Sibling Writerly

I’m reading a narrative written by my brother, when I see the catalpa tree sitting there right in the middle of the page.  He has transplanted it from our childhood back yard into the thick of his prose. I snort out a mouthful of tea. That’s my tree; I was already using it. It’s an important symbol in the story I’ve been working on.

MINE!

MINE!

 

This isn’t his first offense. The same thing happened with a lilac bush. I’m the one who accidentally dug up the remains of our pet parakeet while playing in the shade of said bush. Surely this gives me some custody rights. I suffered for those lilacs, and he usurped them.

ALSO MINE!

 

Every writer I know evokes personal history in the practice of his or her craft, even for fiction pieces. In fact, workshop leaders all over the place are teaching us how to do it effectively. The problem for me comes with having another writer in the family, a sibling near my age. We’re both drawing from the same well.

My brother and I are creating parallel universes, where our characters drive identical Chevy Novas and own twin tortoise-shell cats. Despite my entrenched status as a grown-up, I find myself willing to share no more graciously than I did as a child. Perhaps I could be more generous if he wasn’t such a good writer. I suspect any resentment I feel is rooted in the fear that he’s putting our memories to better use than I am. Showing me up again.

My writing brain is becoming tinged with a new paranoia. One morning, I begin penning a description of a character, basing him on a former next-door neighbor. I stop mid-word, suddenly worried that my one-eyed vegetarian has a doppelganger residing somewhere in the pages of my brother’s notebooks. Worse, the hypothetical double could be a more fully realized individual than my guy, leading a more interesting life.

I falter for most of a day, returning again and again to my computer, only to sit and stare and wonder what to do.  Should I call my brother and propose a division of historical assets? Perhaps we could make a list and split it in half, like when we put masking tape down the middle of the living room as kids, saying “That side’s yours; this is mine.”

Or I could stick to events and people I encountered independently of him. Surely I have a wealth of my own material waiting to be garnered from unshared classrooms, solitary outings. I should have enough, I think, without dipping into his past at all. I almost convince myself I can be satisfied with this solution. Then I picture myself, six years old, saying I don’t want anything to do with your smelly old Matchbox cars anyway. The toys in my own room are more fun. Oh dear.

I did want to play with those cars. And I do want to use these memories. I feel the steam building inside again. I have as much right to them as he does. More, in some cases. I should be able to use whatever material I see fit.  I’ll just have to get to it first. I’ll out-write him, race my characters through the (dramatically enhanced) events of my own life before he has a chance. I must hurry that girl into the wagon she will crash into a rose bush, shatter that boy’s teeth in a bike wreck, get the elderly neighbor started on her valium habit. Then I’ll have two young siblings race each other to the car, vying for the front seat.  Or not.

I do need to be an adult, I realize, if I’m going to get anywhere with my writing. I close my eyes, counting my breaths, clearing my mind.  When I lift my lids, I see with a new clarity.  There is more than one catalpa tree in the world. There’s no reason the streets in my stories can’t be traversed in Buicks. And as for the one-eyed vegetarian?  I pick up the phone, dialing my brother’s number.  “Do you remember that old neighbor of ours with the eye patch?” I ask. “Are you using him for anything?”

**

This is a piece of creative nonfiction. A few details have been changed in the cause of making my life seem more interesting. It originally appeared in the now defunct ByLines Magazine.

How We Flunked Story Time

may_28_6968_frog_tadpole “Story time saved my sanity.” Thus proclaimed a friend with children much younger than mine. She gushed to me how much her family loves the library, and especially the children’s programs.

This sent my mind into a reminiscence of my own family history. I didn’t reveal to her my shameful secret. But I will confess it here. When my daughter was three and my son a newborn, our family flunked out of story time. At the very library where I now work.

It had to do with the green paper circles. Lily pads you might call them if you were a story time lady presenting a tale about frogs. Or, if you were my then 3-year-old daughter, you might call them wall dots, green steering wheels, round green hats, or frisbees. In her eyes, the possibilities were endless.

“Let’s sit on our lily pads little frogs, while we hear a story!” prompted the cheerful story time lady. 10 or 11 out of the group of 11 or 12 little frogs obediently criss-cross apple sauced on their lily pads.

“Frogs sit *on* their lily pads, not *under* them,” said the story time lady, still cheerfully.

“Mine’s a hat!” said my three-year-old, also cheerfully.

“Okay, well, let’s get the story started,” said the story time lady, gamely.

As the other children were doing the finger plays, my daughter was driving us to the store with the steering wheel that had been so thoughtfully provided. “I’ll drive since you’re holding the baby,” she whispered to me.

“Remember to sit on your lily pads,” prompted the story time lady, a little sternly, as the story ended and she prepared to begin a song. This time she was looking at me, a look that told me I was allowing my kid to Set a Bad Example, and I should begin enforcing the story time rules like a Good Mother.

But she’s not being disruptive, I thought back at her. She only whispered once, right in my ear. If I argue with her, that will be disruptive.

I don’t remember the song, probably something to do with amphibians. I remember I sang along, while wearing a green paper hat, held on my head by my kid. It was only fair that I have a turn, after all. See, I had taught my child about taking turns and sharing. Not a total loser mom, huh?

As a finale, there was a second song. And the kids were allowed more action this time, hopping, a little, in place, on cue. Or in one case, doing a small interpretive dance – The Dance of the Green Circle. My inner being was divided between mortification and fierce pride. I know which side the story time lady came down on, as she threw in an extra demonstration of the proper form of hopping.

As the program ended and parents left hand-in-hand with their children, I saw some other families grouping together, comparing this experience with story times of other weeks. Apparently they had a story time clique. Their offspring had been in training since birth. And here I thought I could bring in my wild child starting at the advanced age of three and have her fit in.

Said child, meanwhile, now that she was allowed to move around and talk freely, was pointing out to me all of the things you could do with a circle of green paper. You could decorate a wall with it. You could tuck in the top of your shirt in back and have a round superhero cape. You could hide your face behind it to play peek-a-boo with a baby. You could use it as a baby blanket. After a minute, my mixed feelings coalesced into amazement at my kid’s mind and attitude – that she could be so excited and could see so many possibilities in circle of paper.

I glanced around at the other families, with their conforming kids, who would have fit right in on that planet in “A Wrinkle in Time” – the one where the children bounced their balls at the exact same time on the exact same schedule every day. Suddenly, they seemed a little, hmmm, soulless might be the word? Those poor moms and dads, seeing the limitations of their merely adequate children exposed in the bright illumination cast by the creative genius shining from my daughter. Yeah, I couldn’t put them through that again.

We’d stick to our informal weekly playgroup and leave the organized story times for those others. I imagined the librarian in charge of the program that day thinking of us as “not story time material.” I suppose some people might look at it as having failed, and at times I have looked at it that way, too, wondering why my kid has such a hard time getting with the program. But I prefer think of it more as not a good fit. See how non-judgmental I’m being about the others’ rigidity and lack of imagination?lilypad

The same dynamic would continue to play out in public school as the years went on. My older kid often had “better” ideas than the teacher about how an assignment should be done. Some teachers loved this and used it to advantage. In those classes, my child learned a lot and accomplished some remarkable creative achievements. Others instructors – I call them lily pad teachers – lived by the philosophy “Rubrick uber alles!” My offspring showed a marked failure to thrive in those classrooms.

I never have completely sorted out my feelings. No, I don’t think the school should have to convert any of their computers from qwerty to Dvorak because one kid think it works better. (Pick your battles, child.) But yes, I do think my then-10th-grader should have been given extra credit instead of a zero on that world history report for having gone so far above and beyond in research and effort, in having a desire to do something that wasn’t a rehash of every other paper that had been written in the same classroom for the past decade.

Eventually the little frog grew strong enough to hop its way out of the public school pond and forge its own path to college, via self-study and a GED. Have I mentioned the college major? – Fisheries and Wildlife. Lack of preschool success at frogdom notwithstanding. I guess it didn’t go on the permanent record.

greencirclegreencirclegreencircle

Penciled In – Short Story

Did you know May is Short Story Month? I found out rather late in the game. But since it’s still May for a brief while, I’ll share a short fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. This story originally appeared in the May, 2009 issue of THEMA – the “Box Under the Bed” issue. Before I get to the actual story, I’ll use this opportunity to say that THEMA is an excellent little magazine. If you’re looking for something good to read, and/or if you’re looking for a prospective market for your writing, take a look at it. Even when they’ve rejected me, I’ve received thoughtful and helpful responses on my writing.

Now the story:

Penciled In

I was written in pencil. This represented a compromise between my grandmother, who believed Mama shouldn’t waste a name on me because I wasn’t a keeper, and my mother, who swore I would live and believed I should be listed in the family Bible in ink with the rest of the family. My grandmother kept the Bible in a locked pine box under her bed. I never did get changed to ink, though Mama asked about it occasionally. Granny always claimed she’d get around to it, but then would add, “It might be wise after all to wait a little longer just to make sure.”

The way she’d look at me made me feel like I was shrinking away to nothing already, as if I’d be gone without a trace in just a few minutes. I hesitated to go to bed some nights for fear I’d simply disappear in my sleep.

I was the only thing Mama ever stood up to Granny about. Mama told me how she insisted on having a bed set up right next to the wood stove when I was born. She’d hold me there between the warmth of her body and the heat of the stove, making sure I didn’t have a chance to go cold and stiff. Once I overheard my two aunts talking. They said when Mama realized I didn’t have even the strength to suckle, she soaked up her milk with a clean rag and squeezed drops into my mouth.

Granny never forgave Mama for being right, never completely admitted Mama had been right. I remember her arguing with Mama over whether I needed new pants. Granny told her, “The boy’s never going to get to any respectable size. He doesn’t outgrow his clothes but once every couple of years. If he’s too big for his breeches it isn’t in any physical sense.”

She used to short me on food too. Sometimes she wouldn’t set a place at the table for me until Mama reminded her. Then Granny would say, “Oh, I clean forgot he was here.” As if I hadn’t been there every dinner time my entire life. More often she’d serve out tiny portions onto my plate. If Mama then dipped out more for me, Granny would shake her head and ask, “How much do you think that little thimbleful of a child can hold?”

Granny’s always been substantial, sturdy, every bit as strapping as any farm hand she hired. And she doesn’t make room in her life for those who are too small and weak to make room for themselves. She’s never lost an opportunity of telling people she weighed over 10 pounds at birth, as did all three of her children. I was about a third of that when I was born, according to what I’ve heard.

Mama had me too soon. My early birth was due to her emotional upset at losing my father so unexpectedly. He got into a barroom fight, or else he was trying to break up a fight, or he walked in just as one man was shooting at another. Somehow he found himself in a bar and ended up taking a bullet. Nobody ever was arrested. The story was too confusing for the sheriff to unravel. I’ve heard about eight different versions myself. Well, all the witnesses were drunks.

My father was big, like his mother. I used to look at the only photograph Mama had of herself and Daddy together, taken just after they got married. In the picture they were standing close to each other. Daddy stood there broad and tall, taking up most of the space; even his whiskers seemed extra thick. He had his arm around Mama, a little wisp of a thing, with the top of her curly blond hair just grazing his shoulder. She wore a white gauzy dress. Daddy looked something like a bear who just ambled out of the forest, and Mama like a woodland fairy he’d found and carried with him.

Granny didn’t consider my mother to be good for much of anything; couldn’t understand why my father had brought such a person into the clan. My grandmother measured out her days in complaints over the meals Mama didn’t cook, the garden she didn’t cultivate. Of course, whenever Mama did try to help, Granny wouldn’t allow it. She’d grab the hoe right from Mama’s hand, declaring, “ Whacking the top off a weed’s no good. You have to be strong enough to get it by the root.”

Sometimes I thought Mama poured so much energy into taking care of me just to show up Granny. Keeping me alive was the one thing she could accomplish, against the predictions of just about everyone.

It was because of me that Granny had to keep Mama after Daddy died. Mama didn’t have any family of her own to go to. I know Granny hoped I’d take after my paternal side and serve as a replacement for Daddy. Or failing that, she wished I’d have the decency to be prompt about the journey to my heavenly home, preferably taking my mother with me.

Instead, I arrived early, extraneous and runty, neither condition ever to be remedied during my time in Granny’s household. When I first went to school I had to sit on a dictionary to see over the top of my desk, even though the teacher put me in the littlest seat at the front of the room. Embarrassed for anyone to know I came from her family, Granny tried to convince Mama to enroll me under a false name. By the time I started seventh grade, this past year, I had only moved back two rows. I’m still not tall enough to see over the heads of any but the youngest children.

I doubt I’ll be going to eighth grade. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end of this summer. Right now I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t seem to think any farther than getting some food into my stomach and figuring out where I’ll sleep tonight. Once it’s dark, I can probably sneak some vegetables from a garden somewhere, maybe find a barn to hide in.

Mama died last week. She took ill one night shortly after dinner, and passed on two days later. I put on my best shirt and trousers for the funeral. That’s what I’m still wearing, though they’re not looking so good now. I’ve ripped a hole in the left knee of the pants. The shirt is stiff with mud and old sweat and grass stains. It’s amazing to look at it and think it used to be white just a few days ago.

I rode to the graveyard in the buggy with Granny. She didn’t tell me to; I just saw her climbing up behind the horses and assumed I should too. Not many people attended, only Granny and myself, my two aunts with their husbands and children, and the preacher. The service was brief; everyone seemed in a hurry to get out of the hot July sun. If there’s a minimum requirement for the number of words that can be said at a funeral, the preacher barely met it. I don’t remember much more than “God’s will be done.”

Next thing I knew the wagons were driving away. Everyone forgot me. I didn’t mind; I wanted to stay there with Mama a little while. I don’t know how long I sat by her grave. A couple of hours maybe. I talked to Mama, told her how much I missed her already. I asked her now that she was in heaven, could she be my guardian angel? Then the men came to shovel in the dirt. They told me I should go, so I walked back to Granny’s house.

I thought the family would gather there, bringing food, like people do after funerals. But when I came in sight of the house, I didn’t see any extra horses or wagons. Apparently they all went back to their own homes. By that time, I only wanted to go lie down in bed anyway. I was hot and my shirt was sticking to my skin; my head hurt and I felt like there was a sharp rock inside my chest, ripping a hole in me.

I walked on down to the house thinking that once in bed I might not get back up for several days. However, when I put my hand to the door latch, I found it was locked. I knocked, but didn’t hear anything inside. I stood there for several minutes, pondering where Granny could be. Finally I decided all I could do was wait for her to come home. I went around back and drew up some water from the well. I took a long drink and then poured some over my head. It didn’t do much to revive me. Feeling a thousand years old, I dragged myself up to the top of the small knoll beside our house and let myself drop under the shade of a maple tree. I fell asleep right off.

I woke up at dusk, groggy and confused, wondering why Mama had left me outside, sleeping in the grass, instead of bringing me in to my bed. Then I remembered. I looked down and saw lamplight through the window. Granny was home. Once again, I made my way for the door, aiming to get to my own bed. Once again, the door was locked. I could hear Granny moving around inside this time. I banged my fist on the wood and hollered, “Granny, it’s me.”

I received no reply. Eventually, I climbed back up to my maple tree and watched the stars begin to dot the sky. I wondered if Mama was looking down on me. “What should I do Mama?” I asked. No answer there either.

True night had come by that time. The dark seemed like it was grabbing at me, and the mosquitoes were eating me up. I ran back toward the house, stopping in the front yard to catch my breath. I began to tremble all over, standing there completely alone. I felt smaller than I ever had before. The thought came to me that if I shouted loud enough for long enough, someone somewhere would hear me and come to see what was the fuss, a thought immediately followed by the fear that it might be coyotes or wolves who heard me. My legs felt about as substantial as pudding by this time.

Wobbling a bit, I crept closer to the house. Instead of the door, I headed for the window. I peered inside, not knowing what I expected to see. There was Granny, sitting at the table, the wooden Bible box next to her. She was snipping a photograph with her sewing scissors, the picture of my parents. She was cutting them apart. When she finished, she lay Daddy down on the table, smoothing him out. Then she took Mama and threw her into the wood stove.

Next she went to the shelf where she kept her writing things: paper, pencils and such. She picked up something and brought it back to the table. Taking a key from her apron pocket, she opened the pine box. She lifted out the family Bible and opened it up. After staring at it for a moment she put her hand to the page. I saw then what she was holding – an eraser.

Copyright: Ida Bettis Fogle

Poem: Seeds

DSCN1749

Here in the middle of the U.S., we just passed the frost date. So it’s time to plant. Here’s a seasonally-inspired poem I wrote:

Seeds

“Here it is,
The start of my first garden,”
she tells him.
Two dozen flat seeds
the color of milk, round with a point,
pour from a paper packet.

He wants to know what else she plans to plant
other than bell peppers.

She hasn’t decided yet,
but thinks it will be wonderful
to raise her own food.
She’ll cook more from scratch,
maybe even learn to can.
Gardening is great exercise;
she knows she’ll lose weight.
She hopes to figure out that sewing machine
she picked up at a garage sale
to make her own dresses.
Who knows?
She may need maternity clothes soon.
Healthier living should improve their chances.
At least she thinks so.
She wants to know what he thinks.

He thinks it seems like a lot to expect
from one little handful of seeds -
to grow a whole new life.

**

This poem originally appeared in “Mid-America Poetry Review.”

Poem: Missouri River Town

It’s National Poetry Month, and once again, Missouri is experiencing spring storms and flooding. I wrote this poem a few years ago, after driving through a small town that frequently floods and had been hit particularly hard the year before when the Missouri River overflowed its banks.

 

*Missouri River Town

In the last block before
The capricious water
A parade of houses on stilts
But no Uncle Sam hats
Or juggling pins spinning
Dour faces on most
Gray at the edges
Permanent five o’clock shadows
From silt slopped
Around the bottoms

Except
One bright countenance
Costumed as the canary
Emerging from the coal mine
Fresh painted optimistic yellow

The show goes on

photo

*This poem originally appeared in Well Versed.

How I’ve Kind of Sort of Taught Myself to Play Piano Just a Little

clases-piano-individuales

 

“Do you play an instrument?”

When this question comes up in conversation, I usually answer it with “No, not really. Well, sort of. I mean, I’m not good, but I can kind of play piano about this much.” I hold my thumb and forefinger an inch apart to demonstrate how small my musical accomplishment really is.

When I was in grade school I became fascinated with the two pianos in our school – one in the auditorium and one in the music classroom. I remember the day the music teacher let each of us in turn practice a middle C scale. And that’s about all I recall from music class in my elementary years. Mostly, I remember daydreaming about playing the piano in the auditorium when we were stuck in a boring assembly. A couple of times in fifth grade, when my class was supposed to be working on sets for a class play, I snuck over to the piano and started pressing keys simply to hear the sounds. I don’t know why, growing up in a house where Hank Williams was considered a deity, I developed a liking for the sound of the black and white keys. Maybe it was a form of rebellion, since a keyboard is seldom used in country music, or at least not the country music my parents favored.

I’m not claiming to be high-brow in my musical tastes. I like me some pop music. But especially when that pop music heavily features keyboard of some kind: Elton John, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Hornsby, Coldplay, Lady Gaga (yes, even though I’m thoroughly ensconced in my middle-aged years; I try to concentrate on the music and not the meat dress or whatever.) I’ve always kind of wished I knew more about music, but didn’t know how to go about learning. My dad had a guitar and a fiddle that he’d picked up used somewhere, and he taught himself to play. But he wasn’t one to let kids mess with his stuff. And paid music lessons in my childhood were as realistic a possibility as a trip to the Antarctic.

I signed up for band class when I went to junior high. I played clarinet because I had to use a school instrument and took what was available. I did learn some about reading music and my ear got trained a little, but let’s just say clarinet was not my destiny. For years I stuck with playing the radio, the daydream of piano hovering in the back of my mind, surfacing occasionally. It wasn’t so much that I felt deprived over it not happening in real life, but that I enjoyed having a fun little fantasy sometimes.

Then my kids came along and my husband’s sister had their childhood piano sitting in her house, unused. The soundboard was slightly cracked, but it would do for the kids to start learning. When my daughter was nine and my son six, we acquired the instrument and I signed my kids up for piano lessons. For the first little bit, I sat in the teacher’s living room, petting her dog, and listening to the instructions she gave the kids.  Following along at home, using the lesson books, I’d practice the same things they were learning. I used to spur the children to practice by pretending to compete with them, saying things like “You don’t want me to get better than you, do you?”

My daughter stuck with lessons for six months, then decided to pursue other interests. But my son – let’s just say piano does seem to be his destiny.  After a couple of years’ time, he’d passed me right up. I couldn’t keep pace with him. When he was 10, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law pooled their money to buy us a new piano, and he was in heaven, using an instrument that sounded the way it was supposed to. By the time he was 11, he was choosing Philip Glass pieces to play in recital. He’s 15 now and not only still plays, but also owns a MIDI keyboard he keeps plugged into the computer so he can compose and record his own original music.

Meanwhile, I’m still plugging along, inch by inch, through children’s lesson books, supplemented with YouTube tutorials. My practice has fallen by the wayside a couple of times, for periods of a few months, but I keep coming back to it. When I say inch by inch, I mean my progress is soooo slow, and by slow I mean think in terms of those drops of pitch that hung suspended for many years before finally falling in that Australian study. For one thing, I can only squeeze in 20 minutes or so of playing, about three or four days a week. After nine years, off and on, I’m finally at the end of the fourth instruction book.

I no longer have any pretense that my playing has anything to do with encouraging or assisting my children in any way. I know I’ll never be good, really, and I have no desire to try to perform for anyone else. My fingerwork is too staccato, and unlike my father and my son, I don’t possess an innate ear for the notes . But I’ve learned more about music, which means I get more out of the music I listen to. Plus, playing an instrument is supposed to help your brain function. My brain will take all the help it can get. And I enjoy it so much, those little 20-minute sessions of daydream fulfillment.

So yeah, I play piano now. Kind of. A little.

 

 

 

What I’m Wearing for the Oscars

Update:  I know there was rampant speculation about what outfit I’d select for the after-party. Breaths were held as everyone wondered what it would be. Would I choose flannel or fleece? Even I hadn’t decided until the very last second. But fleece won the night.

A few words about my chosen ensemble for the evening of the Oscars:

The gray hoodie I’m wearing right now was designed by…um…someone who does marketing for Mark Twain Cave(?) I guess. While the t-shirt underneath harks back to the era when I was on a softball team. The jeans were chosen specially for this occasion because they’re loose enough to allow an extra layer underneath. My jacket is a family heirloom, passed up from son to mother. And the blue fingerless gloves are meant to send a message about the weather.