Here's Where I'll Be This Week; Thanks, Mom

I'm traveling, all next week. Come see me, if you are in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area!

Tuesday, July 15, I'll be at the Urbana Regional Library in Frederick County, Maryland, at 3:30pm. This is a public program, so come out and visit with me, as I talk about turning my life into stories and ask you to do the same...

I'll bring lots of photos so you can see how I turned my aunts into chickens and my brother into a girl, and my Mississippi childhood into the landscape of the Aurora County novels. We'll laugh and share important thoughts about how every moment we live is worthy of story.

This trip is a homecoming for me. I lived in Urbana, in Frederick County, Maryland, for 25 years, in the same house all those years, where I raised a family and began my career as a writer. Sweetheart (now, husband) Jim visited me in Urbana for several years, and he'll come with me as we visit old haunts and enjoy suppers and lunches and breakfast and coffees with many, many friends and family. I can't wait.

This is the reward that comes on the heels of such a long stretch of writing the new novel in the Sixties trilogy... and one Sixties picture book. I owe pages to editor Kara as I start off on my journey, and I have made sure that she has plenty to read while I am gone, so we can Discuss All on my return.

On Monday, July 15 (the day before my Urbana Library appearance), I'll be speaking at the Adams County Library in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at 2pm. This, also, is a public program, where I'll be speaking to kids who have read LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER for a summer reading extravaganza, and I'll be happy to see any other faces that show up, as I talk about RUBY, how it came to be, and how -- once again -- I use my life to create my stories. I'll ask you to do the same.

I'll be doing research next week as well. I lived in Prince George's County, Maryland -- so close to Washington, D.C. -- for seven years, from 1961 through 1968. There were no malls at the time -- I remember my mother driving down Suitland Parkway to pick up a catalog order at the only Sears and Roebuck in the area, just inside the D.C. line -- It was on Alabama Avenue, I think.

And, oh, how I remember Iverson Mall opening and me begging my mother to let me go there to shop with my friend Anne, and oh how she didn't want me to go -- neither did my father: "What are you doing there? Are you going to WANDER AROUND? WHY? Do you have a particular item in mind to purchase?"

I didn't.

Today we think nothing of "shopping." In the early 1960s -- before malls -- shopping was destination- and item-driven. Malls were a big change -- really! -- in the way Americans shopped.

I did go shopping at Iverson Mall that year, against my father's wishes, and I remember how foreign it felt. Oh, how AMAZING -- one can just... SHOP! What does that mean???

I didn't know.

So, not knowing what else to do, and wanting to please and appease, I brought back a small token of thanks for my mother -- a mirror that was also a bobby pin holder. And, here's the most important thing I remember about that shopping expedition:

Until she died in 2003, my mother used that mirror I bought her at Iverson Mall to tweeze her eyebrows. Oh, how many evenings over the next thirty years as I visited my mother in Mississippi, I watched her, fresh from the shower, wearing whatever nightgown a daughter or daughter-in-law had given her, sitting on whatever green plaid couch, I watched her pluck errant eyebrows as she watched the latest recorded movie my father wanted us all to see on VHS.

That mirror was a symbol (and she knew it) of my love for my mother. It was our secret present, one of many (and some of those presents, she gave me), in the midst all the sturm and drang and hesitation and danger and change, change, change that the Sixties (and my adolescence!) brought.

Go-on, said my mother, this woman born of the Depression and make-do, use-it-up, wear-it out... go be with your friends at this new thing, this mall, go WALK AROUND with a few dollars in your pocket, and we will figure it out.

These are some of the memories that will never leave me... and they are all tied up in this house on Coolridge Road, Washington 23 DC., in the early 1960s... the days I want to recreate and investigate next week. The days when my brother and I locked my sister out of the house -- and shed! -- (in the snow, while she was barefoot -- Oh! I am so sorry!). The days when my brother and I tossed the spaghetti onto the ceiling and watched it stick... and fall.

All those days of childhood innocence and then not-so-much-innocence, the days that FREEDOM SUMMER is born from, the days that my Mississippi memories are based upon, the days that the Sixties will not let me forget. The days of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis and Doctor Zhivago and "Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood," and camping in a family trailer in Burnsville, North Carolina, and "It's a Grand Night For Singing."

I'm writing about those days in THE END OF THE ROPE, the first novel in the Sixties Trilogy, that takes place in 1962.

Denise Dubose was the student who had glasses thicker than mine. Ann Jones loved Julie Andrews -- had a scrapbook all about her. Judy James was tone deaf. Margie Gardner had a collie who looked like Lassie. Fred Woody (another Fred!) had a RACCOON. Gale Morris and I, next-door-neighbors and best friends, used to argue over who's yard that telephone pole was in... she gave a carnival for muscular dystrophy and I was convinced she kept the proceeds. She grew rock candy in her basement, which I thought was ultra-sophisticated and cool. Her mother served warmed tomato juice to the kids in the neighborhood who Christmas caroled each year.

My father worked at Andrews Air Force Base, where he became chief of safety for the 89th MATS. My friend Jeannie Cross's dad was a navigator on Air Force One.

We ducked and covered under our desks in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, stood in the bitter, biting cold to wait our turn to walk past John F. Kennedy's casket in the rotunda of the capitol, made countless trips to The Smithsonian and the monuments and Fort Washington, with Mississippi family in town, including my grandmother, the real Miss Eula. I had no idea we were creating such history.

When I was ten-years-old in Camp Springs, just out of fourth grade, in 1963, I sat on the picnic table, up against the white criss-cross fence in my back yard, with my grandmother, one early Sixties summer, and counted the cars that traveled down Allentown Road in Camp Springs. We counted 567 cars in one hour, a number that astounded my grandmother (who lived in rural Jasper County, Mississippi, the setting for LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER). She was so astounded, and the hour was so meaningful, that I have remembered that number ever since.

Today, 567 cars travel down the now-widened Allentown Road in probably five minutes. When the road was widened, not long before we moved, the county put stakes in the ground, in our yard, but I did not notice them when I ran through the yard during a game of tag and fell across one of those stakes, gouging a huge chuck out of my shin -- the indentation is still there. It had almost healed by the time Halloween rolled 'round, and I begged my mother to allow me to trick-or-treat that year. She did.

The road was widened. And our beagle, Flops, died on Allentown Road.

Allentown Road was our marker and our boundary. My brother road his bike down Allentown Road to get a haircut at the new shopping center near the new 7-Eleven. My father bought building supplies from the local hardware store, Pyles Lumber Company.

I spent most of my 25-cent weekly allowance on books that I ordered through the Arrow Book Club in school. I remember clearly buying a biography of FDR through Arrow Book Club in the mid-Sixties.

"Are you sure?" my mother asked me, as I showed her my form and asked for just another fifteen cents so I could reach the required sum. "A biography of Roosevelt?"

Earnestly I nodded my head yes. I was so sure. And my mother gave me the extra fifteen cents. When that book came, in the small stack of Arrow Book Club books I received that month, I read it cover to cover. Twice.

Drew, Franny's 9-year-old brother in END OF THE ROPE, loves John Glenn and wants to be an astronaut. I can see how my life is playing itself out, in fiction. As I write a story that is entirely made up, I want to be as historically accurate as possible and -- even more -- I want to be as emotionally accurate as possible. Hence, my remembering.

So... I go home. Home to those days of brand-new yellow/green bicycles for my brother and me one Christmas, and a brick house painted white, and a gravel pit at the end of the road in the woods. A school that no longer exists as a school. And fellow travelers who will meet me in Camp Springs, and help me remember.

I'll be photographing and asking questions. I'll be refreshing my memory and I'll be creating new memories for my characters.

And, when this work is done, I will be revisiting the home I created as an adult, for my own family, in Frederick County, Maryland. A trip home would not be complete without stops at the major crossroads of my young-mother life, and my children's lives.

Husband Jim and I will go to all the old Frederick County, Montgomery County, and Washington, D.C. haunts. I will have my camera -- AND MY NOTEBOOK! -- at the ready. We'll also try to take a day and drive into western Maryland, where I spent so many years with my children, where we will float in the lake at Rocky Creek Gap State Park, and visit Penn Alps and New Germany State Park, and Yoder's Market in Grantsville, Maryland... places I have taken Jim before, so places he now remembers as well. We may even have time to visit our good friends at Frostburg University -- will y'all be around next week? Let me know!

I won't have the laptop with me. It has been in the shop for three weeks with a defective battery compartment closure, and a defunct hard drive. It will be ready for pickup on Monday, but Monday won't work for me -- we will already be on our way.

So I'm taking picture book manuscripts with me on this trip, and I will write in longhand... which I always do when I'm working on picture books. I'll check in when I can -- from libraries and from friends's houses -- but mostly I'll see you in a week, when I'm home and have lots of stories to share.

Good reading, writing, and notebooking to you all. Good memories. Even memories of the tough times. I'm wading into wonderful memories, and memories of the tough-times as well. It's all good, as Uncle Edisto tells us. We need the bitter with the sweet. All of it.

So let me soak up all of it, and see how it falls out, in my stories. You will do this as well -- will you not?

I hope you will. Let's compare notes -- and stories -- when the week is up. Just reading this makes me dizzy. I may need a vacation to recover from my vacation.


  1. Just catching up on your blogs. Ann J and I share the name and a love of Julie A. I just finished listening to her read HOME. I brought back memories of many musicals through the years.

  2. Thanks for this note, indyannie... Ann Jones's elder sister was an actress trying to make it in NYC, and Ann kept an elaborate scrapbook of any play her sister was in, as well as a separate scrapbook about Julie Andrews... it was fun to sit on the floor of her bedroom and go through them, when we were 12. Memories, indeed!


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