The Great Ice Storm

I met Julia Munroe Martin online (it always feels sort of dirty saying that). She is an author and essayist who often appears on Writer Unboxed. Born in Déols, France, she now lives with her husband on the southern coast of Maine. She was kind enough, this January, to write about her first winter in Maine, just for us at True STORIES:

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We had moved to Maine a few months earlier, and we really hadn’t made any friends yet. My husband was commuting to Boston, and I was staying home with our two kids. It would be our first winter in Maine.

Christmas vacation was heavenly, the four of us comfortably cozy in our tiny house on an island connected by bridge to the mainland. Light snow fell in the woods, and we took walks on the icy beach. We’d moved to Maine from Colorado to be near the ocean, and we were used to the snow and cold, so we spent a lot of time outside enjoying the great outdoors.

A day after the kids went back to school, I heard there was an ice storm coming. I shrugged. Ice? How bad could that be? My husband trundled down to Massachusetts, and I took the kids to school, same as always. How could I know that “The Great Ice Storm of ’98”—to become one of the worst in Northeast and Canadian history —was bearing down on us?

I got my first taste of what we were in for when I left to pick up the kids from school. My husband had just called from Boston to let me know he was coming home early (little did he know he’d spend a grueling eight hours on a trip that usually took two). I shrugged again, this time with a little less certainty. I also put the dog in the car—our eight-year old Golden Retriever—reasoning that Bo would be help in the event I was…stranded? My reasoning was faulty at best.

The trip to pick up my children was one of the most terrifying of my driving life. The car simply could not stay on the road. I was in a cold sweat by the time I got to the school—and then I had to drive home. Five miles never sounded so long. Like all moms do, I put on a brave face and told the kids we were in for an adventure. Even they could see through my façade when we hit the first hill and slid down sideways. The roads were coated in a thin sheet of icerink-quality ice. I swallowed my panic and gripped the steering wheel. There were still at least half the miles to go.

securedownloadThings were okay until I turned off to go to the island. A long line of cars behind me—everyone used to the conditions, no doubt—carried people angry at me for holding them up (or so my new-to-town mind feared). I pulled over, thinking I’d let them all pass, but as I did, I recognized the error of my ways. The car pitched sideways again, sliding dangerously close to a ditch as it came to a stop. I glanced in the rearview mirror to see the frightened faces of my children, but I was too near tears to open my mouth to reassure them.

Car after car streamed by, no one even looking my way, until one, just one, pulled over behind me. I watched in the mirror as a man got out, and I rolled down the window as he came over. I realized when I did that it was Gary, the father of one of my son’s new friends. “Are you stuck?” Gary asked, smiling. I was never so glad to see anyone in my entire life. Gary pushed the car back on the road as I steered—ignoring the line of cars. Then he followed me home (even though it was a mile beyond his own turn off) to make sure we got there safely. I still tell his wife—who is now one of my best friends—that Gary was my savior that day.

The ice storm would continue for several days. We lost power shortly after we got home from the school run, shortly after even Bo couldn’t pull me up our sloped walkway to the house, and—to be honest—I’m not sure how the kids, the dog, and I made it the last few feet to our door. Yes, it was that treacherous.

After my husband finally got home—well after dark—we hunkered down. All around us we could hear the sound of crackling as the branches were coated with thicker and thicker ice. As the ice got even heavier we heard the sound of branches—of trees—snapping. We got out the candles. We lit a fire in our fireplace (thank goodness it had an insert so it could easily heat our entire small home), and we cooked on our camp stove. In fact we ate well that night: everything in the refrigerator and freezer added up to one of the best one-pot-stews I’ve ever tasted.

Around about the time when the stew was ready, we got a knock on the door. It was one of our neighbors we didn’t know very well (we didn’t know many people very well), asking if we had heat. They didn’t even have a fireplace. We welcomed them in for stew and to spend the night. That’s how we got to know Karen and Jean and their two kids, too.

All-in-all, our power was off for nearly a week (I would later find out that almost three-quarters of households in Maine were without power). The kids were off school, my husband stayed home from work, and we (okay, I) pretended we were pioneers. We were lucky—we stayed warm, dry, and safe. We had water, unlike many whose water was electrically pumped from wells. We helped neighbors move and cut up fallen trees, blocking roads and driveways, and we cheered and served cookies to Central Maine Power workers as they worked round the clock to restore power. And we relied on others. Our son had a basketball free-throw competition to get to—and a downed power line prevented us from getting off our street; another new friend picked us up at the end of the road. (It was well worth the trip, by the way–he won!)

I’m not going to pretend it was all sunshine and roses—these things never are. Tempers thinned, provisions got low, batteries ran out. But it was an adventure (I was right about that), and it was a bonding experience, too. “We survived the Great Ice Storm of 1998,” we moms would all say, laughingly, as we met up with each other at school in the next few weeks. We had stories to tell and a new appreciation for the power of ice.

But for me, it was more—a defining moment. We had just moved to Maine and we hadn’t made any friends, but as the ice melted and the weather improved, we found ourselves encased in a whole new community.

Julia Munroe Martin is the author behind the Empty Nest series and the mystery, Desired to Death. Find her online at  www.juliamunroemartin.com.

Helping Grandma through Cancer

Ron Estrada and I went to high school together. I haven’t seen him in years, but due to the magic of social media, I’ve discovered he’s a writer. It doesn’t surprise me; he always had a certain sensitivity about him, as you’ll see in this poignant piece about a particular moment in his grandmother’s battle with cancer ten Januaries ago:

January, 2004, I drove to the ranch townhome where my grandma, in her brown recliner, needlepointed table runners for a Thanksgiving that was eleven months away.  She waited for me, for the white bag that sat in the passenger seat of my Jeep, a white bag that may as well have held plutonium with how I considered the ideal temperature and stability and whether it was lit properly in my car in order for it to keep its proper composition and, more, its proper effectiveness.  These were silly thoughts. Nevertheless, when you think that any action you take can further compromise an already troubling situation, you adopt a role where you believe that everything you do holds the utmost causal importance to the immediate future.  So I left the heat off and cracked the windows and sat on my left hand to keep it warm and then switched to the right hand to get it warm and I listened to the Little River Band.

Just a bit earlier that day my aunt gave me the white bag that held a single white pill that was going to be the magic pill that took away my grandma’s cancer.  That’s what we called it, the magic pill.  Hearing it, hearing magic pulled me in different directions.  There was a magic pill in existence and it was sitting next to me in the car.  I thought of the few boundaries in magic.  Coins pulled out of kids’ ears, rouged women made into a cross section with lumberjack saws, warships disappearing in front of hundreds of unblinking eyes.  Magic makes believers.

But I had doubt while being hopeful, tried to establish belief and convince myself with ho-hum adages, the power of positive thinking, so forth.  They all swirled in my head like lottery balls.  Doubt and hope, partners–maybes holding hands with probably nots.

I pulled into my grandma’s driveway with the radio off.  The asphalt whitened by the winter cold, I thought of the seasons, how pavement seems to change color in a deep freeze–uglier somehow and harder looking. She met me at the door, and hugging her was like hugging a newspaper.  She’d lost form and I just tried to fit my arms around the spots that would give me a complete hold, a better covering.  It’s hard to hug someone when you’re not able to relocate all the emotion inside of you that you intend to give away.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Oh, just working on these tablecloths.”  She showed them to me.

“I like the grapes.  Do you fill them in or leave ‘em like that?”

“No.  You just follow the lines and leave it like a…”

“Border.”

“Yeah.”

“No.  It looks good.  You don’t want to have too much color on it all.  It looks classier with more white.  Your fingers’ll hurt more too.”  I looked at her hands just as she did, thin and veiny, covered in Mercurochrome, as if she’d been into the markers.

“Looks like you got sloppy with the markers.”

She laughed. “Yeah.  They’re cracking something terrible.”

“The winter.”

“And they hurt.”

“Keep putting that stuff on.”  We sat, she on the brown recliner, me on a chair that felt like I was sitting in the elbow of a tree branch. She exhaled and looked upwards and didn’t say anything.

“Here’s the thing from Aunt Nancy.”  I gave her the bag.  I couldn’t say the name.  We talked about it like the room might be bugged. For a moment it felt like we were using sign language. But we were preserving. Keeping the fragile skin of luck unpierced.

“So this is the magic pill.”

“That’s it.”

She opened the box and pushed the tablet through the foil barrier. “Just with water?”

“Umm…I guess.  Probably wouldn’t hurt to eat something.  Bread or something.”

She looked at it, so small in her hand.  Resembling a Bayer.  What you’d pop after a night of booze.  Just a regular pill. She looked at me and smiled, and I was immediately seven years old getting off the school bus.

“Well, if this doesn’t work, sayonara,” she said. She looked at her hand and left me for a moment.  She was a woman looking down at her hand. She was a woman alone facing the dark doorway of probably not.

And this image: Pinocchio, sitting outside on a stone step, feet turned in, he rests his head in his hands, his eyes open only because he’s awake; he isn’t looking at anything certain, his eyes might as well be his elbow as he’s dropped in heavy, masking thought, reflection, and thinking about all he’s done, how it affects the now and, then, naturally, the future.  Pinocchio sits on his donkey/mule/jackass tail, ear tops curled, sulky, his cricket friend sits nearby, mirroring his manner, both: “What have I done?  What now?  What do I have left?”

There’s a marked hopelessness on the faces in this picture, despair. I had the poster on my wall of this scene and there’d be times at night when I would stare at it ’til the periphery would blur and my focus would be so tight that the image would become a short narrative, though only consisting of Pinocchio deeply inhaling and then the quick out, an audible shrug.  Both seemed so lost that that this type of breathing (the kind where you might actually have to tell yourself to do it) seemed like the only thing that they could do.  They were stuck.

It’s kind of a funny poster for a kid’s room.  I did like the cartoon, the story, and I don’t remember if I asked for it at some point.  If not, I like the idea of my parents choosing it as a cautionary tale of sorts. Nevertheless, it was there and part of my small room and stood for something in my life whether or not it stood for something in my parents’.

I thought of that loneliness and also of friendship, the two sharing in the misery, making the situation an “us,” the pursuit for solution a team charge.  And there sat hope, in the collective, in the bond, jacketed in misery, but there because there were two.

I don’t think I could’ve owned that poster if it were just Pinocchio sitting there, alone in the street, transformed and unloved. It’s the two of them, together, not speaking, that makes it.

That January, my grandma got ready to swallow that single pill.  The moment seemed to extend like the blue in your eye after a camera flash.  I imagine that she considered the amount of fight that was left in her during that time. I know she’d been done in by successive hours in a chair with a Star magazine, a needle perforated into her breast plate through a tiny port that pressed against her like a small battery under a Kleenex.  I’d pick her up from the doctor’s office at times in the afternoon and she’d be situated along the perimeter of the room. There were empty seats–permanently vacated?  Had these people been saved, died, moved to a different hospital? What about now with the Thanksgiving runners around her legs like lists of not done yets. The clock ticking. Her wrong colored fingers. These thoughts packed the emptiness and fit around my grandma and me like the withheld name of the pill. Not asking, not saying was the magic and it filled in the spaces.  But there was so much space.

I watched her with that little pill in her hand, it, a compact nub of potential. I sat with her and whispered fierce statements in my head. We’re in this together. We are not done here yet. Think of these out loud—their hope and buoyancy rising around our necks like ill-fitting life jackets, like nooses.  Unspoken, they become the sibilants of belief.

I sat there with my elbows on my knees, my chin resting on my fists, just as unaware on the edge of a couch as in a lonely street, wondering what can be changed, what can be moved, and how much say we have anyhow.

All this, and I watched her sit on the edge of that chair, asking herself things I couldn’t hear and answering them just as quietly.

Helen Hatch Inglesby, "Helping Grandma Sew,"

Helen Hatch Inglesby, “Helping Grandma Sew,”

Ron Estrada lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Sal and Sonny. He is a writer of fiction and short nonfiction and can be read on his blog 8.187 (www.eightoneeightseven.com). He is also a regular contributor to Today’s Author (www.todaysauthor.wordpress.com) and is the co-owner of a literary greeting card company, Aporia | Chicago (www.aporiachicago.com). He loves garlic, Tom Waits, and Chicago Blackhawks hockey.

Karelia

Corps

In this photograph my grandmother (third from left) poses with a desiccated corpse.  It’s her medical school graduation photo. Eighty years later, I am busy taking glamorous selfies.  That’s really all there is to say about her Estonia and my America.

Except that it’s not.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the immigrant experience recently. I’m writing a YA novel about the daughter of an Estonian immigrant, and I just sent my editor the final revisions. I’ve also been helping a Sudanese refugee recoup the money his government promised him for his education. This isn’t an everyday occurrence for a community college instructor in rural Oregon, but it’s not that weird. Community college is “where they have to take you when you have to go.”

“I’m the daughter of a war refugee,” I told my student the first time we met, trying to make a personal connection.

It felt cheap. I drive a Mustang. My parents went to UC Berkeley. I can say exactly three things in Estonian.

How are you?

Long live Estonia!

Shit quickly, the bear is coming.

My student is seven feet tall, lean as bone, and darker than anyone I’ve ever met. He was a child soldier. He told me how the soldiers longed for the rains to come and wash away the roads and stall the fighting. He said he still believes in the cause.

“My mother is from Estonia,” I said.

“Ah, yes, she must have fled the soviets,” my student said in heavily accented English he learned with a hand-held radio and a dictionary.

Yes.

Grandfather, mother, friend, grandmother, uncle (left to right)

They fled the Soviets.

When the Soviets invaded my family fled. Theirs was the last ship to escape. The boats behind them were all bombed.

There is an Estonian saying: Paljugi mis me tahaksime. There are many things one might want. The implication is that you’re not going to get them.

They’re not woe-is-me people, the Estonians. They don’t go around rending their clothes and smearing ashes on their faces.

When I was growing up, I asked about the family’s flight.

“I don’t remember much,” my mother always said. “Just that I threw up on a green and brown blanket.”

Vomit is important to children, so for many years that was enough to make it a story. When I  stopped to imagine the details, I imagined my mother leaving on a giant freight liner while men on the shore shot at the ship with rifles. The sinking ships, the ones that did not make it, were just fireworks in the dark water. And my mother threw up on a blanket.

It wasn’t until years later that I watched the Singing Revolution, that wonderful documentary about Estonia’s fight for independence. They showed footage. It wasn’t a freight liner. The Estonians fled on fishing boats. The men with rifles were an airstrike.

A quarter of the population was killed. It was a genocide.

When I asked my mother about it, she responded thoughtfully, but without drama.

“I had a friend in the refugee camps,” she said. “We were afraid to look at pictures of the ocean. I guess that was because we had seen people drowning.”

There are many things one might want.

Even as a little girl, I must have felt the deep undercurrents beneath those mild-faced versions of the story. I worried about bombs. I was haunted by a recurring fear that men with rifles would make me pick which of my parents they were going to kill.

“What happens if someone invades America?” I asked my mother when I was little.

She knew what I was asking.

“Estonia is a very small country,” she said. “They don’t do that to big countries.”

We think children will ask anything, that there is no end to their whys. I think children know when they reach a door too big for them to open.

“Some of the Estonians hid in the woods waiting for the Americans to rescue them, but the Americans never came,” my mother said sadly. “It was a very small country.”

I have made too many jokes about people who are 1/18th Cherokee to now say that I feel Estonia’s blood in my veins.

But I feel Estonia’s blood in my veins.

We received a visit from an Estonian cousin. He reminded me of myself: cheerful and energetic. But when he left my mother said, “he’s got that Estonian sadness,” and no one needed her to explain.

face

Perhaps with a touch of that Estonian sadness

When I was a little girl, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I would survive in the woods. I worried that something would happen, and I would have to flee to the woods in the dark. Although I had a happy childhood, I knew that fear without ever having lived it, a fear so deep it shatters what is human, a terror the color of bile. The taste of rifles. The sound of men drowning. They’re coming!

I have always assumed that all children know this fear, a remnant of our animal selves.  I assumed it was a developmental stage, like language acquisition and puberty.

But recently I was sitting with my friends at the lunch table. They were still teasing me about the thriller I had just published.

“We always thought you were such a nice girl!”

We got off topic. Someone started talking about National Geographic.

“Remember,” I said, “how you’d go visit your grandma and you’d get a big stack of National Geographics and go through each one looking for photographs of dead bodies?”

Everyone laughed.

“Only you went through them looking for dead bodies,” my friend said.

I didn’t mind. I’d been a good Lutheran girl for too long. I liked my new image as edgy thriller writer.

But I knew they were wrong. If I had asked my grandmother, Minna Kannelaud, she would have sat down with me and looked for the bodies.

There is very little to connect her Estonia to my America, and I cannot begin to imagine the life of my Sudanese refugee. If I were to say that I feel Estonia coursing through my veins there would be real Estonians, who live in Estonia and drive delivery trucks and sell insurance, who would have every right to laugh at me.

Shit quickly the bear is coming!

Maybe all I can say about the second generation experience is this: I tried to look over the railing of my mother’s stories and into the ocean.  I tried to imagine.

Hurricane 001

“Hurricane.” Painting by Estonian painter Joann Saarniit.

And I know that one day my Sudanese student will have a teenage son who eats Lucky Charms cereal in front of the TV and likes football and plays video games.  And, on some late nights, deep in his bones, that boy will feel the winds shifting and the drenching rains moving across Sudan.

Karelia Stetz-Waters is the author of The Admirer and As Though Our Beauty Were a War. You can find her on the Web HERE.

I’m Grateful That My Novels Failed

Badzin130x222Welcome writer Nina Badzin, who is grateful for a dream that didn’t work out. She continues my guest writer series. Happy Thanks-giving, all:

In January 2007, when my second child was three months old, I started writing a novel. I imagined hardcovers, book tours, speaking engagements–the aspiring novelist’s dream. (I’m not sure why in my imagination, a writer only wrote novels.)

By the end of that year, I finished a book called The Friends of Ivy Stein. A woman from my Mommy and Me class, who offered to read it, used to work as a foreign rights agent before moving to Minnesota. The book had potential, she said, and she wanted to send it to a former colleague in New York. (We will refer to this colleague as Agent One.)

This was it, I thought. I’m going to be a writer. But in the four months I waited for Agent One to get back to me, I did very little writing other than a few short stories. I checked my email incessantly and obsessed about whether Agent One would ever read my book.

Finally the email I’d been waiting for arrived. “I’d like to set up a phone appointment,” Agent One wrote. Bingo, I thought. If it were bad news, she would have sent me an email stating exactly that. Instead, she wanted to speak on the phone.

The conversation started out positive. She liked my narrative voice and specifically said, “You’re definitely a writer.” But within minutes her tone changed. Ivy had seeds of a good novel, but the characters and the plot were not compelling enough. The reason she’d wanted to talk rather than email was to tell me that one of the story lines and characters drew her in more than any other part of the book. She suggested I keep one character, Jill, expand that story line and get rid of everything else. I quickly came up with a title–The Everyday Guide to a Joyful Life–and Ivy was history.

It felt good to work on a novel again. I was also thrilled that the short stories I had submitted to literary magazines while I was waiting to hear from Agent One were eventually all accepted. One of those stories was the first chapter of this new book, a fact that gave me confidence when I was ready to send out query letters for A Joyful Life.

Instead of trying Agent One again, I became a querying maniac. I researched agents and watched for the red blinking light on my Blackberry as if I had nothing else important happening in my life. (Just remembering that old Blackberry makes this story feel sort of quaint.)

There was a point when eight different agents had answered my query letters with requests for partials or full manuscripts. One of those agents (we will call her Agent Two) spoke to me at length on the phone and asked me to work on a revision with her exclusively. She wasn’t signing me, she said . . . yet.

I had an almost-agent! I worked on the revisions Agent Two had in mind and sent her my new and improved book weeks before my due date with my third baby. I was still in the hospital when I got the news from Agent Two that the revision wasn’t working for her. I had two choices, she said. I could rewrite the book for her one more time, or I could end our exclusive agreement and send this version to other agents.

I took a third option and put the book away. I had lost interest in Jill and her predicaments anyway. If I didn’t care what happened to her anymore, why would a reader care? Then I gave myself a writing maternity leave before starting another novel from scratch.

I wrote the first 25,000 words of about three new novels over the next year and a half. But I kept coming back to the same issue I was having with A Joyful Life. I couldn’t keep my own interest in the characters and ideas.

Enter the blogosphere. Every so often while working on these books, I would turn to writing blogs for advice. I became a regular reader of one in particular, a group blog called Writer Unboxed. When they had a contest in 2010 to fill their newest blogging spot, I decided to go for it. Although I didn’t win, I was a quarter finalist, which meant they would use of my contest submissions as a blog post. I submitted the other essay I’d written for the contest, “Confessions of a Query Letter Addict” to a different writing blog called Write it Sideways. Within a few weeks I had guests posts on two writing blogs I loved, but no blog of my own.

That quickly changed. On November 18th, 2010 I bought the URL with my name and the rest is history. I am so grateful for the writing life and routine that I have now, a reality that probably wouldn’t have existed if I had been able to get that first or even second novel published. I strongly believe that even if those books had made their way into the world, they might have been the last words I ever wrote. Those novels were not meant to be. Those agents weren’t meant to be. That’s not the kind of writing I want to do anymore.

What does the future of my writing career hold? I don’t know, but I’m certainly grateful that the answer is still full of possibilities.

Nina Badzin is a contributing writer for Brain, Child Magazine’s blog and a freelance writer with work in a variety of websites and anthologies, including The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and Mamapedia. She blogs at her personal site, www.ninabadzin.com, and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children.

Ruined

I’m happy to welcome author Tina L. Hook and her beautiful contribution, below, on something, in this month of Thanksgiving, that she’s thankful she does not have:
 
Standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom makes me feel unsteady, disoriented.  When I unlatch the warped window and pull it open, the metal siding shrieks in disapproval, only permitting three inches of fresh air.  I press my nose into the lopsided opening and inhale.  The creaky bed frame digs in beneath my knees.  A memory of shivering beneath a thin pile of sheets comes reaching back from 25 years ago.  If I close my eyes I might remember everything, but I don’t close my eyes.
Photo: Sue, fieldartdublin.com

Photo: Sue, fieldartdublin.com

Back then, I didn’t know that my life was supposed to be ruined.  I’m thankful that I didn’t know.

The word “ruined” arrives often in my adult conversations.  Mostly it comes from within the confines of white picket fences and air-conditioned living rooms—the gentle world I travel in these days.  It’s a word I hear used to describe children with troubled pasts or women who have survived ordeals.  It’s a word that settles like an ulcer at the bottom of my stomach, stinging with accusation even when it isn’t meant for me.  What does it really mean to be ruined?

Waiting for me back in my grown-up home is a pretty stretch of yard, and an embarrassingly comfortable couch.  I often check the thermostat and ask my husband if the temperature is good, to which he winces and answers the same way he always has.  I’m constantly rescuing things too, from my pets to my up-cycled projects.  Even my 40-year-old house is in need of plenty of work but is on the road to completion. I guess it has to do with the old promise I made with myself, that I will try to leave things better than I find them.  It’s a tenet that puts me in unreasonably good standing with landlords and neighbors, but more importantly, it means my caring becomes a tangible actionable thing.  It means my loved ones are warm at night.

After I settle into my childhood bedroom, I notice the flecks of red paint—the roses I painted around the borders of the room with a childish hand.  I recognize the stickers peeling from the dresser mirror—evidence of happy days I hoped to remember again.  I see the drawer where I used to hide my stories and my dreams of becoming a writer.  Before I leave, I place one more memento behind.  This time it’s my name tag from my college reunion.  Maybe next time I’ll leave a copy of my first published novel in my old hiding place.  Because that’s what I do.

I defy my ruins.

You can find Tina on Facebook, Twitter, and her web site, Tina L. Hook