him at his 92-year-old father’s, and led us to him.
Meeting Becky was big deal for me, because I’d never known extended family members with whom I could talk books or politics or food or health or nail polish. Then, at the next stop, two other big things happened.
First, Tim, who looks nothing like me, told of how my maternal great-grandmother, who had lived next door to his father and was not related to him, would sit on her porch on warm summer nights with the neighborhood kids gathered around her and tell stories. Since I’d only met her one or twice as a small child before she died, that information thrilled me since my life has been about stories and the cause-and-effect of actions.
He also told me that soon he was going once gain teach classes based on Julie Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, a book I’d read years ago, and that he also biked, had studied Tai Chi and did yoga. I couldn’t speak, so Tim had had no idea, until he saw me smiling and nodding, that all of those had been important to my life, too. He mentioned that the next day, he was headed with his wife and either a mandolin or guitar to Ireland, a country that I fell in love with many years ago.
What I had intended to be a 15-minute visit turned into an hour or more. Tim and his sweet honey of a father, Bink, are professional musicians, and Becky plays the guitar, too, and sings, and, around the kitchen table the three of them played one song after another as I again teared up, moved because I belonged to this family.
Several readers asked to see more photos from Mary’s Gone Wild which I wrote about last time. Here are four. I hope you enjoy them.
Fifteen years ago the Lord came to Mary Paulsen during a dream and told her to start making art, and she obeyed him, even though her husband and mother-in-law laughed at her. After all, red-headed Mary knew nothing about paint or brushes or color therapy or the high cost of supplies. But that didn’t stop her. She had faith.
Mary gathered empty bottles of all sizes and shapes, salvaged windows from tear-downs and renovations. She invited the people of Supply, NC to drop off their unwanted junk. She bought paint and brushes and, later, power tools and went to work.
The result is Mary’s Gone Wild, a dazzling village of play-size houses built by the artist, herself, and that houses a fairy garden, folk art galleries, a museum of more than 6,000 dolls, a Coke-Cola house, a boat sculpture made from wine bottles and more. Because her preferred canvas is glass, this tiny town glows during daylight. People come from all over the United States to buy her folk art painted on old windows. Depictions of roosters, flowers, cartoonish worms, dancing crabs. Many others come to talk to Mary, browse her creations, and leave donations to help her feed tens of thousands hungry children in North Carolina.
No one, except Mary, is laughing at her now.
You can find Mary at 2431 Holden Beach Rd. SW, Supply, NC. She welcomes visitors from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 365 days a year.