Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chaos in her Wake

Death brings out the worst and the best in people, especially in families, and I have seen my share of death, trying unsuccessfully to keep my distance. Death finds us all in the end.

All the unresolved issues, arguments, and missed opportunities come back with vengeful force, and so it is with my family. My mother died last night.

Beanie called me last night to tell me Mom was dead. Through hysterical tears and heightened emotions (good thing Dan was driving), she told me the news. My first impulse was to tell her the joke was in poor taste; I squelched it. When I couldn't grasp the facts quickly she began screaming at me. "She's dead. Mom's dead. Don't you get it?" Yes, I got it.

I called my brother, The Mushroom, because he keeps a cool head in situations like this, and I often wonder if it is because he doesn't feel anything deeply or that he covers his emotions so well. It's a big change from the usual weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that grips the rest of the family. Dad was like that, too, a duck whose feathers shrugged off the storms, water gushing over the oily feathers without touching the down and heart beneath.

The Mushroom gave me the facts. I'm good with facts. They provide a calm center in the worst of family hurricanes and cyclones, providing a touchstone of calm in an otherwise turbulent background.

Hoity-Toity came home from work and found Mom lying face down on the sofa, her heart having stopped at the moment she walked to the sofa and taking her down in an instant. I doubt she felt much pain; the pain is left for her family. Hoity-Toity, through her tears and guilt, called the important people: cousin Laura, the Mushroom, and Beanie, all of whom rushed from different parts of the compass to be there. The sheriff pulled up as the Mushroom pulled into the driveway at Hoity-Toity's house while he was talking to me.

As I called more of the family, Aunt Anne, my children, and Uncle Bob and Aunt Lois, more of the story emerged. Laura had called Uncle Bob and Aunt Lois and the news spread along the family network like wildfire in a dry and desiccated forest. Only my children and Aunt Anne were surprised by the news that yet another of our clan was gone and chaos had descended.

Mom would have loved the  stir as a faithful disciple and spreader of chaos, even more so because she was once again at the center, only marginally pushed aside by Hoity-Toity, hysterical in her grief and guilt at Mom having died alone. Probably the only marginally funny moment to come out of this first storm of grief was Laura's suggestion we hire a helicopter and spread her ashes over Lazarus where Mom spent most of her free time and all her and Dad's money when she was alive. Lazarus should at least put up a prominent platinum plaque in her honor; they have lasted this long because of Mom's faithful patronage.

Yes, Mom is being cremated, as Dad was five years ago, and after railing and trying to guilt me out of my desire to be cremated. She was so invested in monuments and graves and places to go on Memorial Day to place flowers and parade her grief. How could I even consider being cremated? It was a slap in the family's face, but I was adamant, and remain adamant, that I will be cremated. I think Mom came around to the idea when The Mushroom told her he wanted to be cremated. I was always the trail breaker, the first to step out against tradition, but nothing ever caught on until one of my younger siblings took a step in the same direction as if they were the first. Mom will be cremated but not without her parade of grief and show of friends and family.

Family you can pretty much count on when someone dies, many of whom will come to make sure it's not an elaborate and costly joke. They want to see the body in its coffin to be sure the person is dead. Oftentimes, funerals remains one of the few times that family still come together, burying old feuds and disagreements to follow the funeral cortege in mourning black. The intricate to-and-fro dance of renewing old ties and catching up on the years of silence continues the tradition of public mourning. Some traditions are bred in the bone and sinew and funerals and mourning (or assuring oneself of) the dead is one of them.

I forget who said or wrote it, but funerals are supposed to be a sign of sentient intelligence. Coming together to mark a passing is proof we have climbed out of the mindless muck and become aware of the gravity and importance of life and death. I wonder how many funerals whoever that was had attended.

Mom told me that she knew she would not be mourned the way Dad was and continues to be mourned. I didn't agree or disagree, but I was curious to know why she thought that, so I asked. "Everyone loved your father and he made friends easily. I am more difficult, not lovable."

How right she was -- and is. She was difficult. No one knew how difficult better than I do.

Mom was vain, selfish, jealous, controlling, manipulative, greedy, and self-centered. She could also be generous and kind -- and she reminded you of how generous and kind at every opportunity, not so much to remind you she had been kind, but to let you know you owed her for her generosity and kindness. To strangers she seemed a kind woman, but even acquaintances soon lost the rosy tint in their glasses. She was implacable and unrelenting in her anger, only softening with age as her memory failed, but even then she clung to the edited version of her life and actions that proved she was an exemplary human being. She wasn't. She was vicious, vindictive, and full of venom, but in that moment when she told me she knew we wouldn't miss her and mourn her as we did Dad, she knew.

There are more than five decades of anger and hurt I could write about (and I will eventually) Mom, but there is really no need right now. Whatever harm she caused, whatever grief and bitterness she left behind, she was a big part of our lives and now she's gone. She died alone hours before she was found face down on the couch, getting her 5-year wish to join Dad. She finally made it. She died.

She leaves behind 4 children, 10 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren, 9 of the great grandchildren belonging to my boys. She leaves her brother, the sole remnant of her branch of the vast May clan, and his five children and numerous grandchildren.

As Mom looks down and sees the chaos left in her wake, she is smiling. She would have loved the theater of it all. She died as she lived, a disciple and proponent of chaos.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Faded Photographs

Whether it's fantasy or reality, memories transport us to the past, to moments of pleasure and pain, to times when we were important or diminished, to what lies beneath. The quality of memory is often strained.

Mom sent me an old photograph of my father in his Army uniform when he was young and healthy, when he was alive. I decided to make copies and send them to my brother and sisters when I realized my grandchildren know nothing about Dad or Mom or even me, come to that. My children were partially raised by another woman, my ex-husband's second wife, and she is not a fan of me or my family. She did her best to eradicate us from my boys' memories and what remained was painted in vivid venom. This is what my grandchildren have learned as those tainted memories are passed down. To my grandchildren I am the faceless entity who sends them birthday and Xmas gifts. I exist to give them presents.

I had printed off copies of Dad's picture, took three of them, and inscribed the back with who he was and when the picture was taken. Dad was in his 30s and he looked handsome and smiling. He always smiled in pictures and in life, seldom frowning or getting angry -- unless someone got in between him and the television program or movie he was watching. He was full of laughter and great stories, but how would his great grandchildren ever know? I had to tell them, and I began by sending the pictures to my youngest son's three children.

My oldest son's twins are not yet 2 years old, so their picture will have to wait. Not a problem. I have the photo stored on my computer and online so I can download and print more copies, next time with the name brand photo stock that goes with my 4-in-1 printer.

Eddie, the middle child, has two boys I've never met and have had no contact with. He was the one most affected by his stepmother's tales of terror and it will take time to get an address for him when I reach out with my Xmas gift for 2012.

I've decided to put together a family history of my side of the family: the good, the bad, and the ugly, but only the truth. There are some stellar types in the family and some less than stellar types, but they all deserve their moment on the page. I've contacted both sides of my family asking for photos and letters and histories, if they want to write them. I will add news clippings of births, marriages, and deaths and notable happenings, like the cousin who was governor of Texas and in the car with JFK when he was shot in Dallas that November day in 1963. The old letters I've saved from family who have died and gone on, leaving a legacy of remembrance and colored bits of their life, will go into the books (there has to be one for each family), as will the family reunions and DVDs and CDs with home movies converted to digital format.

I started with the idea of photos and histories, but there is so much material that I'll likely have a few volumes, one each Xmas, for each of the families. I may even convert it all to digital and print so those who don't know that Mom's dad was the sheriff, mayor, and biggest business owner in Alger, Ohio can read about how he captured John Dillinger and took him to the Lima jail where his buddies busted him out and killed the sheriff, or how one of my father's in-laws ran with Dillinger around Dayton and Cincinnati before he went to Alger to see his stepmother and was caught.

There were alcoholics and family locked in institutions. Some were rich and some were poor. There were farmers and business men and ordinary people and a beloved aunt who was married to the Omar Bread man. Name changes and secrets, a skeleton here or there, but a truthful and accurate picture of all my family, including the abject poverty in which my father grew up in Cynthiana, Ohio. Dad's letters to me about growing up and his life in a rural wide spot in the road will be copied and placed in the book, even the part about how backward he was and that his father delivered him in the field when his mother went into labor while bringing lunch to Grandpa Cornwell when he was plowing. The fights with local boys and the jokes and risque stories and the jewel bright moments and my father's funny stories, stories no one could tell the way he could; they will all be in there. Cousins, family reunions, feuds, dreams, madness, and life in all its facets is my gift to my grandchildren.

My memories and the remembrances of as many people as I can beg, cajole, threaten, and interest in contributing is my gift, but it is a true gift and one I hope they will treasure as much as I treasure them.

In this world where few people stay close to their families and still live within a 20-mile radius of home, memory is even more important. It may be the only way to keep in touch with one's roots and the legacy of family. My solution is one way of bringing the past to life, but I'm a writer and words and pictures are my touchstone with life and memory. I live a half a continent away from my family but they are never far from my thoughts or my heart. I want my grandchildren to share a bit of what makes them who they are and to feel all their roots, my side of their roots, too.

Monday, January 09, 2012

It's All About the Words

When Jon Land offered to read and review my novel, Among Women, I was a little anxious. He was after all an internationally known author and I was just the person who had read and reviewed several of his books, and not always with glowing words. I pointed out shortcomings and places where the plot or characters didn't quite work, but the surprise was that with every review, he has thanked me unconditionally -- and agreed with my assessment. It's not like he could change the books to fix the plot holes but he was gracious. That was the one thing I counted on -- him being gracious -- even if he didn't like my novel.

He is also a gentleman. I could forget about any soul ripping or prose rending as I've endured with former friends who have decided to vent their spleen on me by trashing my work. I knew he would be honest whatever the outcome.

I sent him my book in April and a few days ago he gave me his answer.

"With AMONG WOMEN, J.M. Cornwell has fashioned an emotionally bracing tale of love, loss, and redemption.  Here is a book of rare depth in both character and story, tragic and uplifting at the same time in the tradition of Alice Walker, Terry McMillan and Judith Guest.  Certain to stay with you long after you've turned the last page and just as certain to leave you eagerly awaiting the talented Cornwell's next effort."

--Jon Land, bestselling author of STRONG AT THE BREAK and BETRAYAL

I was stunned, shocked, and pleased. I've not been compared to McMillan, Walker, or Guest -- and I wasn't quite sure who Judith Guest was. I found out pretty quickly. She wrote Ordinary People and several books in the same vein. Walker and McMillan I knew; I've been fans of them both for years.

The extravagance of the blurb is undeniable and I thanked Jon profusely. If I wasn't a fan of his Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong before now, I would be soon. However, I am a fan and have been since the first book. Jon writes solid and timely thrillers and, while I quibble on occasion with some of his plot choices and point out the holes, he is overall a solid writer with a vast imagination.

I've been told that authors praising other authors doesn't make a difference to the reading public and yet publishers and authors put blurbs from recognizably famous authors on the backs of their books. I didn't do that with Among Women because I hadn't sent galleys or advanced reading copies to any authors who had agreed to read the book. I could barely get people I know to read the book. They're always too busy, don't read that genre, or just don't read at all. I have a rather long list of authors whose books I've read and reviewed, but I didn't think it appropriate to ask them to read my book, and I didn't ask any of the authors I've known for years and corresponded with. I wanted the reading public to start talking about my novel and my writing, good or bad (preferably good), and start the snowball rolling down Mount Everest. The snowball seems to be stalled at base camp 2.  Or is it 3?

The thing about the writing business is no one really knows how it works. Authors who tell great stories and couldn't put together a cogent grocer list zoom to the top of the charts, garnering automatic fame and a considerable fortune.  Authors who know how to market and tweet and socialize like madmen and write formulaic drivel zoom to the top of the charts, too. All too often, authors who do it all right and follow the rules, barely make it to the middle of the pack. It's a crap shoot, especially for indies, and fragmenting themselves and their efforts following what worked for other authors doesn't do much good, except to provide a little bump in sales. There is no tried and true method of getting ahead and advertising on no budget isn't an option. The only thing left is the story.

I read a post Amanda Hocking wrote recently about how everyone talks about all the millions of dollars she has made and no one mentions that she writes books with stories that people want to read. It's all about the story even though the editing and proofing are horrible. She's one of those who write fantasy and fantasy is hot right now, so what happens to someone like me who writes books about real people in real situations? Base camp 2 -- or 3. You know, right at the summit.

I don't know what else to do but keep writing what moves me and keep hoping that among the seven billion people on this earth, a few paltry million will discover my stories and decide to read them.

Jon Land did me a huge favor by reading my book and I hope, by putting his views here, others will feel the same way and read. I don't socialize and network all the time (I have two full time jobs) and I don't haunt the bulletin boards and forums. I'd have no time to write if I did. That just leaves this story and the ones that came before and the ones that will continue to follow. Somewhere along the way, I hope it is enough.

It's all about the words.