Christmas Story


We had a baby born to our family early this morning. The first of a new generation on my side.

It is a muddled winter dawn. I lie in bed pondering the miracle of birth and feeling grateful for the health of mother and baby, as two great horned owls sing to one another in the woods.

There is joy in all creation.

Merry Christmas.

And now a little something from Book Three, Robert’s Rules.

Book Three of the North of the Tension Line Series is now with the publisher, being made beautiful for publication in the Spring.

In response to some enquiries, here is a brief excerpt.

****

After breakfast, Pali, who had the day off, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife on the neck.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“What about?” she asked, envisioning her mental list of the many things she had to do.

“Let’s just sit down together.”

With an inner sigh, Nika followed him into the next room. She never got as much done when he was home as when he was away. She sat in her favorite chair and looked at him with some impatience.

Pali looked down as he began to talk. “I think it’s time we thought about leaving the Island. I’ve been thinking that it might be a good thing for Ben.”

Her impatience forgotten, she focused all her attention on him as if her life depended on it. She forced herself to sound calm. “But we promised ourselves we’d never do that again. We love it here. It’s our home.”

“Nika, we need to think about this. We need to prepare Ben for his life. He’s growing up, and I can’t say I’m liking the way things are going. He can’t hide away here on the Island forever. There’s no future for him here—“.

Nika started to interrupt, but Pali kept talking “—or if there is, it’s a future he can only choose when he knows what else is out there. Think about his life here. He needs to learn about the world. Ben has no experience with the worst of human character. We can’t just throw him to the winds and expect him to fly.”

“But we did. We left and found our way. We were ok.” Her voice was low.

Pali shook his head. “It’s such a different world now. This culture. The lack of values. The pace. Ben won’t be able to keep up if we don’t help him to acclimate. And isn’t it better for him to encounter these things while we’re there to guide him and protect him?”

Nika was silent. Pali could see the tears welling up.

“We don’t have to decide now. We can think about it.” He got up and went over to her, kneeling next to her chair and taking her hands in his. “It’s our decision, Nika. Ours together. But I’m going to start looking. If something comes along, I won’t say yes if you don’t want me to. Just think about it, ok?”

She sat silent, afraid to speak, her heart and mind in a turmoil. She hated this. When they returned to the Island they had sworn they would never move away again. And now, here he was, threatening to rip her away from everything that mattered.

“Well,” she corrected herself silently, “not everything.”

She felt a flash of her old passion for this man who had been her other self for so long. She had always loved him, from the first day she saw him. He was the best man she had ever known. And, when she looked into her heart, she knew, as much as she fought against admitting it, that he was right.

“Just think about it,” he said again.

She nodded.

****

 

An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith

I had the pleasure of introducing Alexander McCall Smith on Thursday night at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. He was here to promote  his new book, The House of Unexpected Sisters. You can buy it here.

It can always be a bit dicey meeting someone you admire, because you’re never sure whether he will live up to your expectations. In this case, however, the author was exactly as his books reveal him to be: erudite, kind, funny, and charming. I hung back at the end of the signing in order to present him with one of my books (a presumption I had to work myself up to) and was able to observe his patience and warmth with every single one of the three hundred-some people who waited in line for his autograph.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 7.12.54 AMIt is difficult–if not impossible–to say anything original about a man so well-known, and, indeed, a Commander of the British Empire, but my attempt follows:

We live in troubled times. Although in the West we have lives of comfort and ease beyond the dreams of any other era of humanity, we wake, I believe, most days, with the sense that something has gone deeply wrong.

And then we realize that our Iphones are safe in the next room.

Modern life, in its material richness, is often plagued by anxiety. And when we have read the dire stories in the news, witnessed the crudeness and vulgarity of mainstream culture, and exhausted our capacity for cruelty and vituperation on Twitter, our minds and souls are in desperate need of an escape. If we have any sense at all, we turn to books as our refuge.

Alexander McCall Smith is the master of escapist literature. I use that term with deep admiration. It requires firm principles, deep courage, and a steadfast heart to look around and find joy and things to laugh about. Perhaps it also requires a bit of desperation.

His books, however charming, express both a deeply held moral philosophy and biting social satire. And whether it’s Isabel Dalhousie in her beautiful house in Edinburgh, Mma Ramatswe in Botswana, or seven year old Bertie reluctantly practicing yoga at 44 Scotland Street, his protagonists have a firm determination to do what’s right: to be honest, to express and appreciate beauty, to find meaning, and most particularly, to be kind.

The humor can be subtle or riotous, but the beauty, and warmth, and rich value of everyday people living everyday lives of meaning and virtue is at the core of every book. And today—indeed, in any era—that is a powerful and important thing.

Escapist literature is a banner of hope in a dark world. And, as Mma Ramotswe says: “… it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

Our guest, tonight, is an extraordinarily prolific novelist and story writer, over the course of many years. He is the author of multiple series—including my favorite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which features the hapless Herr Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld—and along with this new addition to his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, and to the 44 Scotland Street Series, has another new children’s book about to be published in Britain. He is the recipient of many honors, and a Commander of the British Empire.

The truth is, he needs no introduction to any of you, but I really wanted to meet him.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Alexander McCall Smith.

 

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

Well, it’s happened. Book Three, Robert’s Rules (Beaufort Books, Spring 2018), is finished, and off to the publisher. I say that in passive voice, as if it miraculously wrote itself. Not so. Over the course of the past year, and most particularly of the past six months, I have neglected friends, family, and dogs, and reduced my life to work, writing, and basic human survival. A trail of entropy lies behind me.

IMG_5146So, you ask: Now what will you do? Revel in the freedom? Drink champagne, or possibly bourbon? Walk the dogs? Go to Disney World?

Well, some of the above, except for the Disney part. But mostly more mundane things like do laundry, overthrow the reigning chaos in my office, and remind my family and friends that I still love them (the dogs, being dogs, still knew that). For both my dear readers, I will also go back to writing my blog.

On the other hand, I have, unintentionally, but apparently irresistibly (again that misleading sense of the passive), begun work on Book Four, A Small Earnest Question.

Life has its cycles.

 

Adding to the Menagerie

We were walking the dogs the other night, and we saw something ahead of us in the road. The sun was going down, and it was shining in our eyes. “What is that?” my husband asked. “Is it an animal?”

He held the dogs, while I went up to see. It was a tiny black kitten, sitting in the middle of the road. At first, I thought its eyes were not yet open, but as I peered into its face I had the terrifying thought that perhaps it had no eyes at all.

I picked it up reluctantly, and cuddled it against my sweatshirt, while my husband took the dogs and continued on the walk, figuring that their feelings toward the kitten might not be especially altruistic. The kitten and I went home.

I dabbed warm water on his eyes with a paper towel, and wiped away the crust that was keeping them shut. He had been completely blinded, but now his eyes were open.

I found some powdered milk in the pantry, and made some warm milk with brown sugar, and he lapped it up, trying, as Auggie does, to put his feet into it. 

Out in the country at our cottage, the township had no contract with the local humane society, so the Sheriff’s department contacted an emergency number, and somebody from the humane society called me back. They wouldn’t pick up, so we would have to bring him in.

By now he was getting lively, and didn’t want to be held, but I was afraid he would disappear under the porch or a bush and we wouldn’t find him again. When the dogs arrived the kitten stood on my shoulder and hissed and spit. Moses just looked puzzled. Pete and Auggie didn’t even notice him.

We drove him to the humane society, where nice people took him in, assured us that he wasn’t seriously ill, and made us sign a statement that he didn’t belong to us. “What’s his name?” asked the woman.

“Doskar,” I said. “Felix,” said my husband.

We missed the sunset, which had been the whole reason we had gone to the cottage, but we didn’t really mind. That kitten had a lucky, lucky day. I doubt he would have survived a night blind, in the woods, with raccoons and foxes and coyotes, swamps to get stuck in, water to fall into.  I can’t help worrying about what happened to his littermates.

Every time we left the house we found ourselves looking for kittens in the road. Hope they are safe somewhere, and warm.

 

He’s all right

After multiple treatments, Moses still smelled like skunk around his eyes and muzzle. I couldn’t put any of the harsher treatments near his eyes, so we went with the old-fashioned method of tomato paste.

Moses made it quite clear that this was beneath his dignity, but after he had wiped his face on Pete and splattered tomato paste all over Auggie, he contented himself with licking off some of the residue. He got several very big pieces of chicken for his patience. And he actually smells better too.

Meanwhile, I think we have his Halloween costume in the bag.

Sith warrior, anyone?

QUICK NOTE: If you would like to read my first novels in preparation for the release of the third in the series, Robert’s Rules, next spring, they are both on sale for $1.99 each on Kindle this month.

Skunked

FullSizeRender 7

So at 4:56 pm yesterday, four minutes before my you-can-stop-working-now alarm went off, I was done. My husband was away, I had worked all day, and I was a little stir crazy. So were the dogs.

I combed my hair, put on some lipstick, and decided to go to the local farmers’ market to see if there was anything tempting. The dogs had already had their big walk of the day, but it was cool and cloudy, so they could come along and sit in the car if I stopped. That way they wouldn’t sulk at being left behind.

We all piled into the car, but when we got there, everybody had already gone. I needed to see the sky, so we went for a little drive. After some random driving around I ended up at the grocery store. Not as good as the farmer’s market, but I’m always happy with a fresh rotisserie chicken.

As I returned to the car ten minutes later, I opened the hatch to put the groceries in the trunk. Moses was leaning his face on the backseat looking soulfully at me. “Oh, you big baby,” I said. “You are such a good dog. I know what you want.” He sighed, his eyes never leaving my face. “Ok. Just one little spin around the woods. Would you like that?”

So we went to the woods. I in my new jeans and new suede espadrilles (I know) and dogs in their usual attire. The woods have trails that make successive circles with intersecting paths. One long route around would make everyone happy.

As I walked I was very pleased with myself for having made this decision. I had needed this as much as the dogs, but they especially deserved something extra nice for having been so patient all day. The sun had come out for a bit, and it was a beautiful night.

Why is it that when I get all sentimental and self-congratulatory something bad always happens?

Pete is always the pack instigator. He’s the one who ran off the path to sniff at something interesting. Moses immediately followed, and Auggie galloped after them with his adolescent enthusiasm. At first I thought it was a routine disgusting thing, and then I thought it was a squirrel because I could see the white tail flashing. It was not a squirrel. Squirrels do not have white tails.

Thank God, Auggie listened to me and did not get close. Pete, too, managed to get away. Who knows how.  But Moses, who is particularly fond of squirrels in a way that squirrels don’t quite appreciate, got a full frontal spray of skunk. I think he must have gotten a mouthful of it. I was so concerned about getting them away from there that I barely attended to his misery, which was profound. But by the time we ran back to the car he seemed better.

Let me tell you that skunk smells much, much, much, much, much, much worse than you think. My dogs have had minor skunk encounters, so I had been lured into thinking that these situations are not all that bad. I was wrong. It was a very long five minute drive home.

Then began the fun part.

Today we did a re-treatment with the anti-skunk enzyme, which is pretty good, except for the fact that you can’t just spray it on a dog’s face, where the worst smell is. Then we will wash Moses again. And probably again. And we will wash all the towels and things with the enzyme too. If that doesn’t work, the towels will have to go.

Possibly we will repeat the process. I may also buy some tomato juice for his face. Maybe tomato paste.

I suppose I should be grateful that I only have one skunky dog, not three.

Did I mention my car? And the suede espadrilles?

I’m not sure this counts as procrastination for the novel, but the results are the same.

UPDATE:

And then I noticed the lump on Moses’s leg. Skunk Bite. Vet visit. Rabies booster. Antibiotics. Rotisserie chicken dinner for Moses. Wine for me. Possibly bourbon.

For Ruth: A Remembrance

To everyone else she was Barbie, but since my mother called her Ruth, we did, too. I don’t even know why.

Our Aunt Ruth will be buried on Friday in a rural cemetery in upstate New York, and we will not be there. She, my sister, Eileen, and I had discussed this. She was quite clear that she didn’t want a fuss: no funeral; no flowers. So, as we all agreed, we spent our time and efforts while she needed them.

We were with her on her 95th birthday. On her 96th birthday we couldn’t come until the following weekend, so we sent her 96 roses, and combined with all the other flowers she received, her tiny house was so filled with flowers there was no place to set a coffee cup. I didn’t make it for her 97th, but I took a small comfort in knowing that Eileen and her children were there.

Aunt Ruth’s 95th birthday, with her great-nephew, Jeff

Eileen, living nearer, visited Ruth more frequently than I. We made little visits together that always felt like pilgrimages, and I wept so often after saying good bye, thinking it would be the last time, I think I got complacent. It almost started to feel that she would always be there. But last week we held her in our arms as she took her last breaths. As we drove away from the hospice, I kept looking around me at the familiar landscape, thinking I would probably never come back. After a lifetime of trips to that cluster of little towns on the Hudson, it felt very strange. It was the end of more than her life. It was the end of an era in my own life, and the end of my family’s history there. The shadows of my aunt’s and my parents’ young lives, of their hopes and dreams, and the young lives of their parents, all left behind, with no one living there to meet them and remember.    

When a celebrity dies, there is always a flurry of remembrance, while most of the rest of us disappear into obscurity. But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are famous, and it doesn’t matter whether you are perfect.

Ethel and Ruth approx 1924

Ethel and Ruth, circa 1924

What matters is that you craft a life with what you are given: you make friends and lose them, you have your small pleasures, your personal triumphs, and your private tragedies.

It matters whether you did your best to struggle through, whether you were kind sometimes, whether you were generous sometimes, whether you handled your troubles with as much grace as you could muster, whether you found some love, and gave some love. These are the things that give our lives meaning. And these are the things that deserve tribute, and remembrance, and a prayer.

Barbara Ruth was an adventurer.

Like my mother—her sister—Ruth was vibrant, enthusiastic, adventurous, and headstrong, stubborn, opinionated, and extraordinarily difficult. And let’s be honest: she took great pride in being difficult. Apparently, it’s a family trait.

But she also had great love. She adored my Uncle Ken, and he adored her. They endured terrible tragedy together, but they always had each other. Not in a fluffy, romantic way, but in a difficult, holding it all together, we’ll get through this kind of way. They had grit.

They travelled extensively throughout the United States and Canada, and they seemed always to be having fun. They once surprised me by appearing in Halifax Nova Scotia, where a ship on which I was working as a singer had docked. They were so pleased with my delight at seeing them.

During World War II, on her way to Seattle to meet her husband’s ship, Ruth was the survivor of a notorious train wreck. She decided not to go to the dining car at precisely the right moment. Many passengers died. She walked away.

Ruth in hat
Ruth could handle a gun, and she used to hunt and trap with her father to feed their family during the depression. She was a gifted seamstress and knitter, and until she lost her sight near the end, made countless caps for preemies at local hospitals, and beautiful, intricate baby sweaters, and booties, and caps. I gave the last one to someone only this past summer.

When I married, she made me a full trousseau of dishtowels and placemats with matching napkins, and crocheted tiny white lace snowflakes and beaded icicles for my Christmas tree. I still have them all—even the dish towels.

When Aunt Ruth’s first husband, our Uncle Ken, died suddenly after many years of marriage, Eileen and Ruth and I went up to their little cabin in the Adirondacks together to empty out the remnants of their life together. As a remembrance, Ruth gave me one of Wedding to KenKen’s plaid flannel shirts, over whose torn pocket she had patched a red felt heart. I gave it back to her on her 95th birthday. She hadn’t known I’d kept it, and she cried with delight to have it back.

She fell in love again at the age of 80, and married another lovely man, Al, who was both generous and kind. We have a picture of her and my mother on the night before the wedding, their arms around one another, laughing. Ruth was as beautiful as any younger bride, so filled with happiness. The rain came down in buckets, but it didn’t matter.

To her sorrow, Aunt Ruth outlived Al, too. They only had a few years together.

My mother and Ruth were both beautiful young women, and like the princesses in the fairy tale, one was blonde and the other was dark. As she got older, Ruth was proud that her blonde hair had no gray in it. Last week at her bedside, as Eileen stroked her head, she reminded Ruth that even at 97, her hair was still blonde.

Eileen viewed Ruth as a second mother, and she was closer to Ruth than I. But when my mother was alive, Eileen and I split our duties. I was close enough to help Mom. Eileen was close enough to help Ruth. We were so grateful, though, to have one another last week during the ordeal of Ruth’s death. Neither of us could have endured it alone.

Barbara Ruth Rabie Hajeck, née Cornes, died August 15, 2017. She was 97 years old. She was born in Watervliet, New York on April 15, 1920 to Edna and William Cornes.

Extraordinary Hat

Ruth in an extraordinary hat.

She was preceded in death by her son, Keith, her brother, William, her first husband, Kenneth Rabie, her sister, Ethel Riordan, and her second husband, Alton Hajeck. She is survived by a daughter, Susan, a granddaughter, Paula, and a great-granddaughter, Nora Kate. They are also strong women.
She was also loved by her extraordinary friends, Randy Anselment, and Laura and Tim Plumway, who, beyond all call of duty, were a blessing to her in the last years of her life.

This tribute comes at Eileen’s urging. Aunt Ruth did not want an obituary, but since Ruth didn’t always do what she was told, my sister and I are following her example. We come by our stubbornness honestly.

Ruth is the last of her generation in my family. My father and mother have already been gone, it seems, forever. For my sister and me, she has left another gap in our hearts, another hole in the landscape of our lives. She fought, she loved, she created, she struggled. And in this eternal and sometimes merciless universe, she mattered. Her loves mattered. Her struggles mattered. Her fierceness mattered. Her sorrows mattered. The people she lost matter. The lives she created matter.

We loved her. We love her still.

We will miss her always.