Monday, December 9, 2013

Mixed Motivations

As I prepare for next month's talk at my local library, I am creating a short presentation to try to capture the DIY genealogical research journey I took to fill in the holes in Esther Miller's story. As I analyze how I went from 12 pages of hand-written memories to a published book, I realize the importance of the motivation of the journey.

There are at least five common motivations for embarking on a quest to document a person's history:
  1. In homage to an influential person in your life
  2. A partial story begging to be completed
  3. Curiosity about specific, ancestral roots
  4. The desire to preserve a story for future generations
  5. The dream of finding a story worthy of publishing
There may be more, but at every point in my own journey, I was motivated by at least one of these, usually a combination of many. The degree to which each motivation guided me shifted constantly as I progressed. In the end, without all five of these motivators, I may not have finished the project.

Esther had been gone for over five years so I would miss the prize of showing her the story I had written. There are holes in her life story that I can never fill - and those who know me know how I have to find all of the pieces to a puzzle. This was a trait which made it hard to come to terms with the fact that I had found all I was going to find.

I developed a love of history of all kinds from my father - broad history but also personal history. So my curiosity in finding my Confederate South ancestry and my Irish ancestors' ports of entry kept me knocking on virtual door after door.

But my main driver was to preserve Esther's story for future generations. Even if I failed to find all of the pieces of the puzzle or identify the ports of entry or show Esther what I had done with her life story, I had enough to go on to create a gift for my children and nieces and nephews, and those who come after them. What I didn't realize was how much value the completed story would have to my family of my own generation, my parents' generation, and my family's friends.

The book has become a catalyst for reminiscing and discovering stories that had been forgotten. It has enabled some stories to be relayed that would have otherwise been too hard to tell. And there are few healthier pastimes I know of than sitting with a group, from two to many, of people you love, talking about people you love who have passed away, their antics and experiences, and the imprint they left upon us.

I can't write enough about the gratitude I feel from my sisters and aunt, so I won't even try. But a nice way to express it was a call I got Friday evening from one of my mom's childhood friends who lives in Colorado. We had a long conversation about my mom and Esther and she recounted some priceless stories that didn't make it into the book; stories of women and children whose younger lives I can only imagine, but whose souls I was privy to and whose memories make me laugh and cry. We talked about how reading the book made her relive some wonderful childhood memories, relish some teen secrets, and reignite old feelings. At the end of the call, my mom's friend said "I just wanted to thank you for writing it. That's all. That's why I called. Just to thank you for writing it."

It won't make broad distribution, as I admittedly had dreamt, in reference to point 5 above. But the story is all that it needs to be. And the gratitude is all mine. I'm not sure if the book is the end of the journey. But the journey to find my family story is one of the best trips I ever took.

If you are in the Needham area in late January, come help me fill the room on Sunday, January 26th at 2:00pm at the Needham Free Public Library. Or tell a friend who is interested in DIY family genealogy. The program is called "Are You Ready to Find Your Family Story?" The discussion will not be about the book. It will be about the journey.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Looking Local

In a round-about way, I recently discovered an organization that every independently owned business should know about: The 3/50 Project.

It is an organization, founded by former retailer, retail consultant, and professional speaker Cinda Baxter, built to strengthen independent brick and mortar businesses. Here is how it got its name:
  • 3: What three independently owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared? Stop in. Say hello. Pick up something that brings a smile. Your purchases are what keeps those businesses around.
  • 50: If half the employed population spent $50 each month in locally owned independent businesses, it would generate $42.6 billion in revenue. 
"Independent" merchants who have no outside corporate support of any kind are the same businesses who return the largest percentage of their annual revenue to the local economy, according to a 2009 Civic Economics Study. Stated on The 3/50 Project's website: "For every $100 spent in locally owned independent stores, $68 returns to the community in taxes, payroll and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here."

Those are good reasons for consumers to patronize their local independent retailers. And the free resources and networking offered by The 3/50 Project are good reasons for independently owned businesses to join their ranks of supporters.

It came as no surprise to me to see some of my favorite small retailers on The 3/50 Project's list of participating independents in my town. The 3/50 Project encourages membership and support from all around the country. It only started in 2009 and is on a great growth path (5,000 indie businesses joined in its first two months of existence and grew to 23,000 by 2011). I believe many, even most, people want the small brick and mortar businesses to survive, we just don't realize the impact of our dollars. The 3/50 Project spells it out and helps small businesses enhance their social media presence, network with each other, and find strength in numbers. 

In 2011, The 3/50 Project launched an iPhone App called LookLocal to give small business owners a tool in the battle for consumer attention. According to their press release, LookLocal features “independent brick and mortar” merchants, locating those closest to where the user stands, regardless of whether they are at home or on the road--a feature no regional or city-specific app can offer.

As The 3/50 Project seeks to make connections, I discovered it on my way to a wedding. I am heading to a family wedding in Denver on November 2nd and saw, on the website of the B&B where I am staying, a link to The 3/50 Project and I was curious. So I explored and found more. The B&B also has a close relationship with a local independently owned book store, The Tattered Cover. That prompted me to initiate a conversation with The Tattered Cover about consigning my book. Life is full of connections.

As the year's biggest shopping season approaches, look around you and find those indie retailers who need our support and whose creativity and hard work offer unique, high-quality products and services far above their bigger competitors with the big advertising budgets. They can positively impact our way of life more than we know.
http://www.indiebound.org/

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Learning from the Pros

While I was working on the research and writing of my book, I tried to read as many memoirs, biographies, and collections as I could. This tactic introduced me to so many different writing styles and was my D-I-Y approach to learning how to tell a story. From that collection of books, emerged my short-list of wonderful guidebooks:

  1. Growing Up, by Russell Baker: It still holds as my all-time favorite memoir. His gift of story-telling is unsurpassed. This should be read within the same 90 days as reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.
  2. Anything and everything by Anne Lamott, but especially Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. For any anxious, new, blocked, or expert writers, this is a gem like no other.
  3. All Over But the Shoutin', by Rick Bragg. An unbelievable story told with incredible candor.
  4. Living Out Loud, by Anna Quindlen: A great collection of columns and perfect bedside book.
  5. The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls. Thanks to Dennis, I have a signed copy of The Glass Castle with Ms. Walls' encouragement to me, "To Kathy, Good luck writing! Jeannette Walls"
  6. God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours, by Regina Brett.
From the list, you can see that I am genetically predisposed to enjoy works by columnists! Ellen Goodman is my other go-to gal for describing the human experience and how it affects the heart.

So with my lessons from the pros, I plowed ahead and tried to write a book from my folders of research. In fact, I wrote the first draft of what would become Preacher Kid, from cover to cover, as a detached reporter focused on getting the facts right. Then after some soul-searching and life detours, I rewrote the entire book from a personal perspective, recognizing that my voice added value to my grandma's story.
,
Preacher Kid on the Needham Library "New" shelf!

I think, over time, my voice may develop into something different, but will still retain a certain true core. When I write my next book (!), we will see if any evolution has taken place. One of my favorite voices to listen to is Anne Lamott. She has a freshness, intelligence, and liveliness found in her stream-of-consciousness writing that engages me as if she is sitting on my back porch, shooting the breeze with me. She writes with an abandonment I don't yet have. She possesses a window into my soul and much of what she writes articulates or uncovers true feelings I share. It is a fantastic combination.

And speaking of Anne Lamott, I won her latest book in a contest this week! When I saw that she was giving away copies of her soon-to-be-released book via Goodreads, I decided to click the button and enter.

I wrote about one of Anne's other books in a prior post. Her sequel to Help, Thank, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers was written in the aftermath of the December 2012 Newtown, CT tragedy. The book is titled, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and RepairIf you know me well, you can see the appropriateness, on many levels, of me winning Stitches.

Thank you to all of the professionals who have helped me so far!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Summer Reading

Well, August was a blur, but I did tuck in some good reading over the summer. I usually try to keep up with my boys and their required reading, while I sneak in a few of my own preferences.

I had never read The Hound of the Baskervilles, but always found Sherlock Holmes in his PBS and movie renditions so entertaining. Now I see the true talent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this world of connections, this classic was referenced in my freshman son's summer required reading, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. That's two down. We both gave up on Robinson Crusoe, sorry Mr. Defoe.

As fully expected, I had trouble with the subject matter of The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, but I see why he is acclaimed for his storytelling. He calmly conveys honesty and emotion as he recounts the horrors he lived. Plus, it is always wise to be reminded of the horrors of war as we teeter on the brink of another one. War tactics, strategy, equipment, and rationale are constantly changing. But the losses inflicted are a constant.

For my 6th grader, it was fun joining the adventures in The London Eye Mystery and Wonder: Two very different stories told from the stark perspective of uniquely gifted (or handicapped, depending on how you look at them) children, written by authors (Siobhan Dowd and R.J. Palacio, respectively) with great talents for teaching perspective through child narrative.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, is one of my own choices and, though only part of the way through, I am finding that it is shedding an amazing light on my own DNA.

One of my sisters gave me Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, and it propelled me into plans of my own future hikes, toward or away from things. I followed it up with Bill Bryson's always-hilarious A Walk in the Woods to get a coast-to-coast view of the value of getting off the grid.

I recommend these all, but the best book I read this summer was one I rescued from my parents' shelf: King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian, by Marguerite Henry. Better known for her stories of Misty of the Chincoteague, Henry had only recently teamed with horse illustrator extraordinaire, Wesley Dennis, when this book was published in 1948. Two rather magical auras surround the book in my possession. First of all, I lobbed the idea to my two youngest sons that I would read it to them because it had been my favorite. They humored me by agreeing and then became mesmerized by the story, begging me to read more. This can't possibly happen again. At ages 11 and 14, they won't possibly want me to read to them next summer, maybe not even next month!

The other aura surrounding the book is my re-discovery that it had been my dad's childhood book and had been signed by the author. Those facts had escaped me since my childhood. Where did he go for the book signing? How long did he wait in line? He was all of 12 years old at the publishing. Was it a family affair? Did he bring his kid brother along? Did they wear their cowboy hats and holsters? Why else would Mrs. Henry have added a hand-drawn horseshoe to her signature? It was certainly not the then-46-year-old author's first book signing, but I wonder how she felt at the time. The beautifully illustrated paper cover of my copy wore away years ago, leaving only the rich red hardcover. Its funny little book plate has a squirrel perched on a sign among leaves and reads: "This Book is from the Hoard of Jack McCarthy. Read Thoughtfully, Handle Carefully, Return Promptly." Done. If you have never read King of the Wind and if you ever loved horses, watercolor paintings, and good storytelling, I promise, you will enjoy this book at any age.

Do you have any book recommendations from your summer reading? Happy Fall!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Coming Home

As a teen in suburban Cleveland, I spent most summer nights sleeping on our second-floor, screened-in porch, on an aluminum cot with a thin foam mattress and a sheet - to escape the heat of my bedroom. My bedroom, which I shared with my older sister, would absorb the heat of the afternoon sun for 6 hours and hold and multiply it. No fan could dislodge the heat that hung in the air and air conditioning was not an option, so the porch became my summer bedroom. 

We lived about 100 yards from railroad tracks where freight trains rode day and night from Midwest loading docks to the East Coast and back, carrying cars, ore, grain, and steel. They weren't the polite commuter trains like the ones I now live near, with orderly schedules, 4 or 5 shock-absorbing cars, and an 11pm curfew. But thundering streams of 20 or more cars whose whistles you could hear coming in the distance, whose weight shook the ground as they road by. As monstrous and scary as they were in the daytime, they became the railway lullaby of lore in the night, lulling me to sleep with their muffled chu-chunk as each car passed over the rail seam.

I returned to that memory last week as I listened to the night trains from our summer cottage rental in Huron, OH. That annual vacation is always a "coming home" for me and the night trains are a revisited comfort I never would have anticipated in my teens.

I felt the same sense of "coming home" as I sat at my first book signing event last Thursday in Joseph-Beth Booksellers at the main Cleveland Clinic campus. It is hard to describe, but the warmth and interest people showed as I described my book reminded me of my own continued belonging to this city I left 27 years ago. The book signing was a great experience, with the store manager describing it as one of their most successful signings, inviting me to return for a repeat performance next time I'm in town. It was validation of the audience I have sought - finding readers who can relate not just to Esther Miller's story, but to the city that was the backdrop of her adult life. 

First book signing of Preacher Kid
The author table was set up at the entrance to the store, flanked by candles and aromatherapy products (and socks!) - providing a welcome calm to help me fend off the jitters. There was a pretty steady stream of customers in this store in a city-within-a-city: Some looking specifically for a book, some browsing to kill time at the Clinic, and others who hadn't considered buying a book until they noticed my table. It was a fun marketing experiment from which I learned a great deal and had the added benefits of my aunt by my side, my sisters and niece making a surprise appearance, and a cameo from my high school friend, Marcia, who can turn any ordinary event into a comedy routine.

I wish I had 20 more signings in Ohio! I'll have to work on that - all assistance welcome! But last week's event was a great kick-off to my slow motion book tour!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Slow Motion Book Tour

It has been about seven months since I published the first run of Preacher Kid and one thing that has not dissipated over those months is my nervousness over “putting myself out there.” I have always enjoyed being a behind-the-scenes worker, playing supportive roles, not seeking the spotlight. In my illustrious business career, I have developed decent presentation skills by accepting the requirement of a marketing manager who must present ideas, status, conclusions, strategic plans, and product demonstrations to audiences large and small. But that aspect of the job description has never been an area of great comfort for me. The best feeling I get out of presenting is the relief that rolls over me when I'm done.

From a certain angle, Preacher Kid is one long, continuous presentation – up to this point, made mostly behind the Internet's curtain of anonymity. Even so, I stress regularly at the thought that maybe my writing skills are not really worthy of publishing or at the fact that, stubbornly acting as my own editor, I missed many typos, having read the draft so many times that I could no longer see it. I really do know the difference between “where” and “were!” In fact, I currently get paid to copy/edit. My co-worker even gave me a coffee mug with a spelling rule emblazoned on it, in thanks for my respected grammar-girl role in the department.
But editing copy under a deadline of a few hours is very different than proofing the manuscript I developed as a labor of love for 7 years. Thank goodness for self-publishing, its on-demand printing, and the option to re-submit files with a 24-hour turn-around.

The curtain will open this month as I participate in my first book signing, which takes place on Thursday, July 25th at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cleveland (11:00am to 2:00pm). I imagined a modest book tour when I first published Preacher Kid – one involving a trip to each of the nine Ohio towns and cities lived in by Esther Miller. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources to take that tour at this stage in my life. So my dream book tour will take place in slow motion, with a start this month and future stops to be determined! I contacted one independent book store in Cleveland (chosen because it had been my mom's favorite bookstore when it was located out on Cedar Road) and they said “yes.” Should I have contacted more? Yes. Do I think other bookstores would be interested? Yes. But I will have to test that theory some other time. Right now, I am only willing to give up one day of my family vacation in Ohio for the book!

So I will bring my box of books and my “favorite pens” (the bookstore's recommendation) with me to Ohio and step onto the tiny stage. Any book-signing advice you can offer me is most welcome. My crew at home has set me up with the advice to bring a crossword puzzle to work on! Thanks for the vote of confidence! If you are in the Cleveland area on July 25th, please come say hello between 11 and 2. I will be the one at the table with the pens and the nervous smile. And no crossword puzzle.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Had the Time of His Life



My dad had a funny relationship with his mother-in-law. It was one of those relationships that you had to witness to vaguely understand. You also had to live with my dad to appreciate what he invested and tolerated in that relationship. But what it all boiled down to was the fact that my dad enjoyed my grandma. Despite the fact that she never really took her foot off of his neck – not since he left my mom in the lurch and went into the seminary his sophomore year of college when his parents gave him no other option.

What we saw, especially in Esther’s senior years, was a dance of two sharp-witted people: Esther never letting my dad forget that he was constantly under scrutiny and my dad always intent on making Esther laugh. I think she was a sucker for his humor and charm, even though she would never admit it. In the end, I have never seen a son-in-law willingly and enjoyably give so much of his time and energy to his mother-in-law. And I’ve seen a lot of things.

My dad was definitely grateful to Esther. She gave him the best thing he ever got out of life. She also outlived my dad’s mother by over 20 years. So maybe she filled a void for him, in a way.

I had a fun relationship with my dad. He had his stressful moments, but, honestly, those are blurry, rare spots in my memory bank. Except for the time he backed out of his parents’ driveway after a much-needed drop-off of kids and bent the rear passenger door backward against the brick house because one of us forgot to close it! That one sticks! But even that is more legend than scar. Fatherhood is hard work. Even in the 60s and 70s when we recall how men were less involved with childrearing, it was hard work in a different way. Most of my dad’s working life was spent in jobs he really didn’t like. An amazing thing about those situations is that none of his co-workers ever knew he was dissatisfied. Even more amazing is he kept his career disappointment out of the house. I think that is a phenomenal accomplishment, while feeding a family of 6 by working jobs he really couldn’t stand.

Me, Maureen & Dad
My dad always made time for fun. It was so natural. It was built in to his personality. We had raucous games of “Michigan Kitty” using his big 10-gallon bottle of pennies for betting. He took us white-water rafting with his buddies or ours. He took us camping, from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon and back. He tried to use one of us to pay off a speeding ticket on a family outing. He told us to pull up a seat to watch Johnny Carson with him as we snuck in late from a night out with friends. He played on a men’s softball team until my former classmates were on his team, and then he still needed persuading to retire. He mixed a mean whiskey sour and hosted hilarious charades parties with his many friends. He vamped in the revue at the college where he taught. He wore wigs off of mannequins when he took us shopping on Christmas Eve to have us “help” pick out gifts for Mom.  He volunteered at the K of C's haunted house for years, bringing us in to scare the daylights out of us. He whipped us all at every board game - especially Trivial Pursuit - but made losing fun. He conducted the orchestra from his car’s driver seat, complete with a baton he kept stuck in the air vent. He held up scorecards with the number 10 after my solo music competition. He let me play pick-up hoop games in our driveway with his friends. He slid down Sharkey’s Hill on only a trash bag with two leg holes (a hill that would be classified as a cliff by today’s standards). He took us ice skating, indoors and out. He organized a city-wide bike ride on the new highway, before it officially opened. He and Gene Hanzely stole the show at our Jr. year Father/Daughter Dinner Dance. He taught me to waltz so we could dance together in style at my wedding reception.

He wrote us each letters on the day we were born and tucked them away for safe keeping. He helped me figure out what it means to be a good person and how a man should love and respect his wife. He always showed up. He gave and he gave and he gave. He made me laugh until I cried.

He went out of his way to give strangers a pick-me-up. You never knew when he would burst out in a public place and start a conversation with someone nearby. You always knew he would try to break up the monotony of a waitress' day with his "surprise me" order. He enjoyed what he had. And when his physical mobility was slowly, then rapidly, taken from him, he accepted it with amazing grace and humor. 

I take so many pointers from him, it would be silly to list them here. But most recently, he is reminding me to not wish for things to be different: To enjoy what I have. "Having the time of my life" wherever he went was borderline crazy - or at least appeared so to outsiders. You were right, all along, Dad!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Target Practice


A forty-something year-old woman in casual business attire walks into a suburban salon/spa and the two women working the counter literally fall over themselves to get a brochure into her hands. What do you think they spotted first? The unchecked gray in her hair? Her un-manicured nails? Or the face lacking all traces of the scant make-up applied 8 hours earlier? She is exactly the customer they target.

Unfortunately for them, that woman was me. And all I was looking for was the single salon hair product I buy about once every 6 years because I use so little of it. But I was flattered, in a comical way! No one has fallen all over themselves to get to me since my boys were toddlers! The two times in my life I’ve gone to a beauty spa, I only went upon coercion from friends. It is awkward and uncomfortable to me and not something I seek out. But for every one of me, there are 50 other women who love the experience and keep the salon/spas in business. They correctly identified me on the surface. But I’m an outlier!

I think about that funny encounter as I research target companies in my day job and as I attempt to define my target reader audience for Preacher Kid. Sometimes the target market is so well defined and so recognizable that it walks right up to you and says “hello.” Other times, it takes more finesse, not to mention trial and error, to locate the company or person who will be receptive to the “brochure.”

I am excited to be invited to speak at my local library as part of their annual speaker series. The single reason they were receptive to my "brochure" is because I adjusted my target to highlight my journey of discovery. I am joining them not because my book is such a sensation. In New England, far from Esther Miller’s roots, the attraction to the book about a girl from Ohio lies more in the research process than the story. And I have to say, I am thrilled to present my research journey, especially if it demystifies the process or encourages others to start their own search. Of course I would love to talk about Esther, but it would probably feel like sharing my home movies with strangers! Not that that ever stopped my Grandpa McCarthy – invited by the Lakewood Library, on many occasions, to show his films from his globetrotting!

I discovered that my local library offers free use of Ancestry.com from their PCs. I think this is a common, yet often overlooked, benefit offered by many public libraries. I spent hours there, inputting ancestral names, deciphering cursive census entries from the 1800s, following a genealogical path down the decades until I lost the trail, and combing through birth, marriage, and death records trying to match names and dates to fill in the missing puzzle pieces. I found the whole task utterly captivating and was often startled out of my seat by the library bell notifying patrons of the impending close.

Some people put off the research because it seems overwhelming, they think it will be tedious, or they don’t realize how accessible old records have become. Not only is it accessible, it is free. I gathered many stories and memories from my living relatives, but that still left many holes in the story. Every bit of research to fill in those holes came from sitting at my computer or the library’s computers – with the important exceptions of my mom and sister, Megan’s, fact-finding mission to Asheville and my time, elbows-deep, in the archives at the Western Reserve Fire Museum in Cleveland. There is so much at our fingertips! It is simply amazing.

It is off in the distance a bit, but mark your calendars for January 26, 2014 and please come to the Needham Library for a fun little journey. Party at my house afterwards! Complete with home movies.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Risk of Waiting Too Long

Max & Edna (1940-something)
One of the many side-stories of my Preacher Kid writing journey involves my great uncle, Uncle Max. He was my grandma’s youngest sibling, born in 1919, when Esther was 11 years old. 

Like most of his siblings, Max Miller lived a long life. He stayed sharp as a tack right up until he died at the age of 87. Which is why I sought him out when I was trying to put the pieces of my grandma’s life together. He would still have the childhood memories, the stories of making do with what they had, the color on his parents, and the dirt on Esther.


It had been years since I had seen Uncle Max. I probably last saw him when I was in high school. He had lived with his wife, Edna, in Columbus and we used to love to drive down there and motor around on his pontoon boat that he docked at the bottom of the hill that led to their house on a lake. Max and Edna never had any children, but they loved children. It was always great fun to visit them and get a chance to laugh with Aunt Louise, who was part of the Columbus package.


So as my thoughts were swirling and forming in 2006, I wrote a letter to Uncle Max who had for many years lived in Lakeland, FL. In the letter, I suggested taking a trip to Lakeland, spending a few days with him, and capturing his memories as well as spending some precious time together.


Do you sometimes calculate a letter’s journey? I do it fairly often. And I knew that it would take 2 days to get from Boston
to Lakeland. Then I wanted to give him a few days to process the idea. Then I would give him a call.

The day before I planned to call Uncle Max, my mom called to tell me that Uncle Max had died earlier that day. He had had a long life. He died peacefully in his sleep, like the turning off of a switch. He had been a very small presence in my adult life but he was a link to my grandma that I had come so close to reconnecting. My husband jokingly blames me for Max’s death! But I’m grateful that perhaps Max opened my letter, felt love and appreciation from a distant source, pictured my sisters and I rolling and laughing down the hill in front of his house, thought about his long life and his family a bit, and smiled.


Many people’s reaction to reading Preacher Kid has been one of reinforcement that they should write the life story of a relative or other influential person in their life. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I should write a book about my [fill in the blank].” Well, my advice to you is “do it.” And do it now, before it is too late! The book about my grandma’s life would have been exponentially richer if I had written it while she was alive and helping me. It would have been more colorfully illuminated had her brother, Max, had a hand in it. I think I did alright with the great help from my mom and aunt. But I wish I had written it sooner.


Do you have someone you want to write about? What are you waiting for?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Help. Thanks. Wow.

One day, not that far from now, I’m quite sure my oldest son will run the Boston Marathon. On that day, my plan will be to cheer him on at the half-way mark, then bike into Boston to meet him at the finish line. It will be a forever-changed finish line from the pre-bombing one we were used to seeing. But I echo the shared feelings of those who love the Boston Marathon and its special day in firmly believing we will do everything we can to heal the survivors, honor the victims, and learn from this week’s horrible tragedy to enable it to continue as the iconic event it is. Saving the event is important for our city's and nation's psyche. But saving the shattered people left in the bombing's wake is the ultimate goal.
 

I have turned numerous times this week to Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. This week, there was much reason to call out for Help. Not so much for Thanks and Wow. But in all of the stress, fear, and loss, the light of the Thanks and Wow poked through the black. And it is the sources of the Thanks and Wow – the first responders, others who responded when it was not their assigned role, courageous victims, the Boston police chief, our governor, the fantastic people of Boston & Watertown, the country that showed over and over that they care – that will continue to help us balance our new feelings of vulnerability with the courage we need to live in this crazy, unpredictable world.
 

Help the victims and their families heal physically and mentally. Thanks for the gift of people who, through training and/or instinct, run toward danger when they think they may be able to help. Wow, we are a magnificent, strong people when we put our differences aside and work in an amazingly united front, constructively toward a common goal.

Pray for Peace.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Starting from My Own Beginning

If you planned to go to an author visit at your local library or book store and your two choices were to see:

(a) a local author, discussing her first book about a 20th century woman who spent most of her life in a distant state or 

(b) an author visiting her childhood city, discussing her first book about a 20th century woman who lived in your city, grew up in your state and had family connections throughout your region, 

I think most would choose the latter. With this in mind, I’m focusing my initial marketing efforts in the Cleveland area, with a parallel campaign in the markets near my current home.

Two Cleveland Plain Dealer (PD) columnists I enjoy reading are Connie Schultz and Regina Brett. So they have landed on the top of my target list. Ms. Brett was even nice enough, two years ago, to suggest a Cleveland publisher to me. That publisher is also on my list – I’m always open to allowing second chances! When I crafted my letters to these Clevelanders, I leaned heavily on my Grandpa Joe’s memory, even though I think they will find my grandma’s story compelling purely from their own personal vantage points.


Amazingly enough, the man at the PD who edited my grandma’s obituary and both of my parents’ obituaries knew my grandpa personally. There are still people at the Plain Dealer who were starting out as my grandpa was exiting, who remember him. Columnists for the Plain Dealer should recognize his name. If not, I would highly recommend that they set aside some quality reading time in the PD archives with some of Joseph F. Saunders’ columns, getting to know him and Cleveland in the mid-1900s.


Here is what I hope will pique these Clevelanders’ (and others’) interest:


  • One of the book’s main characters is Joseph F. Saunders who was a reporter, editor and columnist for the PD from 1937-1968.
  • Joe Saunders’ PD columns helped Carl Stokes win his election as the first African-American mayor of a major US city.
  • Esther lived in Cleveland from 1932 to 1969 after escaping a life of near-poverty, moving around rural Ohio as a “Preacher Kid.” Esther married Joe Saunders and moved into the house where he was raised on W 74th Street, the heavily Irish area of Cleveland’s near-West Side.
  • Joe was a graduate of John Carroll University and his father was a Cleveland firefighter who was killed in the line of duty when Joe was 2.
  • Bernice Secrest Pyke (the first woman appointed as a delegate to the DNC – 1920) helped her niece, Esther, land a job in Depression-dimmed Cleveland in 1932. Esther’s job was with the newly-formed Federal Reserve Bank where she was paid in script.
I am hopeful that these writers, as well as the independent bookstores scattered around Cleveland, will be drawn to Esther’s story. My friend, Leslie, made the very true comment that people whose lives are mostly put down as “ordinary” by all accounts, are anything but. I hope others see that in Esther’s story.

One of my personal goals is to interest Rocky River Public Library in an author visit highlighting Preacher Kid. Not only did I spend hundreds of hours in that building in my pre-internet youth, but Esther was a patron as a Rocky River resident, it never stopped being one of my dad’s favorite places to explore, and my mom served on their Board of Trustees for a number of years. If I were given the opportunity to discuss Preacher Kid at the Rocky River Public Library, I would most certainly be visiting in my family’s honor.


The Cleveland area is my starting point. But I’m pulling out my map of Ohio again and charting my course to match my grandma’s journey. And figuring out who I can stay with along the way! Cleveland is all set – thanks Anne!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Develop a Family Narrative

Twenty-seven years ago – anxious to try something new, but not really ready to leave – I made the decision to try a new city, thinking at the time that I could always move back home. One of many na├»ve views I’ve managed to prove wrong in the last 27 years, I still find myself, on many occasions, wishing I lived near my original family. Yet I remain extremely fortunate that the bond I have with my Midwest and DC family is incredibly strong despite the distances.

An article which appeared recently in The New York Times, The Stories That Bind Us, does a terrific job of illuminating an essential contributor to that family bond and the resulting resiliency: developing a strong family narrative. Amazing is the finding that children build self-esteem and resiliency simply by understanding that they are part of something bigger than themselves. As my children study the lives of explorers, celebrities, and famous people who left important marks on our world, it is really the stories like that of their great grandfather who came over from Ireland, alone, with just the shirt on his back at 16 years-old or the great-great-great grandfather who was a drummer boy in the Civil War that stir their underlying sense of self, mold their ideas of accomplishment, and fuel their internal motivation.


They don’t have to be heroic stories: Simple stories of regular lives, describing adversity overcome or the roller coaster ride of experiences, connected by some small, thin thread to who we are today. Those are the stories that bind us together. 


No one likes a good story better than I. That must be why I enjoy my family full of story-tellers so much. I am usually in the audience, rarely the narrator. But I am so glad I sat down and documented my grandma’s story. I started it as a preservationist, but it grew into something more. Reading the NYT article gave me a sense of support, that others see the value in understanding our roots beyond knowing the branches of our family tree. The stories hanging from those branches are priceless in so many ways. 

As we chart our own journeys, we find strength in the traditions of the past. We serve the menu that has come to represent a holiday over countless years. We bake the Irish soda bread using Nana's recipe. We gather as best we can, in honor of the family gatherings we've had since there was family. We learn and gather strength from one another, across generations and across state lines. We absorb new characters into the forward-moving narrative, through friendship, marriage, birth, and adoption. And we start traditions of our own, such as our family talent show, that find a comfortable, enduring place in the narrative.



I see the importance of the narrative from a business perspective as well. As I analyze new markets in my day job, I recognize the need to understand and appreciate the business’ core. As we step, tentatively or boldly, into new markets with new products, it is important to maintain an appreciation of our roots. Those origins are at the core of our success and new opportunities will only grow from lessons we have learned and merits we have earned along the way. The message we build for the new markets must be based on the narrative we have developed in getting to where we are.


But my favorite parts of the NYT article have to do with the family narrative. When my inner child needs a boost to keep the ‘happy’ in my family, I think I’ll watch my old home movies. Overcoming the styles of the 70s is hardship enough and a recurring subject of our family narrative. What is in your narrative? And have you told it to anyone lately?