The beautiful South 85 Journal has published my essay, “Family History,” in the new issue. This creative nonfiction piece is about a violent crime that occurred within my extended family. Writing this has been so difficult, but also necessary. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what happened, so I explored it in this way. I hope you read this piece because the sharing of it also helps me process it all. But a warning: it is about violence and family.
Today is Memorial Day, a day to honor those who sacrificed their lives in our military. I am sharing a poem from my chapbook Kin Types about a sister who awaits word from her brother who is a soldier in WWI.
Once and Now
His letter, once wet and now dry, once
wrinkled now smoothed against her breast,
once a receptacle for all he could not say,
the lone poppy in the field, the striped sky, not
the mud, men, horses, bullets, shovels.
Definitely not, but she suspects as much.
She listens to her husband outside the church
door, reads the casualty lists, hovers around
those waiting. Now her big brother’s letter
like his touch on their dying mother’s cheek,
is enough. He’s been long a soldier, the bachelor
patriarch. In the early days he wrote pages
of the trembling sweep of the Pacific,
ancient trees and reeds poking like magic
sticks from the water, a field of buttercups
near the Presidio, a borrowed horse he rode.
Given their immigrant circumstances, the career
had seemed wise until now, with Huns like red
devils leering down from propaganda posters
jeering them with their German names,
a town friend’s Dachshund ripped from her arms,
his brains smashed on the pavement, onto
her shoes. Shoes she showed Clara, pointing,
See, see how dangerous they are in their hate!
The knock sneaks up on her from behind.
She has turned to put the letter in the ribbon-
tied stack, so standing between fourteen years
of letters and the knock, she knows that this
is not the paperboy coming for his coin.
She knows what a ridiculous leap her mind
has made, but still she is certain about the paper,
and it is a paper telegram. Without opening it,
she slips the Western Union under the grosgrain.
Once busy, she has all the time in the world now.
Clara Mulder née Waldeck
Caledonia, Michigan, United States
Clara has received the dreaded telegram that will validate her worst fears--that her laughing, vibrant brother will not be coming home.
I chose a very mild–in this case British–stamp with WWI propaganda.
Just wanted to share a post I published today over at The Family Kalamazoo. I wrote about my great-uncle Charles Mulder, Jr. (Chuck). He was the leader of a small group in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Europe during WWII. He was with the 119th Infantry Regiment, which was a part of the 30th Infantry Division. According to Wikipedia, “The 30th Infantry Division was a unit of the Army National Guard in World War I and World War II. It was nicknamed the ‘Old Hickory’ division, in honor of President Andrew Jackson. The Germans nicknamed this division “Roosevelt’s SS.” The 30th Infantry Division was regarded by a team of historians led by S.L.A. Marshall as the number one American infantry division in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), involved in 282 days of intense combat over a period from June 1944 through April 1945.
Uncle Chuck was a lovely person whose life was changed because of his war service and an incident of friendly fire. Read about it here:
Eilene Lyon of Myricopia has written a beautiful review of my chapbook Kin Types. She writes on her blog about her family history (among other things), and is finishing up a book about it as well. About my chap:
This slender volume is saturated with spirits brought to life by Luanne Castle’s soulful words in prose and poetry. It’s a collection I will read again and again, as it inspires a hope that some of her magic will rub off on my attempts to reinvigorate my ancestors’ stories. The writing is not just creative and lyrical, but draws on deep research and compassion.
Though there are instances of tragedy and death—universal human events—not all is gloomy within these pages. I love how “Half-Naked Woman Found Dead” conjures the purple prose of 19th-century journalism, and despite the dire subject, makes me laugh out loud with the final line. In “Genealogy” she takes a simple subject, the name Frank, and in a few words imparts both a legacy passed down and a deeper meaning tied to the name itself.
The details Castle creates to evoke time, place, and experience, continually astonish me. The veil clouding the past is pierced and we step into the shoes of her long-gone loved ones.
Coincidentally, two of the Kin Types poems were just reprinted by Verse-Virtual in the May issue. You can find them here:
Check out the other poems in this issue, as well. Some lovely work.
You know that first poem, “Genealogy”? As you can see it’s about the name Frank and looks at another meaning of the name. So when I first heard about the great Diane Seuss’ phenomenal book Frank: Sonnets I knew the ambiguity inherent in that one-word title and was intrigued. In fact, her collection is a frank exploration of her life in poems, as well as inspired by but completely different from the work of poet Frank O’Hara. If you read one poetry book by a “great” this year, make it Seuss’. The book has just taken these awards:
Winner of the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection
Winner of the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry
Winner of the 2021 L.A. Times Book Prize for Poetry
Finalist for the 2022 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award
Pretty darn amazing, but you will see why the book earned them.
On another note, I have a bundle of yummy looking poetry books to read by Merril D. Smith, Justin Hamm, Caroline Goodwin, Millicent Accardi, KB, and John Sibley Williams. Woohoo!!!!
And, finally, I am tinkering with the memoir. Is a writer’s work ever done? Kind of like being a woman (if you remember the expression).
Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, I found out there is a haunted hotel in Phoenix, Hotel San Carlos. That’s right. You can read about its checkered history here.
Today begins Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. If you’re not familiar with the holiday you might think it strange to greet someone with “Feliz Dia de los Muertos,” but the special day is one for celebration.
You already saw the nicho I made for the cats, but when I was preparing the box, I actually prepared two at once. After the cat nicho was done, I thought I would make one (or an ofrenda, although the religious connotation of that makes it not quite the right word as I am not Catholic) for loved ones in heaven of the gardener and myself.
So Feliz Dia de los Muertos!
Guess who is visiting this week? My mom!!! First time I’ve seen her in two years!!!!
Part of research for writing can be mining one’s own past environment. I made a list of the early 70s fashion items which impressed themselves most indelibly in my memory. Maybe you even have some of these goodies in your own home today. (I admit that I have two of these items).
The fork and spoon on the kitchen wall. Ours came from an interior designer who rented an old house from my dad for her business. When she couldn’t pay the rent and wanted to move out, she gave him some merchandise in lieu of the back rent. These items included the big wooden eating implements. I couldn’t find a photo of ours when I wanted them, but there are images all over Google.
The long, low brown, tan, or gold couch with the beige drapes. The sample here is from my in-laws’ house. Being Canadian, my MIL still called the couch a chesterfield. Also please note the Stiffel lamp and the leggy houseplants.
The small, light-colored television set. In the following photo, once again we have a long, low brownish couch–this time it’s in my parents’ living room. The same beige drapes that my in-laws had. To watch our TV you had to sit in one of the two arm chairs that were facing the couch. Remember that these couches were not for lying down to watch TV. Most people weren’t couch potatoes. This couch was “Swedish modern,” and it was very uncomfortable. Photo shows Dad, brother, and me at one of our usual pastimes, Monopoly.
The odd hotel-like artwork on walls. In this case, we have a rug in a fake design (as opposed to a real hooked design). Bland paintings and posters were other common wall hangings, as were macrame plant hangers. Notice that the following image also features a couch of the time period–in this case, there is a pattern. The lamp and shade are similar in shape to the Stiffel.
The table/lamp combination. Here is my MIL at another relative’s home. We all had these lamps.
Large feathers, even peacock, or pampas grass stuck in vases or baskets to decorate corners of rooms. In the following photo, the chair is a mini version of the couches, and the lamp once again has the same shape.
Paneling on the walls. Wood paneling was particularly popular in living rooms, family rooms, and basement rec rooms. This one is a rec room, and my brother is trying to keep from being stabbed with a dart.
Another favorite for walls was flocked wallpaper. Which was worse: the wallpaper or my perm?
Long strands of beads instead of draperies. In the window behind Uncle Frank we have a “wall” of green beads on our kitchen window. Also, please note the strange plastic “canisters” for storage, both on the counter and hanging from the cabinet.
The large, free-standing microwave on its own cart. Good grief. As if it’s a kitchen altar. I must mention the gold wall phone. That cord was always tangling up dishes, food, and pens.Make it a great week, everyone!
I’ve been reading instead of writing lately. Today I want to share two of the nonfiction books I’ve enjoyed.
Book #1 is biographical and historical nonfiction based on the author’s family history.
A year and a half ago I reviewed Joy Neal Kidney’s nonfiction book Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II. That book opened my eyes to the “home front” during WWII—what the war was like for some American families. Joy’s family, in particular, suffered great loss as three of her grandparents’ sons died in battle.
Joy has a new book out called Leora’s Dexter Stories. The subtitle, “The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression,” gives an idea of what story lies inside. It’s also an understatement. This book uses a variety of sources, such as journals and family stories to piece together a heart-breaking account of the poverty experienced by the Wilson family during the Depression.
Too bad this book can’t be required reading of every American and every student in American schools so that we learn not only what hardships people went through during that time but also how hardworking, clever, and resilient they could be. Our ideas of recycling and repurposing today are a joke compared with what Leora, Clabe, and their children did to survive. For awhile the only thing that kept them from being homeless was when the two oldest sons joined the Navy and sent money home to the family. The family endured criticism and gossip from others because of the need to sometimes be on a form of relief, although they worked very hard as tenant farmers or in other jobs. I managed to hold off crying until daughter Doris, Joy’s mother, an amazing basketball star, had to leave her full-scholarship business college because she couldn’t afford rent. This book is a powerful tribute to the Wilson family.
Book #2 is a coming-of-age and family dysfunction memoir, set in Australia.
Australian Gwen Wilson, writer of the blog Garrulous Gwendoline, has published a memoir called I Belong to No One. On the cover it also reads: “One woman’s true story of family violence, forced adoption and ultimate triumphant survival.” I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started to read, but I was immediately hooked by Gwen’s storytelling voice. As you might expect from a woman who bills herself on WordPress as “garrulous” and says in the memoir that one of her favorite words is loquacious, Gwen’s voice expertly tells her story and imparts her personality. Her voice is strong, confident, and positive because so is the woman telling the story of her childhood and youth. She also comes across as humble and sincere. This is the successful, mature adult looking back at her upbringing. And while she was clearly always very emotionally strong and generally positive, she was not always confident because the life experiences she went through from a young age tried to grind her down. But Gwen didn’t let them keep her down. Whenever she could catch a lucky break, she would run with it. Finally, she caught one in the form of a job in the shipping world and was able to move forward with her adult life.
Nevertheless, with Gwen’s muscular and straightforward prose, the majority of the story details what she had to overcome. Legally, she was raised by a single, mentally ill mother who was not capable of parenting her. But in reality, Gwen was raised by her older brother Steve and a series of surrogate moms in the form of neighbors, aunts, and friends’ mothers. This patched-together group of “moms” are where Gwen learned how to be a woman. The topics covered from Gwen’s first person perspective include domestic abuse, illegitimacy (in a time when that really mattered), forced adoption, child neglect, poverty, and rape. The rape scene and how it was handled afterward should be mandatory reading for anyone who is unsure of the #metoo movement. It reminds me of how things were when I was young (so we need to remember that we have made some improvements in society and law regarding rape). Gwen truly had nobody to turn to—and no rape crisis centers as they hadn’t been invented yet.
Gwen’s descriptions of her homes and the people in her life are carefully and wonderfully drawn. I find it difficult to move from under the spell of her story and back into my own life. Gwen was born the same year as memoirist Mary Karr. There are similarities in topics, but Australia in the 60s and 70s was much different than the United States. And Gwen had less advantages than Mary Karr had. But anybody who found The Liar’s Club or Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle fascinating will find Gwen’s book just as hard to put down.
I hope to have reviews of a couple more books next week!
Felix update: First we went through the exact same disappointment at a different ultrasound facility on Tuesday–it was another screw-up and they sent us home. However, the next day he had his ultrasound. It showed a liver tumor, enlarged lymph nodes in his abdomen, and other smaller issues. I haven’t been able to talk to his regular vet after she got a copy of the report but we did speak briefly and hypothetically. It’s unlikely that we will put him through more testing as it would be traumatic to him and probably to no avail. But a decision has not yet been made. If we don’t do more testing, we will provide hospice for him at home. I have started giving him subq fluids (under the skin with a needle) once a day, as well as several meds. The internist who performed the ultrasound was so impressed with Felix’s chill personality. He really is the epitome of a “good boy.”
Hummingbirds make such wonderful mothers. Six years ago, the hummingbird who raised two nests right outside my door was a good example. When one of her babies turned out to find it more difficult to learn to fly, she spent hours one afternoon patiently teaching the little one. The green hummingbird raising her babies in our oleander right now is another good example. First, before she ever laid her eggs, she completely moved her nest from the windchime/mobile to the oleander tree when she realized the first place was not safe. Now we’ve noticed that because the sun beats relentlessly on the babies in the mornings, she sits on them for protection even though they are now big kids. We expect them to fly away any day now. Here she is shielding them from the sun.
Last week I told you that Kana was enjoying a manuscript box, but Tiger would lie down in it when Kana wasn’t there.
I think I forgot to mention that my daughter gave me Storyworth for Mother’s Day. I had never heard of it before. Every week for a year I get a story prompt mailed to me. The idea is these stories are all about my life. As soon as I email one back, my kids get the story dumped in their inboxes. I am allowed to include photos if I like. And if I hit send and regret something I can easily edit it. At the end of the year, the kids will get books of “the story of my life.” Why is this different from creative nonfiction and memoir writing? These stories are geared for my kids and (hopefully someday) their kids. Some of the stories are already part of family legend, but now they will be written down in a permanent form. If I don’t like a particular prompt, I can change it out, but so far each one (I’ve done four) have been fruitful lines of enquiry ;). I’ve written about my first memory, most memorable birthday, favorite trip, and a time when I was brave. I’m not saying I wouldn’t share any of these on this blog, but not today, folks.
It’s a genius idea that I wish I had thought of before these people did hah. The reason it’s genius is that it’s got to be a money maker as it’s pricey. But I kind of think it’s worth it because who does this anyway? And keeps it up for a year? You could do this completely on your own. But will your loved ones keep writing those stories every week? They will if they know you paid for the subscription!
On Friday we planted new pentas, vincas, coleus, and marigolds. Daughter and her fiance helped MUCH. We left a lot of the old flowers, although they were a bit leggy, mainly because of the cost and also because we have been so busy that we didn’t have time to do more.
I love the cheery little faces of the vincas.
New flats and looking toward our crooked tree and bronze rabbit.
The red dianthus are “leftovers,” and the pentas and vincas were just added to the back. Some of the marigolds are old and some are new. Once they grow it will look better.
When the pandemic began, I was eager to be a pioneer woman and even froze eggs and lemons in case we had a shortage. Now I am very ragged around the edges, having been overworked by all the dealings with the government and business-in-the-time-of-coronavirus. I am used to always being busy, usually thrive on it, and yet I will say that I am too exhausted at this point. And I don’t see a letup. Plus, when I get this tired, my legs and feet swell miserable (from my primary lymphedema). That aggravates my “hip-leg.” I have a painful condition with my left leg up near the groin that I refer to as my hip-leg. It feels like a twisting nerve and is particularly and suddenly painful when I put my foot down on the ground. The swelling makes it worse. And the exhaustion and work-work-work makes it worser yet.
But I don’t have the virus. And neither does my family. And my kitties are a lot of work, but so cute. And I have new flowers. So there you go.
We also have lizards galore this year. And the quail couple with their single file of bobbing babies. You see, I can keep finding cool stuff to distract myself!
My friend who wrote this very popular essay years ago (Lake Erie) teaches creative writing to seniors. Because of the pandemic, her classes now are on Zoom, and my mom is taking one! I am so happy she is doing so because it’s good for her to interact with others, although it’s on phone Zoom (no video) and not in person. Also, she is a reporter for the community newspaper (used to be an editor for it), but with the pandemic she can’t interview people in person. My mother’s community has a big apartment complex, a nursing home, an assisted living, a rehab facility, and garden homes (duplexes). She lives in a garden home, so she has more space and more freedom than if she lived in one of the other buildings.
I call my mother regularly, but it’s hard to find new things to talk about when you’re not out doing new stuff! And she’s not going to doctors or seeing friends, so she doesn’t have that to talk about. She does read my genealogy blog The Family Kalamazoo, so that makes her happy because I am almost always yapping about her family. Most recently I’ve been working on my 3x great-grandfather who was a “prosperous celery farmer” (according to his obit) in Kalamazoo. I had no idea when I was growing up there that my ancestor was one of the farmers who raised Kalamazoo’s “famous” crop. The thing that interested me most about him was discovering that as a widower he married and divorced a woman after he immigrated to the U.S. It almost looks like he married her so she would help raise his six children. I wonder what he discovered he didn’t like. How I would love to see the divorce papers! I have all kinds of fictional scenarios popping up in my head.
When I was growing up, my dad planted a plum tree in our backyard in Michigan. He used to take pix of us next to the tree, watching the tree and us kids growing, I guess. After my father passed away five years ago (last Thursday), my mom had a plum tree planted on the edge of the woods behind her house at the senior complex.
The plum tree with my brother, our dog Perky, and my dad
The tree Mom planted behind her home
This weekend I found out I got the Volunteer of the Month award for April at the shelter. Yes, well, so many of the other volunteers couldn’t do their jobs because the shelter has been closed to volunteers for the pandemic. However, my work increased because I make the adoption calls (more adoptions!) and do data entry for those. I also took on the shelter’s Twitter account, which is a challenge right now because just as soon as I get info on a new dog it gets adopted :)! The reason this is occurring is in part because people are stepping up to adopt during this period. But it is also for another reason. Our shelter is a no-kill that functions largely by rescuing e-list dogs from the county kill shelter. (The cats seem to magically appear at our shelter, by the way). Our shelter is only bringing in a limited number of animals because without volunteers, the staff can only take care of just so many hungry mouths.
Take care of yourselves, peeps. If you have Instagram, be sure to check out Bobthewritingcat! That big-hearted curmudgeon makes me happy and teary. As Bob always says, go wash your hands!!!
I finished another story scrap for my SCRAPS scrapbook–finally.
As a reminder this is the first post. Click the photo to read it.
When I was a preteen, my grandmother sewed me shorts sets from cotton blend prints. She made the tops and shorts out of the same material, but the tailoring was fairly sophisticated, so the end product had more in common with a summer dress than a romper. I don’t know where she got the idea from or if it was in style in the sixties. At least one fabric was made into matching mother-daughter shorts sets for Mom and me.
But my favorite set was in a fabric that I found very cheering. Balloons in varying shades of spring greens, both solids and prints, float on a white field. The shorts were mid-thigh, and the top had a fairly high neckline. Because Grandma made it for me, the outfit fit perfectly. It was comfortable, and I felt good wearing it.
Not that I didn’t love to wear my denim shorts and short-sleeved sweatshirt. But Grandma’s short sets were lighter weight than my other play clothes and much more convenient than dresses.
In this photo I am posing alone–to see the one with my mother look at the finished pages at the bottom of the post.
In our old photos, I found myself wearing the balloon set on two different dates. The summer photo came first. It was on the occasion of our trip to Canada to attend Expo 67. In fact, in a scrapbook, Mom labeled the picture, “Mother and daughter enjoying a rest.” A body of water is behind us. Below that photo, my mother had pasted another photo and labeled it, “Sawmill at Upper Canada Village.” There is another image of just me in the same spot but without my mother (the one above). From examining the few photographs I could find online, I do think these photos of me are also from Upper Canada Village.
In the photos, I am wearing the shorts set, with its matching triangle headscarf tied at the nape of my neck. I also wear a blue ¾ length sleeve cardigan that Grandma knitted for me. On my feet are navy blue Keds-type shoes.
I’ve written before about our Expo 67 visit, but we also went to other tourist sites in Canada during our trip. Upper Canada Village was one of the places we visited. Niagara Falls was another.
My grandmother must have made this outfit for me in the spring of 1967 when I was finishing up elementary school (6th grade). I started junior high in September.
The other photo revives vivid memories. It was taken 31 October 1967, Halloween, probably around 6 PM. I remember my mother posing me in front of the living room fireplace. I have very few memories of actual picture taking, so this is very special to my heart.
I am wearing a heavenly sheer green silk flapper dress that had been owned by my grandfather’s cousin Therese Remine. It was heavily beaded, and over time, the silk had weakened, and the beads were too heavy for the thin fibers. By the time I got home that night, the dress had already begun to rip. You might wonder why my mother would allow me to ruin an expensive vintage dress by wearing it one night for Halloween. I wonder that myself, but my mother’s value system is limited. To sum it up: she didn’t have any interest in the dress, so she didn’t care what I did with it.
Because the dress was sheer, I had to choose clothes to wear underneath, and the only thing that seemed to my 12-year-old mind to “go” was the balloon shorts set because both outfits were green. I made myself a flapper headband to match and carried a handbag that must have belonged to Therese, although I am not positive about that. You see, I used to collect old discarded fancy wear and had quite a collection from a few women.
It had been my mother’s idea to make a headband. I don’t know how much I knew about the 1920s, and I probably needed her suggestion to visualize the whole outfit. I have mulled over the question: where did I first learn about flappers with their bobbed hair and short skirts? Their narrow flat outlines so like my own. I don’t remember what movies or books might have shaped whatever image I had by age twelve.
An essential part of my costume that night was the large diamond-shaped earrings. I’m not sure where those dangly earrings came from. I hope I didn’t lift them from the dime store at the plaza.
While I stood in the middle of our living room, smiling into the camera, my mother pulled her face out from behind the camera and pinned me with her gaze. “This will be your last year trick-or-treating. You’re getting too old.” So that was that. I felt compelled to enjoy myself this one last time.
The living room accessories in the photo were accumulated from various places, generally from other people. The big brass candlesticks were heavy. The painting was not a copy, but an inexpensive original painting. The Don Quixote figures had been displayed at a home décor shop. My father had purchased an old house on Westnedge on a land contract and rented it to an interior decorator who opened the shop. When she went out of business, she gave my father some small furnishings in lieu of back rent. That was how we ended up with the large wood fork and spoon that hung on our kitchen wall for years (yes, like in Marie’s kitchen on Everybody Loves Raymond).
I look so young in these photos, and yet poised on the brink of burgeoning womanhood. I remember how I felt wearing that flapper dress. The twenties was my era, and I felt as if I belonged.
As my photograph was snapped, the bell rang. My friends had arrived so we could begin the house-to-house process. That’s when I realized I had to wear my wool coat over my costume. Or rather, my mother informed me I had to.
We trudged from front door to front door, but the knowledge that this was my “last time” weighed on my mind. My fingers grew chilled from the cold that had arrived early to Michigan. That’s where this memory ends.