From the hard drive…

I’ve been slowly making my way through the thousands of stories, short pieces, essays and works in progress on my mother’s computer. I thought I’d share some of them here. This one was written in 2001 and submitted to NPR’s Story Corps. I don’t know if they used it or not, but I totally love it.

Harry S. Truman was coming to town and everybody was plenty excited about it, especially me. He was coming because of something they called a whistle-stop tour, where a train pulled into a station and he stood on the caboose and gave a speech. Then the train moved off to another town, where he did the same thing all over again.

He was running for President, but I didn’t care about that. All I cared about was that I was going to do a twirling routine for him before he talked. I was head majorette for our high school band, and I was going to perform in front of the caboose while Harry S. Truman and half the county watched. I was going to give them a twirling routine they would talk about for the rest of their lives.

I was good. I was really good. I could make my baton spin so fast it became a silver blur. I could pass it from hand to hand, pass it behind my back and between my legs, throw it in the air and catch it, all the time keeping it whirling smooth as silk, all the time smiling a wide-toothed smile like Dinah Shore or Betty Grable. I was hot. I was really hot. Harry S. Truman was going to be amazed.

The day came and so did the crowds, all clumped beside the railroad tracks and stretching and leaning out to see if the train was in sight. Little kids and dogs ran around, and the men in charge of the whole thing walked back and forth slapping pieces of notebook paper against their legs to show how important they were.

Finally we saw the engine coming, and everybody grabbed their kids and dogs and claimed their viewing spot. The engine eased past us, then a few cars, and then the caboose rolled to a stop right in front of us. A man climbed up the steps and stood at the door and talked to somebody inside, and then he turned around to the crowd and hollered, “Ladies and gentlemen, Harry S. Truman!”

The band started playing “The Missouri Waltz,” and everybody yelled and whooped. Harry S. Truman came out on the platform with Bess next to him, both of them smiling and waving at us like we were old friends. Bess put her hand down after a while. I guess she felt like a fool standing there waving to people she didn’t know, but Harry S. Truman waved at us until the band stopped playing and the crowd calmed down.

My heart was banging in my chest like the bass drum, because any minute now it was going to be my turn. The snare drummer started a long slow roll, and the band director nodded at me. Oh boy, this was it. I put my hand on my hip and got my baton in position. I sucked in my stomach and raised my ribs and strutted out in front of  Harry S. Truman, looking good in my little short skirt and my white boots with the tassels, looking really good and knowing it. Trumpets blared, and I threw my right arm up in the air with the baton held over my head. It was dramatic, I tell you. Me in front of old Harry S. Truman and the sun sending sparks off the hard steel of that baton.

I was going to do a few fast figure-eights above my head, nothing spectacular yet, and then the band would swing into “Saint Louis Blues” and I would go into the routine that Harry S. Truman would talk about for the rest of his life. He might even forget what he’d come to say, he’d be so amazed.

The crowd had got quiet and Harry S. Truman and Bess were both smiling at me and nodding their heads. I smiled my big smile and turned my wrist hard and fast to bring the steel ball of my baton down to begin the first figure-eight. I turned it like I had done a million times before. But this one time, this one time while Harry S. Truman and Bess and half the world watched, this one time the steel ball of my baton klunked my forehead so hard the engineer probably heard the echo of it way up at the head of the train.

I staggered, and Harry S. Truman and Bess zoomed far away and got teeny. The band director came and took my arm and led me away, and the crowd leaned back and laughed their heads off.

I don’t know what Harry S. Truman’s speech was about. I didn’t hear it because I was on the back seat of the band director’s car with a wet rag on my head. The band director was leaning on the door laughing. I don’t know if Harry S. Truman was laughing or not, but I’ll bet he never forgot me.

News about Blaize

Dear Friends and Readers,

I am very sorry to report that Blaize Clement, my mother, passed away on the morning of July 20th, 2011, after a year-long disagreement with cancer. She would want you all to know that the weeks leading up to her death were peaceful, often joyful and, well, busy.  As she saw it, having a healthy amount of time to reflect upon her death was a gift, but also a responsibility.  On the day of her diagnosis, she imagined a mystery told from the point of view of an Irish Retriever in heaven, and immediately began working on it. I, Malcolm was completed just weeks before her death. She also put the final touches on the next Dixie Hemingway mystery, The Cat Sitter’s Pajamas, which will be published this January. When her editor called to suggest that I continue the series, she was thrilled.  I was terrified.  Honored, but terrified. How could I possibly hope to continue my mother’s work? But for the next two months I sat at her bedside, and we talked for hours and hours about the possibilities of Dixie’s life and how it could unfold going forward. As she laid out the groundwork for Dixie’s next adventure, I began to realize that nothing was more important to my mother than seeing Dixie live on. So with that in mind, we have just signed on with St. Martin’s for at least one more installment in the Dixie Hemingway mystery series, and hopefully many more to come.

I learned a lot from my mother. How to tie a tie. How to make a killer spaghetti sauce. How to love. But most importantly, I learned that in both life and death, fear is a useless, stupid waste of time. If she had any regrets or apprehensions about dying, they were tiny and fleeting. She looked forward in death the same way she did in life:  with passion, joy and a sense of the infinite possibility. I know she would wish the same for all her friends and readers.

In accordance with her wishes, there will be no public memorial service. However, donations can be made in her name to the Tidewell Hospice House in Sarasota, Florida.

Best,

John Clement

 

 

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Every time I pick up a book with a simplistic, comic-book cover, I do what most people do: I expect a simplistic story, one that won’t stick with me longer than it takes to read it. When the book turns out to be deep, with layers of meaning that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, I feel a sense of sadness for the author. She or he has put months or years into creating a literary work of art, only to have a publisher put a cover on it that will cause it to be picked up only by people looking for a quick beach read or something to pass time at the doctor’s office or on a plane. Those people will grow tired of it quickly because it’s not what they wanted, while people who might be looking for something more substantial won’t pick it up at all.

The cover of THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a flat, three-color rendition of a slice of chocolate-frosted yellow cake with a single birthday candle. I expected froth and recipes. But the novel is a daring story that gracefully traverses the area between fantasy and fiction, occasionally dipping into moments of horror all the more terrible because the settings are so ordinary. Basically, the story exposes a normal family that isn’t normal at all. A father who for a secret reason can’t bring himself to enter a hospital even when his wife is inside giving birth to his children, a wife who isn’t nearly as long-suffering and patient as she appears, a teenaged son who uses his genius to remove himself — literally — from life, and a young girl who discovers on her ninth birthday that she can taste the emotions of the cook in everything she eats. Sometimes she cannot bear to hold their despair on her tongue, but when she tries to confide her secret to the school nurse she’s suspected of being anorexic. Only she knows the secrets all the others hold, only she catches her brother in the act of disappearing.

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is a beautiful book. Don’t be put off by the cover. And if you read it and then find yourself halfway expecting to taste emotions in the next food you eat, maybe you will.

Son of Lemon Tree

Late yesterday afternoon, my friend Robert called.

He said, “Go look out your kitchen window.”

Being a dutiful person, I immediately went to the kitchen and saw the top of a green plant swaying back and forth as if wind were blowing it. But there was no wind, and when I went outside I saw Robert’s partner, Ron, kneeling under the window swishing a small lemon tree back and forth in front of the window. The tree was planted in an enormous round ceramic pot, one big enough to allow for a lot of root expansion, and the pot was balanced on a stack of mulch bags.

Ron and Robert were grinning like kids who had pulled off the best stunt in the world. Ron said, “We knew how much you enjoyed having the lemon tree to look at, so we got you another one. It’s a sweet lemon.”

Robert said, “It’s not very tall, so I’m going to build a wooden platform for the pot to sit on, and that will raise it.”

I was so touched by their kindness, and so thrilled to have a lemon tree again, that I just kept saying, “Oh, wow!” like an idiot.

I suspect that it will take a few years before the little tree has lemons, but butterflies will like it anyway, and soon it will be strong enough to support a curious squirrel. Every time I look at it I think of my friends’ kindness and of Ron crouched under the window moving the thing back and forth to simulate wind in its little branches, and that makes me smile. When it has out-grown its pot, maybe the danger of being killed by other people’s herbicides will be over. If the danger still exists, I guess we’ll get a bigger pot.

It’s great to have another lemon tree. It’s even greater to have good friends.

Lemon Trees and CDs

I just spent a lot of time on one of those tasks that make you realize you’re old and that the task itself is archaic. I organized my CD’s. They were a terrible mess, out of order, not in the right jewel cases, generally unavailable. It took me over an hour of work before the thought came tiptoeing into my mind that I rarely play a CD anyway because I use my radio linked to Pandora or Public Radio on my iPhone.

I still had an untitled CD left over, so I inserted it into the player to see what it was. After it played, the player began blinking “Player Inoperable.” My Bose’s CD player had apparently chosen that moment to die. I felt as if the radio was thumbing its nose at my CDs. If they rejected it, it wouldn’t work for them either.

I looked out the window at my newly dead lemon tree and laughed. The Universe seemed to be telling me something: all things come to an end, and when they do, let them go and move on. So I patted the radio, stored away the CDs, and called a man to come cut down the lemon tree.

Happy Easter, everybody!

Mourning a Lemon Tree

My beloved lemon tree has died. Within just two or three days, it went from being a lushly green tree covered with blossoms and buds and ripening lemons to a dead tree with dried, shriveled leaves.

When I first saw what was happening to it, I went through all the stages of denial and hope for a miracle, but the tree was dead. When I finally accepted it, I was devastated. I felt as if a dear friend had died. Then I got furious and looked for somebody to blame. I called the county extension service who said that a tree wouldn’t die so suddenly unless it had been poisoned. As soon as I heard that, I knew who had poisoned it. Almost every weekend finds my new next door neighbor out with a sprayer attached to a can of herbicide, killing any weed that dares to raise its head. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that my lemon tree’s roots extended over the property line and that his weed killer seeped into the soil and poisoned the lemon tree at the tips of its roots.

To be fair, he sprayed his own weeds on his own property, which he has every right to do. And my lemon tree was the one that went over the property line. Our houses are very close together, only about fifteen feet, so it didn’t have long to go. But my heart yells that weeds can be pulled out by hand and not poison the soil, and that the lemon tree had been growing for about six years and was the healthiest it had ever been.

At first I planned to plant another tree because I’ve enjoyed this one so much, but it would probably be killed too. The new neighbor seems like the kind of man who barrels ahead without a clue to how his behavior affects other people, so I don’t think he would be interested in what his weed killer did to my lemon tree.

When so many people in the world are fighting for a chance to live, it’s absolutely ridiculous how something like this can take on so much importance. I tell myself it’s a tree, not a child. And that my neighbor killed it by thoughtless spraying of herbicide, not by shooting it with a gun or dropping a bomb on it. I’m trying very hard to keep it in proportion, but I still feel like weeping when I see my lovely lemon tree shrunken and dead, with its lemons hanging dead from its branches.

Tough Love for Oprah

I love Oprah Winfrey. I think she’s the most influential woman alive today — not in a political or ideological sense but because she has affected the way millions of ordinary men and women view the world, themselves, and one another. If she’d done nothing more than create her book club, that alone would make her hugely important in shaping ideas. But she’s done more than that. She has provided the equivalent of free psychotherapy for countless people, in many cases more effective psychotherapy than they could get in their own area. She is one of my heroines and I want her to have all the rewards that come from the monumental work she has done for a quarter of a century.

That said, I must confess that I find the OWN network a great disappointment. I had hoped for something better. I had expected something better. And when Oprah said that she created her OWN network as a response to all the banal, meaningless crap on TV, I was excited. But so far, the shows have been banal, meaningless crap. And I say that with love. Tough love.

I have absolutely no interest in watching the Judds snip at each other. I have no interest in watching Ryan O’Neal and Tatum get to know each other. And while I like Gayle King, watching her interview a parade of famous and near-famous people is as interesting as watching wallpaper paste dry. The rest of the shows are big ho-hums too, including the ones that haven’t aired yet. Kids kidnapping their parents is so predictable that I won’t need to watch adorable moppets bringing tears to their parents’ eyes because the parents aren’t home enough. Cooking shows are cooking shows, no matter what’s cooking. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Oprah hasn’t asked me what I’d like to see, but if she did, here’s what I’d tell her: Show me something that truly stretches my world, that makes me feel a kinship with people I’ll never meet. Not some washed-up celebrities or eager wanta-be’s but real people. I would like to spend a month with a woman in an African village, perhaps, and see what her life is like. I would like to get to know a woman in south America who tries to support her family on a few dollars a month. I would like to see her life dramatically improved by a small loan that allows her to expand her business of selling vegetables or knitting sweaters or whatever she does to feed her children. I would like to spend a week or a month with a young girl in Afghanistan who goes to school at great risk to her life. I would like to hear what her parents think and how they justify their decision to let her have an education. I would like to hear the opinions of the men who believe it is evil to educate girls. I would like to hear their own words, not have them paraphrased or reported by somebody else. I would like to spend time with an Appalachian family and learn their history so I can better understand the trap they find themselves in now.

Basically, I would like Oprah to present shows that allow me to come to a true understanding of cultures radically different than my own. Not glib, glossed-over, “we vs. them” shows, but in-depth, thoughtful, respectful sharing. That’s what I had expected of OWN, and I believe Oprah may be the only person on the planet with the intelligence and sensitivity and power to pull that off. I know OWN  hasn’t gelled yet, and I expect some bumbling until it gets off the ground, but I greatly hope that when it matures it will be a lot better than it is.

What the H Do We Care?

For half my life — or maybe I should say ‘alf my life — Americans aspirated the H in “hotel,” “hot-dog,” “hell,” and “history” and dropped the H before words like “herb,” “heir,” “hour,” and “honest.” But then some pronunciation guru made us feel funny about saying “erb” and we started aspirating the H. We served “herb butter” on our ‘aricot vert and thought it sounded more high-falutin’.

But as soon as people began aspirating the H in “herb,” some confused Anglophile copy editor looked up from her desk and said, “We should drop the H in history. It’s more genteel.”

Overnight, half the American writing world became Cockney. “A historical mystery” became “an historical mystery,” which it may be if you don’t aspirate the H — coo, it’s right ‘istorical, it is — but not if you pronounce history like an American.

I imagine reviewers sitting at their pulsating keyboards, fingers suspended, breath caught in exquisite uncertainty trying to decide whether to use “a” or “an” with “history.” They probably lie awake nights thinking of ways to avoid the challenge altogether. Inevitably they’ll have to choose an article and go with it. If they choose “an” they’ll silently mouth a sentence such as, “An historical perspective” and convince themselves it sounds right, like “an ‘onest man.” But not a single one of them would say, “An ‘istorical perspective” out loud because they would sound like Eliza Doolittle before she got the great wardrobe and learned to aspirate her aitches.

The only people who give a Cockney rat’s arse are purists like me who shout at people on television who say “Between you and I,” or “It was for he and I,” and believe they sound more educated and proper than if they’d said, “It was for him and me.” Besides, now with everybody tweeting in initial-code, the use of articles may become obsolete. They’ll be history. Or perhaps ‘istory.

I think I may form a movement to maintain the American H and its article. I’ll go stand on street corners and carry a sign saying “Support a historical mystery!” Only problem is that people will probably think the historical mystery is me.

Please Look After Mom

Whether your experience with motherhood is being married to one, being one, or having one, you’ll find plenty to make you cringe with guilty recognition in PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by the Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin. The story is simple enough: an elderly woman is left behind when the subway train doors close in Seoul. Her husband, who has always walked ahead of her and ignored her pleas for him to walk more slowly, doesn’t realize she’s not with him until it’s too late. At the next stop, he gets off and walks back to the previous station, but she’s gone.

The couple are from the country and have come to Seoul to visit their grown children. In past visits, one of the children has always met them at the station, so their mother has no experience navigating the crowded streets by herself. As they frantically search for her and put out flyers asking for information about her, they each remember their unique relationship with her, the secret sacrifices she made for each one, the promises they made to her about what they would do for her when they grew up. The promises they never kept. The husband remembers too, how he had taken all she did for granted and how he had not insisted that she go to the hospital even when her headaches had worsened so much she couldn’t bear even to cry with pain.

The mother has her own memories, some secrets that her family has never suspected. Told in four points of view, the result is an intricately woven pattern of a family’s love, loyalty, betrayals, secrets, forgiveness, and emotional transcendence. It’s a story that will stay with me for a long time. Most of all, it made me wish I could spend just one hour with my own mother and beg her forgiveness for some of the thoughtless things I did and said when she was alive. 

Alcoholism and Writers

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. I mention that not just because it’s something everybody should pay attention to, but because writers in particular seem to find it cool to talk about getting sloshed, snockered, loaded, pie-eyed drunk. In almost every piece in a writers’ newsletter about the last writers conference some author went to, nine times out of ten there’ll be an elbow-jabbing reference to time spent at the bar. The implication is that real writers drink like guppies. Alcohol is such a theme in the lives of some writers that their fans study their work and studiously compare their pre- and post-sobriety writing — as if the alcohol was the only determining factor in their output or talent.

Regardless of the myth about alcohol going hand-in-hand with literary genius, the fact is that too much alcohol not only harms the body that consumes the hooch, it also harms the families of the drinkers. By too much alcohol, I mean more than one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man. I mean drinking so much that you can’t remember what you did. Or said. Or went. If that has happened only once or twice in your lifetime when you were young and dumb and lucky enough to live past it, you’re probably not an alcoholic. But if it happens regularly, you have the disease of alcoholism. And let’s be honest here, alcoholism is a disease like diabetes or asthma, and it has to be treated as a disease. Furthermore, alcoholism isn’t cool, and it won’t make you another Hemingway. Unless you’re thinking of the way Hemingway’s life ended.

If you feel that your inner genius comes out while you’re drunk and causes your writing to soar to poetic heights, remember the Lot Syndrome. Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex with him because he was the only man around and they figured if they were to have babies they had to have them with him. Lot has always been cast as the innocent victim of his daughters’ nasty plan, but if Lot had been too drunk to know what he was doing, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. If a writer is too drunk to know what he’s writing, he won’t be able to write anything at all. If you need to lose your inner critic to write well, find some other way to lose it rather than pickling your liver.

More important than any other reason for an alcoholic to stop drinking is the effect alcoholism in the home has on children. Growing up with an alcoholic parent causes children to become adults beset by guilt, fear, shame, depression, low self-esteem and loneliness. Your children deserve better, and so do you. If you’ve been aware for some time that alcohol is ruining your life, this month is the time to take charge. Every city has AA meetings, and AA has the best track record of any treatment plan. If you try one group and don’t like it, try a different group. You’ll find people from every profession   — including writers — who are ready and able to help you learn how to have sober fun. And when you’re completely sober, your inner genius will still be there, smarter than ever.