Remembering my glamorous Mom on Mother’s Day

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom. Even in a kiddie pool, she was glamourous.

In response to Maria Shriver’s question, “What gift did your mom give you?” I must answer, INTUITION and EMPATHY.

I lost my mom six years ago, but since I’ve been working on my memoir over the last four years, we’ve had daily conversations with her (no, I’m not crazy. I talk with the mom who lives in my head, along with all my other characters, real or imagined).

In my everyday life, I find myself saying words in ways she had said them, her voice coming from my lips.  She’s an integral part of my life, existing in my head and my heart, as well as in all the things around me that once belonged to her. I especially feel her radiance when I do things that would have made her proud, like becoming a writer in order to share my family’s adventures.

In addition to empathy, she taught me grace under fire and a confidence to respond to change and tragedy.  We had plenty of both, first with moving, (20 times that I remember by the time I graduated from high school) and then when we lost both my brothers (at ages 49 and 56).  Mom was the last to leave this world, lingering for years after a massive bleeding brain hemorrhage.  Even in her disabled state, with difficulty walking and talking, she made sure the kitchen was clean and the laundry was done.  She was a perfectionist when it came to having a beautiful home and stayed in her home until her last breath.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18.  This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18. This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.


My mom exuded beauty. She was often asked to walk the runway for charity fashion events.  Heads would turn in any room she entered, not only from her looks, but from her zest for life, an enthusiasm that she radiated.

Mom loved people. She loved to hear their stories.  Strangers would reveal their deepest secrets and be healed by her empathy and compassion.  She never judged nor said an ill word about anyone in all of her days.

Mom knew how to laugh and when she laughed, we all laughed with her.  She’d be goofy, not worrying about how she appeared as long as it made people happy.  I learned late in life that she was smarter than she let on. She once explained that it helped the men in her life feel important. She never needed to compete, always turning any spotlight on her toward their talents and ideas.

“I don’t have to express my opinion,” she would say. “I know what I believe and that’s all I need.  I don’t need anyone to agree with me.  They can have their opinion and I have mine.”

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Mom didn’t age. She just grew more vibrant. We were mistaken for sisters even after she turned fifty.

Her courage surprised me. Mom was in her late fifties when she managed a large apartment complex in LA. At the request of  the police, she helped capture drug dealers, nonchalantly handing over packages that had arrived in the mail and landed on her desk with detectives waiting in the next room to make the arrest. Mom was thrilled to help put away anyone who might involve her college-student residents in their illicit drug business.  She was telling me the story of her latest caper while the two of us were having dinner out one night. Afterward, she and I were walking from my car toward the elevator in the secure garage under her apartment building when she saw a shadow of a man lurking in the back.  Without a thought for her own safety, she pushed me behind her and charged forward, yelling, “You’d better get out of here before I call the police.  This is MY PLACE and I won’t let you harm anyone.” My mouth dropped open as I saw the figure disappear out a back exit. I’d never seen my mother so fierce.  She became a mother bear protecting her cub.

She was the ultimate mother, willing to help any needy person she came across. But she always put her children first, especially her only daughter–me.  I was her pride and joy, she would say. I was glad she was able to attend both my college graduations, first in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I received my BA when I was thirty-seven, then again at UCLA for my MFA three years later.  A college education was something she was never given the opportunity to earn, working from the day she graduated high school.

She’d wanted to be an actress, but having children kept her from having the chance to appear on Broadway.  She did garnish a leading role in several amateur productions, but for me, Mom was aways playing the role of a lifetime. Life was her stage, and she was always at her best, dressed to the nines, perfect hair and makeup, full of humor and wisdom.

I feel her with me everyday, especially when I toss back my head in laughter, like she used to do. When I’m unsure of where life might be leading me, I trust in myself and in all the wisdom she bestowed on me, confident that everything will work out somehow, just like she always said it would.

 

Attending Writers’ Conferences

The ultimate metamorphosis

The ultimate metamorphosis

Attending a Writers’ Conference is fun, educational, and overwhelming. Writing is difficult enough, managing characters, places, descriptions and dialogue, words and ideas all onto pages, then editing, editing editing.  If you’re still in the first draft process, editing or ready for an agent, a conference can help.

Whether you have questions about the process or the business, if you need some enthusiasm to push you to the next level or you’re  in need of  some fellow writers, people who understand the challenges, refusals and rewards of writing to hang out with, then it’s time for you to attend a Writers’ Conference.

They seem to be in every city these days, put on by Writing Programs  associated with Universities (UW Madison, Wisconsin or Ball State in Muncie, Indiana), Literary Magazines (The Sun Magazine) or by enthusiastic members of local writing groups who are just crazy enough to take on such a difficult project and are successful despite the many challenges (Evanston Writer’s Workshop near Chicago).

Conferences offer opportunities to learn from people who have accomplished what we hope to one day.  When I’m at a conference it seems I can never get enough.  Sometimes all the walking and stairs can be too much for my aging muscles. All the new information and faces can be enough to collapse my brain synapses.  Still, I do three conferences a year and would love to do more.

The presentations at the Writers’ Institute (April 11-14, 2013) in Madison were so wonderful, I often wanted to be in two places at once for most of the three days.  How do you choose between Taking Your Writing to the Next Level and Writing for YA?  I ran around like a crazy person, squeezing in as much as I could into every minute, refusing to take a break for fear that I would miss some essential key to unlocking my publishing dream, drinking coffee and snacking on sugary pastries that were free and easily accessible (sweets I usually avoid), taking notes and asking questions, then running down the hall to the next group session or agent presentation, sneaking out (they all expect this) to make one of my six-minute pitch sessions to an agent or an editor.

After three days at the conference, I came home and collapsed for at least that long while all the input simmered, settled and gelled into a form I could put into action. At that point, my work is only beginning. I have promises of pages to fulfill, books to read, edits to make, and blogs to create.

I’ll never forget Judith Engracia saying on the first day of the Writers’ Institute in Madison that she had NO Pet Peeves.  I saw a doubter’s eyebrow crunch on the faces of  the other agents on the panel and heard a muffled gasp from the writers in the room, followed by a silent “Wheee” and a “Yahoo!”  I know, I know. Give her time.  But maybe she is one of those extraordinary individuals who can forgive us our human and writerly foibles. From the six minutes I had with her, I thought she was FABULOUS!

Then, there was Julie Matysik, the amazing editor from Skyhorse Publishing, who talked about all the challenges of working with a first time author.  Tanya Chernov shared amazing details of her journey to write a memoir about her dying father. Her Agent, Gordon Warnock talked about how he first found Tanya, and after 150 queries to publishers, found Julie Matysik and put the two of them together (that detail even surprised Julie!).  After talking about an arduous editing process and problems with a retailer refusing to accept the cover art they’d worked so hard to perfect, Julie Matysik declared in no uncertain terms, that she still loves memoir and is looking forward to finding the next manuscript that moves her to tears like Tanya’s did (that’s not a quote, but the gist of her enthusiastic response).

Right there and then, I crossed my fingers and toes, kissed my four-leaf clover, and made a wish on a falling star that I would be her next project.  From my lips to…you know what I’m saying.  (Sorry for using so many cliches.)

I don’t want to forget to mention the wonderful presentations by agents.  It began with an intense Agents Panel where sometimes they agreed and sometimes they totally disagreed (but always with a pleasant tone).

I was lucky to get into a session (most were packed, with even standing room filled up) by Bree OgdenResearching and Querying Agents.  Bree said it was okay for writers to stalk agents in order to find the right one (agency website, agent’s blog and twitter) and to have the ammunition to convince them we’re the author they’ve been looking for.  But don’t do anything ugly or scary, she cautioned.

For me that means every time I want to query, I need to read blogs, follow on twitter, check out all the helpful how-to articles on the Agency’s website, and read a book or two that Agent has represented or stated it’s what she’s looking for right now.  (Overwhelmed yet?  You ain’t a kidding! But that’s the Biz. Do you still want to be published? Sure you do!)

Also, a note to agents and writers alike. You know how no one wants attachments anymore.  “Put the first twenty pages after the one page query in the body of the email–and be sure it’s double-spaced, to make it easy on our eyes.  We get hundreds a day and we will read the ones that are easier to read and formatted as we have laid out on our website.” (Again, not a direct quote.)

Well, if you own a Mac Computer, you probably know that MAIL application won’t let you double-space, unless you go into the document and do a double return after each line.  If you cut and past a double-spaced document into MAIL, it will reduce it to single-spaced.  I’ve talked to several of the Apple Programmers and they didn’t even notice it.  I’ve requested that they fix it, but who knows how long that will take.  I’m just sayin’, all you agents out there, please take note.  We’re not doing it because we’re lazy or want to make you mad. It’s just that it’s near impossible to accomplish.

April Eberhardt’s presentation with self-pub author, Mary Driver-Thiel regarding her self-published novel THE WORLD UNDONE was packed full of details regarding the new trend in self-publishing by authors.  They talked about HOW TO DO IT RIGHT.  Talk about overwhelm!  It’s hard enough completing a full-length manuscript and then editing it numerous times to have it ready to send out.  Authors need to keep up with all the changes in the industry, research agents, editors (Big Six vs. Midsize vs. Small Publishers) and then weight it against the pros and cons of Self-Publishing.  You’ve got to be kidding me.

Once home, I  needed to make essential changes to my YA manuscript before sending it off, based on what I learned about my story from hearing others talk about theirs.  What to do.  What not to do.  This year, it was adding a pearl I’d forgotten and showing a diamond a bit more often so it can shine throughout, weaving a thread to tie it all together.

Next, I needed to check all the agents’ and editors’ websites to make sure the query and pages I was sending them was formatted correctly. I proofread the query four times to be sure I hadn’t misspelled their name or committed some other grieves “pet peeve.”

The biggest thing that I learned at the Madison Conference (Learned again, I should say, but on a whole new level) is that this is a difficult business.  It takes tons of work, years of time, with no guarantee you’ll ever get published and if you do, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever make a dime.  No matter which way you chose to publish, you’ll still have to do most of your own promotion and maybe even hire a publicist. That could mean big bucks. If you self-pub, you need to pay for editing, line editing, cover art, interior layout, and maybe some help getting it all formatted for the various E-pub distributors as well as the printer.

To be a published author today, you’ve got to love it!  The writing, the community, the business, the marketing, the readers.  And I do.  All of it.  Really.  Even after all that.  I think I love it even more.

So thanks Laurie Scheer for a great conference.  I’m looking forward to next year’s.

imageThe first edition of the Midwest Prairie Review published by UW Madison Continuing Studies Writing Department is gorgeous!  And I’m not just saying that because three of my photographs were selected to be published within its pages.  I’m hoping next year to have an essay or short story included.  Fingers crossed.

Becca, Kathleen and Mary celebrating at the Writers' Institute with me behind the camera.

Becca, Kathleen and Mary celebrating at the Institute with me behind the camera.

Did I mention? The conference Judges gave me a FIRST PAGE Award.  First Prize for Non-Fiction for my memoir DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS.

It’s the best feeling, short of getting an agent, an editor, and launch day, that is.  Stay posted.  Maybe I’ll get there yet.

Catherine and friends swapping stories at the Writers' Institute.

Catherine and friends swapping stories at the Writers’ Institute.

About the overwhelm, what I do to manage it is: I do one thing at a time.  I focus until it’s done and then I figure out what’s next.  One baby step at a time.  It’s a journey.

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MOM AND ME

My mom is riding the bus into Detroit for her first job selling ladies shoes in a department store

My mom is riding the bus into Detroit for her first job selling ladies shoes in a department store

My mom has been on my mind a lot lately.  I lost her in 2007 from a stroke.  She worked most of her life, and loved working despite the struggle of raising three kids at the same time. She kept house and cooked after coming home from work, often finishing the dishes after all of us had gone to bed.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t help her very much.  I gave up offering because she said it was easier for her to do it herself.  I think, now, as I reflect back, that she was trying to make my life easier than she had growing up.

In my memoir, DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS, I tell about when Mom reveals to me that she learned to drive when she was pregnant with me.  She managed with my two brothers, then four and five, without a car. Back in those days, she often rode the bus like in the picture above.  She was eighteen and on her way to her first job in downtown Detroit to sell ladies shoes in a department store, a job she was proud to have because of the independence it gave her.  I learned another secret about my birth that day, but I’ll let you read that in the book when it’s released. (No date yet.)

There is still much I  don’t know about my mom. She was good at keeping secrets.  I plan on pumping every last memory from my Aunt Dee as soon as we can get together.  I do know that Mom was a strong woman, from a line of strong women, and that I continue in the spirit of that lineage.  At the same time, she was fragile–a fact she worked hard to disguise.

Perhaps Mom was vulnerable to any criticism because she never knew her biological father. She was born from love, but out of wedlock in the Milwaukee Home for Unwed Mothers, a place that I think was connected to the Salvation Army.  I didn’t learn that piece of family history until I was twenty-four when a drunk driver hit the car Mom was driving head-on, hospitalizing her and killing her mother. Even after I learned the truth, she wouldn’t talk about her her origins unless I greased the wheels of her memory with a few glasses of wine.

In addition to her unresolved youth, Mom married two complex men–first my father for twenty-four years and then another brilliant but troubled German for thirty-seven years. Both men drank what they called socially, but was much more than would now be acceptable.  Despite the difficulties it brought her, she resigned herself to her life because she felt it was something over which she had no control.

She was a beautiful, red-haired woman who worked hard every day of her life and was at her best in her role as caretaker, balancing everyone’s needs. She sometimes struggled with too many balls in the air in her attempt to please everyone, but she managed to charm and smile her way through the troubled times.  When asked how she coped, she would say, “It doesn’t help anyone if I just mope around.  So I make lemonade out of lemons. That’s just life.”

In her later years, she could say almost anything and make me laugh.  Always kind and compassionate, she took the time to listen to any troubled soul that passed through her life, lending encouragement and words of wisdom. I still hear her voice whispered out of the ether, guiding me everyday, about all things big and small. I honor all the gifts she gave me, but mostly the way she raised me to be fiercely independent.

Many times, we’d be visiting my grandparents for a holiday or summer visit and I would hear Grandma question Mom’s leniency with me.  Mom would say, “I’m giving her her head,” as if I was a horse that was allowed to run free. As a latchkey kid, I did roam free, often coming home at night only to eat and sleep, preparing to take off for a new adventure the following day.  No wonder I’ve loved being with horses all my life.  Their spirit matches my own.

When Mom was busy working or entertaining with Dad, I spent my time with my imaginary horses. They kept me company, running with me in open fields and along edges of Michigan lakes or in the Arizona desert.

My horses are not imaginary any more.  Although I’ve lost all of my family, I have my three four-legged beauties that live in the field just beyond my front porch.  Just looking out at them brings me joy like my mother did when she smiled and laughed.  It is the small things in life that make it truly rich.

What brings you joy on an ordinary day?

Do you have a love of horses? Or a childhood memory triggered by a picture?

Please leave a comment and I will answer.  I love a good conversation. I learned that from my mother, too.

 

My sweet Anglo-Arab gelding, born the year we lived in Salt Lake City, named after my brother, my dad and my grandfather.

My sweet Anglo-Arab gelding, born the year we lived in Salt Lake City, named after my brother, my dad and my grandfather.