The Writing Life

Mum Lives Under an Alias. Or Two.

A friend just asked me my mother’s name, and I thought well, that’s a more complicated question than it seems.

You may not have noticed, but the Irish, or those with recent Irish antecedents often have an alias. Or two. Maybe it has something to do with hiding their children from the Black and Tans or something. My Uncle Tom’s name was actually John Terrence, to give just one example among many.

My Mum’s given name is a family one. She, her mother, an aunt, a cousin, a great aunt and others going back into the mists of time were all Mary Jane. However, none of her family ever called her either Mary Jane, Mary or Jane. They all (and we have a very large family) call her Cis, or Auntie Cis. True, some of the younger family members think this is spelled “Sis,” because she was the eldest sister of a bunch of younger brothers and sisters, which makes sense. But no, “Cis” is an Irish diminutive for Mary (go figure), and Cis was also my grandfather’s beloved older sister, who died in childbirth the way so many women once did.

The Scottish side of our extended family however call her Jean. This is because Jean, or Jeannie, is the Scottish version of Jane. Her mother and her cousin were both called Jeannie, which is pronounced “Ginny,” to further confuse the authorities. I’m not sure how the Scots justify ignoring the “Mary” part of my Mum’s name, but Scots don’t have to explain anything because they carry dirks and claymores and such and are inclined to resent being questioned. My dad always called her Jean and, until she retired, that’s the name she used in business, and the name most of their friends called her.

When she retired, she took nurse’s training (yeah, see what I have to contend with?) because she’d always wanted to be a nurse and WWII robbed her of the chance. Nearly everyone from her nursing days calls her Mary because–well, I think she used her official name, Mary Jane, on all the forms she needed for her classes and license, and everyone just picked up on the first half of her name and she decided to keep it simple and go with the flow. But, just to be absolutely clear, her name isn’t Mary you guys;  it’s Mary Jane.

So, Liz, to answer your question, my Mum’s name is Mary Jane, Cis, Jean, and/or Mary. Or Mum, except I’m now the only one who gets to call her that. Or Miss Mary, which is the the name she was given by her next door neighbor’s children when they were children and which somehow spread through the neighborhood where she’s lived for forty-five years.

BTW, because my dad called her Jean, and she loved him, and she always had the option of correcting it and never did, I think that’s the way to go.

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Thanksgiving with Strangers

EACH YEAR in November I’m reminded of the strangers who have included me in their family Thanksgivings because I was apart from my own kin. All it took the first time was a wistful, “No, no real plans,” when someone asked if I would be with my family for Thanksgiving. I was scooped up, plunked into a chair at their table and stuffed with turkey and pumpkin pie before I could take a breath.

My immediate family is small (living 5,000 miles away from the old homestead will do that) and on occasion we were ALL scooped up, fussed over, feted and fed.

I don’t want to give the impression that I never celebrated Thanksgiving with loving friends or family. I often did that. But there were also those times when someone I barely knew looked at me with horror when I said I’d be alone for the day. “Come to us!” they’d cry. “We’re having 12/23/40 people; one more won’t make any difference and we’d love to have you.”

The first time was in New York (“unfriendly” New York), where I was sent by the editor for whom I was freelancing, on the day before the holiday. This meant I found myself on Thanksgiving morning in a Manhattan hotel room a thousand miles from home with nothing to do because everything was shut up tight for the holiday.

Strangers #1 and 2: The invitation came from the wife of the photographer I’d met the day before on our assignment. “Don’t be alone on Thanksgiving. We invite everyone who’s in town,” she said, “we’d love to have you.”

Stranger #3: The cabbie who drove me (without complaint) out to Brooklyn said he’d wait until my friends opened their door because we were in a very unfriendly part of the city. This is a New York cabbie. Working on a holiday. When the door opened, he tooted his horn, and headed back to Manhattan and–I sincerely hope–a festive meal with friends and family.

The table was plywood on sawhorses covered in bedsheets and it was laden with platters of food for the thirty or so guests, most of whom were strangers to each other, if not to our hosts. Multiple turkeys, a bathtub’s worth of stuffing, vast green bean casseroles, mountains of mashed potatoes with buckets of gravy, half the cranberry crop of Massachusetts, and pumpkin, apple, and sweet potato pies, served with whipped cream or ice cream.

Strangers #4-23: It wasn’t possible to meet everyone but, since nearly all were working journalists, there was no shortage of conversation. One interesting non-journalist was a former SDS member, now a preacher, who clearly had found the light.

Strangers #24 and 25: The dinner guests who insisted on driving me back to Manhattan even though they lived in another Borough. It added half an hour to their late night trip home.

Thanksgiving, sure enough, is a holiday for family and friends, a time for a traditional meal, maybe a walk in the fresh air, maybe a football game, maybe a nap.

It is also a holiday when I have sometimes relied on, and been rewarded by, the kindness of strangers.

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The Minotaur and Me

Did you ever get a telephone call so surprising that your mind went blank? I mean really blank; so shocked that you’re not even sure the person who called you is speaking English?

Before I come back to that, it’s worth a reminder that writers face a labyrinth trying to get published. Writing is difficult, but it pales when compared to the the dead ends, the wrong turns, the retracing of steps taken earlier, the lost sense of direction and general feelings of discouragement that follow. It’s a long journey; you must first write the book, then find an agent who believes in your work, which if you are lucky will result in a sale to the right publisher, followed by the terrifying and possibly mortifying editing process.

But there are occasional shortcuts, springboards which help you leap to the center of the labyrinth (or the Exit sign–depends which way you want to go). Probably the best for those of us in the mystery field is the annual First Crime Novel contest co-sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books (the mystery imprint of St. Martin’s Press). Several hundred crime novels of every sub-genre are submitted. MWA  judges read, evaluate and choose the finalists, which are sent on to the editorial staff at Minotaur Books for the final decision.

And yes, I won it.

And no, I didn’t have even the slightest expectation that I would–hence the blankness and the Lithuanian dialect that seemed to come from my ‘phone on the day I received the call from Minotaur’s Editorial Director, Kelley Ragland. Honestly I entered the contest last fall as a way of keeping my spirits up and giving me something author-ish to do. No novel was chosen in 2013, but in a more typical year the winner is contacted in March. When March 31st arrived, I shrugged and thought better luck next year, which was just about the time my phone rang.

The win comes with a St. Martin’s Minotaur publishing contract and a trip to New York to attend the MWA Edgar Awards Dinner, which happened a week ago.  I was asked to keep the secret for nearly a month, until the announcement could be made at the Edgars Dinner.  I tried. I really did.  But within hours I had sworn all my family and friends to secrecy and before long I was blurting it out to waiters and people who telephoned to sell me vinyl siding. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. The announcement was made by Minotaur publisher Andrew Martin. I stepped on the stage to good-hearted applause from the hundreds of mystery writers, publishers, agents, editors and other guests present, and took possession of the most attractive chunk of acrylic I have ever seen.

So doors have been opened. I’m speaking to agents. I’m anticipating receiving editorial notes from my editor. And in a little more than a year, I will be able to hold my published book in my hand.

The moral of the tale?                                             

Enter the contest.

You might win.



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Life-Long Friends

Recently it occurred to me that it’s too late for me to make any life-long friends. I’m not sure why that seems significant, but it does. I was reading an article about George Clooney (of all people) and Cindy Crawford (ditto) who are, apparently, life-long friends. I thought how nice that was and how I didn’t have any of those and well, it’s too late now.

Part of this can be laid at the door of my parents (like so much, poor things). We moved often, and I went to a bunch of different schools, not because bill collectors were after us or anything, but because mum and dad genuinely seemed to like being in new places. And when I say “moved” I mean serious mileage, not just to the next town.

Max was my very first friend. He had white-blonde hair and for some reason we spent a lot of time pouring water from one container to another and getting soaked and loving it. We moved away from the small village where my family and Max’s family lived when I was about five years old.

My second friend was Linda Evans and, like us, she lived in London. We left London when I was about nine, leaving Linda behind. And even in this day of searching the net for old friends, a name like that is going to bring up hundreds of thousands of people, and of course she could be using a completely different name by now.

One sort of life-long friend I still keep in touch with is Miriam Squires. We met when I was about nine years old and went to the same school for a couple of years. We both enjoyed writing and receiving letters and our friendship was maintained very long distance. She sort of counts as a life-long friend even though we haven’t been in each other’s lives in any direct or significant way. We’re Face Book friends now.

Other friends from that same time were David Marner, Colin Reevie and Michael Dove. (I had a ten-year-old girl crush on Michael.) They might have been life-long friends if we’d kept in touch.

Kathy, my best friend in high school, you’d expect to be a candidate for almost-life-long friend, but somehow we didn’t stay in touch after graduation, possibly because I went away to college and then my family moved (I kidded them about moving away in the dead of night to avoid me) and when I finished college I went to live with them rather than near our last home where Kathy still lived, 1,000 miles away.

Is there anything arbitrary about the life-long friend designation, do you think? Is a life-long friend like a car, which officially becomes a classic after twenty years?  Or is it based on an important milestone: is a life-long friend someone who knew you when you learned to read, finished eighth grade, graduated from college, had your first job or got married?

I have to admit, although I’m not sure what I mean by it, a life-long friend seems a lovely and desirable thing.

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Tick Tock

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...

I’ve come across a wonderful contradiction built into technology, which sends us back unexpectedly to a much earlier time.

I recently had a conversation with a friend. He’s 22 and when I told him I’d just received a wrist watch as a gift he looked at me blankly, so I raised my wrist to show him.

“Oh,” he said, “I’ve never owned one.” He waggled his iPhone at me. “My friends and I all use this.” He tapped the front of his phone and the time popped up.

“What, all of you?”

“Yeah,” he said, “none of us have watches.”

I found this so startling I couldn’t drop it. “But you have to take it out of your pocket and hold it in your hand to check the time. Isn’t that inconvenient?”

He grinned and shrugged. Clearly it didn’t matter. Or the phone never left his hand. Or it hadn’t occurred to him because he’d never done it any other way.

Doesn’t that seem like a giant step backwards in time (no pun intended)?

Pocket watches required a hand to operate, too. You’d take the watch and chain out of your pocket, or lift it from where it dangled on your vest or blouse to check the time, which removed that hand from effective use for anything else. In fact, early wrist watches were popularized in the 1920s by a French sportsman who needed both hands free to operate (I kid you not) his hot air balloon.

Wrist watches  mark a significant milestone like high school graduation or bar mitzvah, not simply because they mark time–which is the essence of accomplishment–but because their daily usefulness and long life are continual reminders of the occasion. They’re built for permanence, symbolic of the giver’s lasting affection.

I still have the gold wristwatch my parents bought me when I passed a sort of pre-college examination called the Eleven-Plus. I’ve taken care of it over the years, have replaced the band and the crystal after a mishap and still wear it occasionally. Every time I see it I’m reminded that my mom and dad presented me with the watch the night before the exam results were posted, touching evidence of their faith in me.

Smart phones don’t have that kind of permanence built into them; in fact their 18-month replacement cycle is the price we pay for having the latest and best technology available. I guess you could frame one and hang it on the wall as a souvenir of the giver and the occasion, but a reminder of useless and superannuated technology doesn’t have the same emotional resonance or symbolic meaning somehow.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I wonder if we’re about to see the re-emergence of street clocks? You still see them occasionally in older downtowns. Back in the day (and I mean really back), large up-market stores and banks erected big clocks on the front of their buildings or on the sidewalk outside so people who had their hands full of purchases or briefcase and such could see the time without having to dig in their pockets for their watches.

Maybe watch chains will make a come-back, too. Pocket watches used to be attached to gold or silver chains which were then attached via a toggle to the owner’s clothing. They saved the watch from hitting the floor if it was dropped, prevented a pick-pocket from stealing it and—through pretty fobs and charms—acted as jewelry.  Given that an iPhone is also threatened with all these things, maybe we’ll soon be seeing the re-emergence of gold chains for them, too.

I love my new wristwatch because it looks sleek and it tells the time and it is a reminder of someone I love.

And smart phones are great, too. Setting aside the problem of what to buy your graduate, I’m now completely enamored of a piece of 21st century technology that throws us back in time to the 19th century.

Note to self:  Remember to make sure Millennial characters are wristwatch free.

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