Forgive my absence.

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I am not dead. But, if you can’t read the poster well enough, it reads – PARENTHOOD: It could happen to you.

Although I would have loved to sail the Caribbean for the past few months while the American South warmed it’s tail, I have been swamped with – are you ready? – the ever glamorous life that I lead as chauffeur to Oompah-loompahs who can’t drive themselves and forget half their stuff.

Okay, 75% of their stuff.

Yes, I am that woman –  hear me roar. No, seriously, you can probably hear me, like all the way across town. Because there are three of them and one of me and those odds have been plain scary lately – when the coffee maker breaks and Baby Girl sprained her ankle, then one of them lost a tooth on the way to school and there’s blood everywhere and I’m out of tissues because the pollen makes Baby Girl sneeze like she’s allergic to LIFE and the 10 year old leaves the check for the field trip somewhere between the car and his classroom and calls me to tell ME that I FORGOT to send it in and my mother calls on the other line in her bright and cheery voice to wish me happy-birthday-dear.

It is spring. These poor teachers are cramming as much info into these kids’ heads as they can before the kids check-out for the summer. The kids? Oh, no I think the parents have checked out for the summer. We have been over-Science project-ed, over-book report-ed, we have grown plants from little seeds in Styrofoam cups and watched them die. Just, as I’m sure, have so many families across the country this spring. Parents everywhere-  all commiserating.

“Soccer practice for two of them, lacrosse, track, robotics.”

“It’s like the beginning of school all over again.”

On Mondays, the parents say, “It was a great weekend, we did NOTHING. We sure needed the rest.”

By Thursday, we don’t even talk to one another, we just lift our chin. Don’t even get out of the car.

On sports nights, it’s a crazy thought to get a decent meal. You can eat at four in the after noon, like the senior citizens, or around nine o’clock. The other choice is food from a bag, you know what I’m saying. I’ve often wondered about taking that computer charger of my husband’s and seeing if it would work on my crock pot, but the idea of the mess lost out to the convenience of Chick-Fil-A. Unfortunately, this car-as-kitchen arrangement has me using the vacuum at Katy’s car wash quite a bit.That’s a workout, folks. I don’t care how limber you think you are, but I do some serious Yoga moves sucking french fries from under the car seats of my Suburban.

So, it gets better. The week of Spring Break my husband has the boys skiing in Colorado, one sprains his wrist and the other falls and gets a concussion. Two visits to the emergency room in TWO DAYS. You know me, I’m in Florida. And might I just say, that while Baby Girl was with me, the worst thing that happened to her was that she scraped her nose on the pool because she decided to swim with her eyes closed. Although, she is the one who jumped off her playhouse two years ago and broke her arm, had to have two surgeries and seven casts, SO. If anyone in our family is likely to say, “Hey y’all watch this!” It’s probably her.

These are just the highlights of my last few months. I believe this may be the third or fourth time I’ve even opened my computer. But, all that said, I have some good news!!!

According to BelleBridge Books, I’m going to have a short story published in their anthology SWEETER THAN TEA, coming out close to Mother’s Day. I’ll let you know the exact date when I know more. It will be available – like everything under the sun- on Amazon.

It starts small.

Like a breeze in the fold of your mind as the snow clouds gather.

“I need something cool and fruity. Let’s stop by Whole Foods. I heard they have Costa Rican pineapple this week.”

Hmm. You wonder what the weather is like in Costa Rica. You check the Travel Channel. Nice. A catalog with a preview for Spring Clothes  ARRIVES IN YOUR MAILBOX.

You’re not the cruising type, but isn’t that water pretty and clear? You can see all manner of sea life, Honey. And my, what a blue sky.

Jimmy Buffett comes on the radio. He’s in Margaritaville, which you know is fictional, yet consistent with the sandals on page 34 of the catalog. You schedule a pedicure and consider songwriting.

Other people – those that enjoy cold weather and believe snow is an opportunity, make plans for skiing and snowboarding.

But not you. You debate the difference between Chilly and Downright Unnecessarily Freaky Cold. You fill your bath tub and pretend you’re in Aruba.

Your significant other inquires after your thyroid. Perhaps you need to have it checked. The red flags for low thyroid are Extreme sensitivity to cold and Lethargy. It sounds like you, but you know what would fix all of this… Salt Water. Buckets of it.

You decide that you next article, short story, etc, has a warm locale. In fact, a trip will be written off on the research & time spent near the equator. It’s not Europe, but hey, look at Randy Wayne White,  Gabriel García Márquez and even Mark Twain. Research under the new electric blanket is not the same.

Freelancing jobs can be scarce. You buy more pineapple. More listening to Jack Johnson. More Jimmy Buffett. You grill out in the freezing rain and laugh at the absurdity.

You check the internet for deals.

Soon enough,You have your story outlined, more or less, about a heart broken girl, unhappy with her life in _(cold environment)__ who finds satisfaction in _(warm environment)_ through _(discovering her life-long dream/herself)_ after her conflict with _(her psychotic mother, neglectful father, faithless boyfriend/husband)_.

Blah, blah, throw in some history that ties into the subplot and the internal journey and “HONEY! Don’t we have some Sky miles somewhere??!! I have to go to BRAZIL.”

“Brazil?”

“Or maybeArgentina,” you say, throwing back the electric blanket and ripping open you dresser. “Where is my bikini? I have a story to write!”

He frowns as if something is wrong with you. Like the winter is just doing it’s NORMAL thing. Like this happens every year.

“Did you make the appointment to get your thyroid checked?”

Nothing is wrong with your thyroid. You simply hate winter from the bottom of your soul. Snow is for looking at. In a picture. And for the life of you, you don’t understand why people have paintings of snow scenes hung on their walls, just looking at those makes you cold. If seasons are metaphors for life, and winter is death, why would anybody hang that on their wall? Might as well be a picture of a casket.

So, with that incredibly sane argument, a trip is made. Because you threatened never to make pound cake again. Because you love one another and have something to celebrate. Because he’s tired of hearing it. Because you’ve both been working hard and need to reconnect.

And quite suddenly, you feel better about the world. The story will be killer because you already lived it.

If just for one cold January afternoon.

Nana fishing

The fisherman comes up
Puts his two poles in the sand
Stares out at the sea
Just exactly like me
But I’ve got a book in my hand
We will have caught on to something
By the end of the day
But mostly we think about
The one that got away

Indigo Girls ~ Fleet of Hope

This is my maternal grandmother, Dottie Kalb, but at first glance, friends think it’s me. Something about the weather turning cold, makes me miss her. Is it simply that the holidays are approaching and I have no time to spend at the island? Winter is a time for reflection, right? I have  no idea which Florida coast she’s on, but I’ve treasured this picture since I discovered it. I have her hair, curling wildly in humidity, her nose, her mouth, and cheeks. We even wait on our fish, pondering the water similarly.

When I spent the most time with her, she and my grandfather lived in a mobile home park for retirees in central Florida, about an hour away from me. I spent weeks with them in the summer and they took me to good old Florida hot spots like Weeki Wachee Springs to see the mermaids, Crystal River to swim with the manatees (more like manatee poop!), Silver Springs for the glass-bottom boats, Cypress Gardens for the water ski show (now Lego Land). But our afternoons were spent at the pool with her friends, listening to gossip or sitting on someone’s porch doing puzzles and playing cards until Jeopardy! came on.

I remember going through her costume jewelry and seeing pictures of her dressed up, but she always wore shorts and t-shirts and drug me to flea markets for ‘finds’. She loved the beach and the garden and never minded getting dirty or wet.

I think this ache of missing her began when Hubs and I showed the DVD of our wedding to the kids last weekend. At first they groaned, but when they started recognizing people (“Uncle Tim had HAIR?!”) it got exciting. My grandmother was in a wheelchair at my wedding, was very shaky and needed help moving into the pew. My kids never knew her because she died six weeks after my wedding.

My dad’s mom always says the same thing about my Nana, “Dottie was a great lady. She behaved the same around everybody. Comfortable with the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.”

Every memory I have of her has to do with water or treasure. My brain knows she lived in Virginia and Georgia and elsewhere, but to me, she will always be Florida and mermaids and holidays and whispering secrets and “Honey, this is what we’re going to do…”

OR – THE MISSING INGREDIENT THIS SEASON MIGHT BE A JUG BAND
Okay, everybody knows that holdiays are a time for family drama.
This year, due to a family member’s hospitalization, the cooking for Thanksgiving shifted. I made Granny’s pound cake only to discover my sweet MIL also made one. That’s a simple mishap. More difficult was my aunt’s duty. She never cooked a turkey in her life and had to fetch a twenty-pound bird from my mom’s fridge. I wished her luck. Google works wonders, I said. As it is, we all feel Thanksgiving is like the gun going off, the giant first step in the sprint of hurdle-parties and school-programs to THE day. But with added pressure of health concerns &  running turkey and dressing to downtown Atlanta so loved ones wouldn’t miss out, we wondered again: If Thanksgiving gets screwed up, is that an ominous sign?
I have my list of odd Thanksgiving stories – one where a snake was found in the Florida cousin’s kitchen-  that line up against chaotic Christmases – where both sets of grandparents, my aunt and the great-grandmother were snowed-in with us for two days OR the one where Hubs had the flu, but we thought it was “only” food poisoning and had him carve the turkey, spreading the foul 18-hr puke-a-thon to twelve people, across two states. The baby puked like the blueberry pie-eaters in STAND BY ME.

But for the most part, there is one peaceful  holiday and the other is a toss-up. We won’t discuss New Year’s. My family is just too big to ever not have some kind of THEATER going on. And most of them don’t even drink around each other, so that’s saying a lot.

In an effort to avoid the Black Friday/Cyber Monday hoopty-doo,  my friend and I took our seven-year-old daughters to Disney for a few days after Thanksgiving. On the trip down, we discussed the same things that everyone says about the holidays- that you jump through all these hoops of making other people happy and THIS year – darn it – THIS year we’re going to cut back and not say yes to so many things. We’re going to drive around town and look at Christmas lights and chill out at home with hot cocoa – like, more than once. We’ll bake cookies not as an event, but because it’s a fun thing to do. Period. And if  crazy Aunt Sherry is the only one who doesn’t it like them,  do we make other cookies for her even though we’re dead on our feet, have a stack of laundry taller than the washer and have volunteered at the school  all afternoon and had Christmas performances and Blah, Blah, Blah.

No. She’ll just have to make her own cookies. OR can we call someone else to make them? Hmmm. There’s a thought. Do we take cookies to the fireman? Don’t they deserve the cookies more than ungrateful Aunt Sherry? Gracious. A dilemma and we haven’t even gotten there yet.  But one thing we did decide was that everyone’s Christmas happiness doesn’t rest on our shoulders. Right? Agreed.

Ok, so back at  Disney. We ducked into the Country Bear Jamboree to wait out a rain shower. At the front of the theater a cast member holds a microphone, welcoming everyone to the anima-tronic show that, to my knowledge, hasn’t changed much in thirty years. But we all love the Hee-Haw aspect, the “Y’all come back now”, the swinging Mae West lady bear that comes down from the ceiling. We wait for it, like we wait for Christmas morning.
Nice Girl cast member holding the microphone says the usual, “Please move to the end of your row, so we can make room for all the guests entering the theater.” But there is this group of about five people that will NOT MOVE from the center of their aisle. My friend and I have to step over them, with our kids in tow, to move to the end of the aisle, as directed. (We chose to be rule-followers at that moment).
Nice Girl with microphone repeats: “Please move to the end of your row, so we can make room for all guests entering the theater.” By this time, my friend and our daughters have sat down and are watching the group of stubborn fifty-ish folks who did NOT have hearing aids or walkers and were looking at us with the attitude that we might have stepped on their Rockport’s. There is now a line of standing people behind them.

Nice Girl cast member clears her throat and says, “Again, folks. Please move to the end of the row. Don’t make me come up there and help you move. That would be very UN-Magical.” My friend and I – and half the theater-  burst out laughing. The grouchy people finally moved and the theater was briskly filled – Disney style and the show began, with harmonicas and foot-stomping happiness.

For the rest of the trip, we had a new word to describe what we were facing- something was either Magical or UN-Magical. When it rained off and on for five hours and we froze our butts off – UN-Magical. Getting to stay for a Mickey Christmas party and seeing Disney snow while Christmas music pumped through the speakers, eating ice cream while my friend’s daughter with severe food allergies has no trouble finding food (EVEN DESSERT!) she can eat the whole trip?

MA-GI-CAL!!!

So, we have decided that when planning Holiday festivities, we shall keep this in mind. Maybe even call it, The Magical Mindset.  Hmmm… Maybe that Disney guy was onto something.

Top Ten Reasons Why I Hate the School Year

1) Only one of my three children is a morning person, making me Miss Hannigan Monday through Friday. If only I had Carol Burnett’s bathtub.

2) I am not a morning person, but singing “Hard Knock Life” helps.

3) My school participation is compared between children – “But you went on two of her field trips and only one of mine.” Seriously?

4) Repetitive emails about school events just to make sure we understood the first time. And the second time. And then, they left something out…So…

5) Repetitive Paperwork (This is even worse because we are killing the trees, right?) just to make sure we understood the first time. And the second time. And then, they left something out… So…

6) Two of my children are social butterflies and want to hang out with every child they ever meet, regardless of our schedule “BUT, Mom…”

7) I am not particularly social at hockey, basketball, soccer or ANY practice, leading me to spend time sitting in my car with my laptop (8 hr battery life) and my hat pulled low. I have my fictional friends already, thank you. Evil plots don’t just HAPPEN.

8)  “$5 for a slice of pizza on Fridays?”… “Mom, it’s a fundraiser. We need to support the school!”

9) There are these Mothers who must outdo the last class party. Maybe you have met them? Must we have a meeting about the Valentine’s party after the ten emails where we “brainstormed” ideas? Do we really think the first graders are going to remember the game, the craft, the song we taught them along with the hand motions when they’re 21? And can I tell you where that craft goes the minute my kid turns her head? (It’s round three, folks, now it’s just junk in my house)

10) The early rising child is still an early riser ON SATURDAY. Like a freaking rooster.

Rachel Simon is the award-winning author and nationally known public speaker. She is best known for her critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, which was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the same name. The book has garnered numerous awards, and is a frequent and much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country.

Rachel and I share a common bond as siblings of adults with disabilities. When I asked her for an interview, she responded immediately. In the short time I have known her, she has been nothing but encouraging. Her latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, is a NY Times Bestseller. 

Hi, Rachel!  Please tell us, when did you first get the writing bug?

I’m one of those people who figured out that writing was my life’s path almost as soon as I learned to write. I actually remember the moment when I had the realization. One afternoon, when I was seven, and my mother needed one of her daily afternoon naps, she asked me to lie down beside her and nap as well. She did this often, even though I rarely felt as tired as she did at that time of day. So as usual, I just stayed awake, daydreaming. And that day, my thoughts went to that dumb question adults kept asking me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was always an irritating question, because in that era – the early 1960’s – girls were allowed only a few acceptable answers: teacher, nurse, mommy, or ballerina. None of these excited me, so I thought it was high time for me to come up with an answer just to shut them up. As I asked myself the question, I remember looking up at the ceiling, which had cracked paint, and which, hard as I tried, could never be made to form itself into anything recognizable. Suddenly I just knew that I’d be a writer. I’ve wondered since what it was about the cracked paint that led me to this conclusion, and I think it was the desire to form something meaningful out of something that otherwise seemed random. I’ve come to see this as one of the primary goals of any art: to create order out of chaos.

I was quite satisfied with this answer, but didn’t get serious about writing immediately. As it turned out, my family moved soon thereafter, and a few months later my parents split up, so I was pretty miserable for a long time. However, I started writing letters to all my friends from my earlier home, and soon I was corresponding several times a week with half a dozen girls. I realized that each wrote in what I would now call her own voice, and that each also had difference topics that interested her. I decided to learn how to write in a way that synced up with the interests and voices of each, and so by the time I was nine, I’d become pretty good at taking on multiple voices. That year we moved again, and the family typewriter (a big old manual) was given a prominent spot on my mother’s desk. I decided I needed to get more disciplined, so I started writing short stories, then taught myself to type so I could put them in typed form. By seventh grade I’d started working on a novel, in ninth grade my father gave me an electric typewriter (what joy!), and by the end of high school I’d written four book-length works of fiction.

Little by little I gained some skill with craft, and I also gained some confidence. I sold my first book when I was twenty-nine – and, by the way, unagented. I didn’t get the agent until I already had an offer.

I switched from fiction to nonfiction for my third, fourth, and fifth books, but now with book #6, The Story of Beautiful Girl, I’m back to fiction.

You are most known for your memoir, RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, which was made into a movie. But your latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, is a work of fiction set in the late 1960’s about a couple with disabilities. Can you tell us about your research and how you went about gathering what you needed?

My sister Beth has an intellectual disability. When she was born in 1960, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to recommend to parents that they place children like my sister in institutions, but my parents never considered that option. I had little idea about the way people who lived there were treated.  Many years later, I wrote about Beth and our relationship in Riding The Bus With My Sister, and soon after it was released, I started getting asked to do public speaking around the country at disability-related conferences.  There I met people who, because they already knew me through my memoir, opened up and shared their own personal or professional experiences, and some of these stories involved institutions

Over and over, I returned home, reeling.  The reality of institutions had obviously been widespread and affected millions of people—yet no one outside these conferences spoke about such things.  In fact, the only institutions most Americans even seemed to be aware of were psychiatric institutions, which is an entirely different system from the institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  My curiosity finally stoked, I began collecting books and documentaries on the subject. At the same time, I developed friendships with many people in the disability community, from scholars to staff people, self-advocates to family members.  From my conversations with these new friends, I began learning about disabilities other than the one my sister has, as well as many issues of social justice that were outside my own experience. I then started wondering if I could write something, fiction or nonfiction, that dealt with some of this material, but I couldn’t figure out how.

Then one day, as I was wrapping up a talk, I came across a book at a vendor’s table, God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, by Dave Bakke.  In 1945, I learned, a deaf, African American teenager was found wandering the streets inIllinois.  No one understood his sign language so no one knew who he was.  A judge declared him “feebleminded” and he was put away in one of these institutions.  There he remained, despite the suspicion of many staff that he had no intellectual disability at all, until he died fifty years later.  The tragedy of John Doe No. 24 haunted me, and led me to read a lot of material about Deaf culture, and the African American Deaf (and deaf) experience.

Then in 2007, the creative writing department where I’d taught for over a decade decided to restructure the department and I was let go.  Grieving the loss of a job and students I had loved, I set about trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I was sure of only one thing: I wanted to keep writing.  Though what I wanted to write about, I didn’t know.

In this vulnerable state, I sat down with a blank pad of paper, waiting to see what would emerge.  Instantly, there it was.  The novel I’d been vaguely thinking about all this time.

It is 1968.  Night.  A rain storm.  An elderly widow is reading a book.  Who is she, I asked myself, and without hesitation, I knew: she was a retired schoolteacher, in a state of grief.  Unlike me, her grief was for a child and a bad marriage; like me, she had stayed in touch with her former students.  A knock comes to her door.  Who is it, I asked myself.  Again, I knew.  Standing before her is a woman who has my sister’s disability—and a man similar to John Doe No. 24.  The woman is the love of his life. Although I don’t know it for another fifty pages, he calls her Beautiful Girl.  They have just escaped from an institution—and Beautiful Girl has just borne a baby girl.  I continued writing, and the whole first chapter spilled out.  When I reached its ending, I was as shocked as my readers have been.  I had no idea she would say to the widow: “Hide her.”

So a lot of the research happened by accident, or through my personal life, before I even began the writing. However, once the book was underway, I did get more directed. I arranged interviews with my new friends, or people they knew.  From these interviews, I learned many details about life inside and outside of the institutions. Some of these details were sad, as you’d imagine, but others were a lot of fun. For instance, one friend spent several hours talking about a cross-country trip that he went on when he was a teenager, where his companion was his best friend, who had spinal cord injury.  Another friend talked with me about alternate forms of communication when people are nonverbal.  I also spoke with staff people who had a great deal to share about individuals they’d served, and loved, in their past.

But I think it’s important to note that I didn’t wait to start writing until I had all my research done. I started writing the book because I was sad and didn’t know what to do with myself, and then I completed the research as I went along.

How is your next project going?

I try not to talk about ongoing work until it’s finished. So for now I’ll just say that the burner is on.

What is your greatest challenge?

Only one? Gee. Well, if I must limit myself, I suppose I’d say it’s my extroverted personality. I just find everyone so fascinating, especially if I’m lucky enough to have the chance to speak with people one-on-one. In fact, when I was younger, I decided that my goal in life was to meet everyone in the world. Though I’m far from that goal, I will admit to being one of those people who has hundreds of friends (and I don’t just mean the Facebook kind), and I try to keep up with them all. As you might imagine, a person who’s this social might have a challenge going on a people diet so she can sit alone in a room and write.  I’m lucky in that I also really enjoy being by myself, and I don’t mind doing so for very long stretches of time. But I just love meeting and speaking with people, so sometimes I have to get very strict with myself in order to get back to work.

When do you feel the most victorious?

I think most people assume that as a writer, I would have my happiest moments when I win an award or get a very positive, high-placed review. And it’s true that those are indeed happy moments.  But I feel even happier when I find a creative way to work through some difficulty in my writing. That’s quite thrilling. I’m also deeply satisfied when I hear from or meet people with disabilities, their family members, or staff people, and when they tell me that I gave voice to their own thoughts, feelings, and stories.  In addition, I love when they then share their personal experiences with me. I feel very fortunate to have gained their trust, and to learn about their lives so deeply.

Thanks so much for your time, Rachel! To learn more about Rachel Simon, please visit her at http://www.rachelsimon.com.