Don’t Worry, Be Happy

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NW Carmen MirandaMy maternal grandmother was always happy. At least that’s how I remember her. Her birthday was in mid-March, so I think of her often this time of year.

As I’ve mentioned before, we called her Nanny Winnie. She was too light-hearted for “Grandmother,” though she could have been a “Granny.” But “Nanny Winnie” is what stuck. Even my friends called her “Nanny Winnie”.

When my sister found out that our grandmother’s name was really Winifred, she said, “Winifred? How weird.” I’m sure my sister thought “Nanny Winnie” was written on our grandmother’s birth certificate.

Nanny Winnie repeated that story endlessly throughout the remainder of her life, always with a chuckle.

Nanny Winnie was an extrovert in a family of introverts. Her husband, my grandfather, was stern and practical. Her daughter, my mother, was quiet and studious. My mother told me once that her mother’s outgoing ways embarrassed her when she was a teenager.

Of course, we all think our mothers are embarrassing when we are teenagers. But I could see how my grandmother, who struck up conversations with everyone she met, would have made my reserved mother want to disown her, though I thought Nanny Winnie was wonderful.

I’m sure my memories are not entirely accurate. I remember Nanny Winnie through the lens of a devoted child. She was the woman I aspired to be because of her optimistic cheerfulness.

As I grew up, I learned that her life wasn’t always happy. Her mother died when she was still a teenager. She lost her first husband when she was only 58, and her second when she was 65. She had some health problems, as did her only son.

She suffered from dementia for the last decade of her life. But we called her “happily demented,” because her cheerful personality survived throughout the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

Nanny Winnie loved to laugh, and loved to make others laugh. Even at her own expense.

The picture above is of my grandmother dressed as Carmen Miranda for some costume party. I don’t know when or where the party was, but I’m sure my grandmother was the life of it. This photograph is so indicative of her personality that my mother chose to display it at Nanny Winnie’s funeral.

NW Bo PeepAnd the second picture is of another costume party—this time my grandmother went as Little Bo Peep. As you might be able to tell, she wore parts of the same fruit-printed outfit in both pictures, so the parties were probably close in time. As Carmen Miranda, she wore both the top and skirt, though the skirt was draped unusually. As Little Bo Peep, the skirt became an apron.

And she wears a big smile in both costumes as she poses for the camera.

That skirt and top made their way into the bag of dress-up clothes I later played with (though I never pretended to be either Carmen Miranda or Little Bo Peep). The top was as long on me as a dress and wide enough to fall off my shoulders. The skirt became my shawl or cape, depending on the day.

But I don’t think my smile ever equaled Nanny Winnie’s. I’ve never been a ham like she was. I inherited the introvert genes. But I still wish I were more like her.

What family pictures make you smile?

Norton Museum: Thinking Differently About Art, Writing, and Life

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Shadow and Substance, by Georgia O’Keeffe, in the Norton Museum of Art

Shadow and Substance, by Georgia O’Keeffe, in the Norton Museum of Art

On my recent trip to Florida, in addition to viewing wildlife and water activities, I went to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. This was my second visit to the museum.

In 2009, when I first went to the Norton, I was awestruck by a special exhibit showing Ansel Adams’s photographs juxtaposed with Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. While I love both Adams and O’Keeffe, I had never considered their work side by side before. The 2009 exhibit, called “Natural Affinities”, showcased their different techniques and styles, but similar subject matter. The two artists were friends and discussed their work. After walking through the exhibit, I could see her art in his photos and his photos in her art.

I didn’t see anything on this second trip that impressed me as much as the Adams/O’Keeffe display in 2009. I did, however, learn something from one of the regular exhibits in the Norton. Rather than being led to reflect on how two very different artists collaborated, as I had been in 2009, this time I was struck by how one artist can explore different media to expand his or her creativity.

I knew that Edgar Degas often painted ballerinas and other dancers, and I was vaguely aware that he did some sculpting. But I never considered why he sculpted. According to information at the Norton, late in life, Degas created figurines for his own satisfaction, “not to take a rest from painting or drawing, but to give more expression, more spirit, and more life to my paintings and drawings. They are exercises to get me started.”

Here is Degas’s figurine “Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot”:

Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, at the Norton Museum of Art

Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, at the Norton Museum of Art

Moreover, I was not at all aware that Henri Matisse had also sculpted in addition to painting. In contrast to Degas, Matisse apparently used sculpting “as a respite from painting, to allow him to find solutions to creative problems.” (see placard in Norton Museum of Art)

In this sculpture of “The Dance”, Matisse was working on “how surfaces define form” and how to “accentuate qualities of light and shadow”:

Henri Matisse, The Dance, at the Norton Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, The Dance, at the Norton Museum of Art

I have never done any painting or sculpture, and the problems Degas and Matisse faced in their work are foreign to me. However, the figurines by Degas and Matisse led me to think about how writers sometimes explore different forms to discover an appropriate point of view and emotional intensity for their work.

One writer friend of mine is working on a memoir, which he started in the first person. When he had difficulty with that format, he began again in the third person, and is having a much easier time telling the story.

I did the same thing with a short essay once, writing it first in the third person, which seemed safer. Once I had worked out the emotions and the story arc, I converted it to first person.

I have known other writers who start their work as a poem, then shift to prose—and vice versa.

And novelists are often advised to write a diary or character sketch of their protagonist to develop backstory that may not ever end up in the novel, but which will enrich the character’s dialogue and internal thoughts.

The Norton provided me with one other “ah-ha!” moment. In a special exhibit of Polaroid pictures (I can’t call them “snapshots,” because many were artistic studies far beyond the quick pix most of us took in our living rooms in the 1970s), there was a large work by Matthew Brandt billed as an “analog equivalent of a digital portrait.” Each Polaroid picture is the equivalent of a “pixel” in today’s digital works.

Matthew Brandt, Polaroid exhibit, Norton Museum of Art

Matthew Brandt, Polaroid exhibit, at the Norton Museum of Art

The fascinating aspect of this work is that it looks better seen through a cellphone’s camera than it does in reality through the human eye. It didn’t look like much of anything when I stared at it on the wall, but through my cellphone, I could see the man with his Polaroid camera. Can you see the man and camera in this photo?

Like many things in life, the Brandt work requires a different perspective than we usually have to see what’s there. I try to make sense of my life through writing, but trips to museums like the Norton let me open my eyes and mind to new perspectives and learn more about myself and about the world.

When have your eyes been opened by a trip to a museum?

Is Life a Beach or Not?

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John D.  MacArthur Beach State Park, Florida

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, Florida

I’ve written before how much I love the ocean and how I count a year as good if I get to spend time on the beach. By that reckoning, 2014 should be shaping up to be a good one.

I spent a day in late February basking in 80 degree sunshine on the beach at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in Florida.

Mangrove roots in Biscayne National Park

Mangrove roots in Biscayne National Park

On our trip, my husband and I also watched pelicans as we ate conch fritters on Alabama Jack’s restaurant deck on our way north from Key Largo, canoed through mangroves at Biscayne National Park, and viewed Biscayne Bay from the Viscaya Museum & Gardens in Miami.

Viscaya Museum & Gardens, Miami

Viscaya Museum & Gardens, Miami

I wore shorts and t-shirts and sandals. No socks from the time I got off the airplane until the morning we headed home.

It was a good week. I shucked off the miasma of winter I’d been accruing since November.

Then we returned to winter in Kansas City. We froze as we stood outside the airport waiting for a taxi.

And less than a week after our return from Florida, we shoveled four inches of sleet and snow in single-digit temperatures with wind chills well below zero. The thermometer hit record lows for March.

Husband running snowblower in frigid cold and wind

Husband running snowblower in frigid cold and wind

If winter lasts much longer, maybe 2014 won’t be such a good year. My mood changes with the sunlight and temperature.

Spring has to come sometime, I tell myself every day. But I doubt even that truism, when the clouds loom low overhead and the wind slices through my heaviest coat.

By the time you read this post, maybe the latest polar vortex will have receded back to Canada. But I don’t think I’ll feel Florida’s warmth any time soon, except in my memories and photographs.

Still, spring has to come sometime. Doesn’t it?

How are you coping with our lengthy winter this year?

Everyone’s a Critic

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My husband and I recently returned from a week-long trip to Florida. I worked some on my writing, but mostly I drank up the sunshine and warmth. The respite from mid-western cold and snow was a much needed treat.

But during the week, I did have to face several critics. As a writer, I know about critics. The ones I saw last week, however, helped me reflect on the many varieties of criticism we face in life.

There are critics who sit around waiting for you to make a mistake. Like when you drop a sandwich crumb, which they are prepared to steal immediately.

gull cropped

There are critics who ignore you. These are the ones who turn their backs when you need help.

manatee cropped

There are critics who want only to hang you out to dry.

drying anhinga cropped

There are critics who add their own opinion to everything you say. Even when they’re just squawking.

anhinga cropped

And there are critics who ridicule your every effort. They also throw their weight around when you least expect it.

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Thank goodness, my critique groups don’t fit any of these categories.

What kind of critics do you face in your life?

My Blog Nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award

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versatile blogger awardThis is my week for blog chains. Monday I followed a tag by Juliet Kincaid, and today I am thanking Kate Loveton for nominating my blog for the Versatile Blogger award. Check out her blog, Odyssey of a Novice Writer.

Calling me “versatile” is something of a joke in our household. My family does not see me as being a particularly flexible person. Though “versatility” and “flexibility” are not necessarily the same thing. Maybe I am versatile, but inflexible.

One of the suggestions for nominees is that they tell their readers seven new things about themselves. I’ve done this once before after another nomination, but that was over a year ago, so here are seven more things about me, which all speak in one way or another to versatility.

  • I studied four languages in high school: English, French, German, and Russian, and continued to study French and Russian in college. My German and Russian vocabularies are almost all gone now, but I can still read 19th century French. (Twenty-first century French vocabulary is a challenge. There were no PCs or internet when I was in college.)
  • I grew up in Washington State, went to Middlebury College in Vermont, then went back west to Stanford Law School in California (intending to settle on the West Coast somewhere). But I met my husband at Stanford, he grew up in Missouri, and so we settled in Kansas City, where we have lived for almost 35 years.
  • I hate exercise, but I have hiked halfway around Mont Blanc.
  • I am conservative in most respects, but my son was a paid employee of the Obama campaign in 2008. He and I still talk to each other.
  • Although I am an introvert, I can speak reasonably well in front of large audiences. I have even introduced a former President of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (my administrative assistant at the time of her induction) to a crowd of thousands . . . or so it seemed from the stage.
  • I have had what I consider to be three careers in my life so far: Attorney for seventeen years, Human Resources executive for ten years, and writer for seven years and counting. Along the way, I have also been a mediator, board member, consultant, and volunteer.
  • My goal is to publish novels. However, I have written and published short stories, creative nonfiction, and even poetry. I have also published one novel (under a pseudonym), and I have two novels on the Oregon Trail in draft form, which I am currently editing.

I now nominate fifteen other blogs for the Versatile Blogger Award. In keeping with the theme of this award, the blogs listed below relate to one or more aspects of my versatile life. Please take a look at them.

  1. Morning Story and Dilbert—interesting anecdotes, plus Dilbert cartoons
  2. Baby Boomers and More—on all aspects of being a baby boomer, from humor to elder care
  3. Deborah Shouse Writes—This blog focuses on Deborah’s experiences as a caregiver for her mother who had dementia
  4. Beauty Through Imperfection—a 20-something Texan writes about parenting to encourage young mothers
  5. Leanne Shirtliffe, Ironic Mom—a humor writer writes about mothering, with frequent quips of “Things I Never Thought I’d Say As a Parent”
  6. Jill Weatherholt—a writer discusses writing and blogging
  7. Writer Site—a memoirist and poet writes about story, writing, and poetry
  8. Austenprose—thorough discussions of Austen’s  novels and today’s Austen-abilia
  9. Sarah Emsley—a Nova Scotia writer who blogs and Jane Austen and Edith Wharton
  10. The Bookshelf of Emily J.—writer Emily January blogs on books
  11. The Misfortune of Knowing—on books, writing, and the law
  12. HR Schoolhouse—Robin Schooling’s blog on human resources and workplace topics
  13. Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil—a blog about legal and workplace issues
  14. Willamette Valley Heritage Highlights—for lovers of Oregon history
  15. Sharon’s Meanderings—sharing everyday rural life in the Idaho backroads; a largely photographic blog

Please check out these bloggers. I’ve deliberately expanded my list beyond the blogs I listed before. But I still follow most of the blogs I listed then, so check those out, too, and also check out my blogroll.

For more about the Versatile Blogger Award, please see that blog’s home page.

How do you show versatility in your life?

Author’s Blog Chain

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I’ve been asked to participate in an Author’s Blog Chain this week, which gives me the opportunity to tell you more about my writing.

Juliet Kincaid, a Kansas author and member of the local Sisters in Crime chapter, tagged me on her blog, Juliet Kincaid, Writer. Juliet has recently written a series of cozy mysteries featuring Cinderella, P.I., as well as January Jinx, the first book in her new series of historical mysteries set in Kansas City around 1900. These are all available on Amazon.com.

Please check out Juliet’s blog or follow her on Facebook to find out more about her writing.

This author’s blog chain asks me to answer four questions.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently editing my two novels on the Oregon Trail. I have edited the first novel pretty thoroughly, but it probably needs one more edit to slim it down a little. I am spending most of my time now on the second novel in this series, and I’m just part way through this re-write. I’m working hard with a critique group and I’m focusing on plot development.

There is a third novel in this series, but it is still in my head. I may also write a novella about two of the supporting characters in my Oregon Trail series.

Family Recipe front cover finalI also plan to publish another anthology of my short stories, essays, and poems this spring—a follow-up to my Family Recipe anthology published in 2012.

Meanwhile, last October, I published another novel under a pseudonym—a contemporary thriller. It is completely different from my Oregon Trail books.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

In my first Oregon Trail novel, which focuses on a wagon company traveling the trail in 1847, I tried to be historically accurate, down to where the emigrants camped each night. I relied on old diaries of real emigrants that year to determine how far they traveled, where they stopped, and what they did along the way. Some of them went on sight-seeing trips away from the wagons to avoid another boring day of walking the trail. Some of those day trips made their way into my novel.

cropped-mc9001498821.jpgI used terrain maps to find the gullies and hills mentioned in the old diaries, but I’ve had to allow for the development of the land over the last 160+ years. Still, it is amazing how much one can learn from Google Maps! Many of today’s urban routes are still named “Emigrant Road” or some other designation showing that the pioneers passed that way.

The second book in my series has a broader sweep—encompassing events from 1848 through 1850 in both Oregon and California. My challenge in this book has been to make sure my chronology depicts accurate times for letters to reach from one territory to the other. At the same time, I have to be careful not to bore today’s audience used to instant communication through emails and texts. What else can happen while I wait for one character to learn what the other has been doing?

My novels are suitable for any audience from high school through adult. They could be used as an adjunct to a high school level American history class, as well as (I hope) telling a good story.

Why do you write what you write?

I am in awe of the courage it took our ancestors to travel thousands of miles to unknown lands, hoping for a better life for themselves and their children. The challenges of the Oregon Trail have caught my imagination because I have lived at both ends of the trail—now in Missouri, but I grew up in Oregon and Washington. I have traveled the trail backwards!

whitman_missionGrowing up, my family took several day trips to the Whitman Mission over the years. The frightful massacre of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and others at their mission scared me as a child. As I have researched and written these books on the Oregon Trail, I have discovered how complicated history can be when seen from multiple perspectives.

How does your writing process work?

The main characters in my novels have been in my head for over twenty years. But I find as I write their stories that they are not always who I thought they were. They put their own voices in my head, and sometimes move in directions I do not anticipate.

Because these books are historical fiction, I am bound by history. One of my main goals is to be historically accurate. But I also want to tell a good tale, to make my readers care what happens to these fictional emigrants.

When I began writing the first novel, I knew where and when in 1847 they left Independence, I knew when they would arrive at the Whitman Mission (before the Whitmans died), and approximately when they would arrive in Oregon. I knew the general route they took, but I had to make some decisions about particular short-cuts available in 1847—which route would they take?

Beyond that, I let the characters develop their conflicts. Some characters took over at certain points, and I let them run with it. Any time you put a group of people together, there is plenty of conflict!

For the second book, kind of like Forrest Gump, I had certain places I wanted one of my characters to be at a certain time—like when gold was discovered in California in 1848. I am working the plot around those incidents, but it is still a work in process. Sometimes it’s easy to set the chronology, and other times I have to really work at it.

* * *

Thank you for taking the time to read about my forthcoming novels. I’ve been blogging about them for two years now. Someday they will be ready for prime time, and you will be the first to know.

I am tagging another author to continue this author blog chain—Beth Lyon Barnett, author of another historical novel, Jazz Town, who blogs at Beth’s Everything Blog. I know she is hard at work on her second novel, and I hope she will tell you about it soon. Hop over to her blog to find out more about her work.

The Secret Is Out! News of Gold Spreads in California

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As I wrote last month, the California Gold Rush began in late January 1848 when James Marshall found gold on Johann Sutter’s land near what is now Sacramento, California. At the time, California was still owned by Mexico, though the U.S. Army controlled it, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was about to be signed, which would cede the land to the United States.

Colonel Richard Mason, from Wikipedia

Colonel Richard Mason, from Wikipedia

Johann Sutter wanted to cover all his bases. While he intended to focus on his lumbering and agricultural operations, he also wanted to be sure he had mineral rights to the land where the gold had been found before the news leaked out. In mid-February 1848, Sutter sent an emissary, Charles Bennett, to Monterey, where Colonel Richard Mason, the U.S. military governor of California, resided.

Charles Bennett had worked as a carpenter with James Marshall on Sutter’s Mill. He may have been present when the gold dust was first found at the mill site, and he claimed he was the first to see the glint of the precious metal.

Both Sutter and Marshall trusted Bennett, but it turned out he was the wrong man to keep a secret. Bennett told everyone he met along the way about the gold. Bennett stopped at a store in Benicia, about 100 miles from the gold find. The store was operated by Edward von Pfister and served as a hotel for travelers. Bennett showed the gold dust he was taking to Monterey to the other men present that evening, and many of the men in Benicia immediately left to search for gold around Sutter’s Mill.

Furthermore, Bennett’s attempt to secure the mineral rights for Sutter from Colonel Mason was unsuccessful. Because word of the treaty between Mexico and the United States still had not reached California, Colonel Mason told Bennett he couldn’t do anything for Sutter.

Later in 1848, after Colonel Mason toured the gold fields for himself, he sent a report to President Polk about the gold find. Polk’s mention of this report in his State of the Union address touched off the rush of the Forty-Niners to California.

Mormon Island, from Wikipedia

Mormon Island, from Wikipedia

But in the meantime, the Gold Rush was on in California. Other men in addition to those from Benicia were also prospecting near Sutter’s Mill. In early March 1848, Mormons working for Sutter on his mill discovered gold the rocks of a creek bed a few miles away from the mill. Later, this area became known Mormon Island. The Mormons told their news to a Mormon storekeeper, who sent the news to Samuel Brannan, a Mormon elder and newspaperman in San Francisco.

From that point, there was no way to keep the secret. In the 1840s, just as today, profitable commercial ventures cannot be kept quiet.

So by the time the news of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did reach California in August 1848, the Gold Rush was well underway—at least among men already in California. It was too late for Sutter to keep his secret.

When have you tried to keep a secret to no avail?

A Valentine’s Day Charm

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20140212_145138_resizedOn my last trip to visit my parents, my father and I were sorting through some of my mother’s belongings. She no longer needs her fancy clothes and jewelry, now that she lives in an assisted living facility because of her dementia. My father wanted my help in deciding what to give away and what to keep.

“Here,” my dad said. “You might as well take this.” He handed me a bracelet with a single heart-shaped charm. On one side in a pretty script, the charm read, “Mary” (my mother’s name). On the other side in block letters, it read “From Tommy” (my father’s nickname when he was young).

“I gave her that when we were in high school,” he continued. “It can’t be worth much. I didn’t have any money then.”

2014-02-12 14.53.38_resizedMy father didn’t tell me whether the bracelet was a Valentine’s Day or a birthday present or whether it was for some other occasion. Maybe he doesn’t remember. As I’ve written before, they started dating in high school. There were many possible occasions through their courtship for a young man to give his girlfriend a heart-shaped charm.

Despite its age, I had never seen this bracelet before. My mother never wore it that I remember. It is a girlish piece of jewelry, not suitable for wear either while doing housework or when dressed up for glamorous events. But even though it didn’t suit her life as she raised her children, she kept the bracelet and tucked it away with her more expensive jewelry. Clearly, it was precious to her—a gift from an earlier, innocent time.

I won’t ever wear the bracelet either. I, too, have no occasion to wear it, and there is no reason for me to wear a charm engraved with the names “Mary” and “Tommy”.

But I won’t throw it out. I’ll keep it with other family heirlooms. Why? Because it is a symbol of the love that brought me into the world and raised me. That I treasure.

My parents have been together now for over 65 years, and married for almost 59 of those years. My father visits my mother almost every day in her new residence, not liking to be away from her. “I miss the old gal,” he tells me.

Someday, when my children are cleaning out my belongings, they may wonder why I have this cheap bracelet. They will recognize the names on it as those of my parents, but it will have less meaning for them than for me.

As the generations pass, the significance of family mementoes passes, too. These keepsakes are only as valuable as the memories behind them. I write to preserve my family’s memories and to encourage my readers to preserve theirs as well.

A belated Happy Valentine’s Day to my favorite pair of lovebirds.

My Son, My Mother, and Hallmark Cards

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Several months ago I was cleaning out a drawer that should have been cleaned out long, long before. I found a file of greeting cards from the year my son was born. (I won’t say the year, but I will say he was born in mid-February, in the middle of a big snowstorm much like we have had in the Midwest recently.) I had forgotten all about the many cards he received from family and friends welcoming him into this world.

My son's first picture

My son’s first picture

I had also forgotten that my mother continued to send my son—her first grandchild—cards every month throughout his first year of life. But  I found them in the file. The first of her monthly missives was a St. Patrick’s Day card she sent that March, the second an Easter card in April, and so on throughout the year.

When there wasn’t a holiday for which Hallmark made greeting cards, she sent him a non-holiday Hallmark card with some cute character like Winnie the Pooh. We were big on Winnie the Pooh in our family.

She never sent anything but Hallmark cards, because I worked for Hallmark. Most of my relatives were conscientious about only sending Hallmark cards—at least to me.

My son fit in this bag the hospital put him in on Valentine's Day

My son fit in this bag the hospital put him in on Valentine’s Day

As I read through my mother’s cards to her grandson, I thought of how much had changed since the cards were sent. My son, of course, has changed. He has grown from baby into adult and now towers over me.

Both my mother and I had great hopes for that small boy. Many of our dreams have been fulfilled. He is smart and independent and full of good humor. He may not call as often as I would like, but he stays in contact. When we do talk, he is as full of his work issues as I was with mine at his age—maybe more so, because he does not have a spouse or a child to distract him from work, as I did then.

But though our dreams for my son have blossomed, my mother wouldn’t remember those greeting cards she sent so long ago, nor the hopes she expressed to her eldest grandchild. She still professes to remember my son when I see her and tell her about my children. But she can no longer read and no longer even write her name. Her dementia has taken her love of reading and writing away from her.

I have thought of sending my mother greeting cards regularly, as she sent them to my son when he was a baby. I have sent her a few in the year she has been in assisted living. But I don’t know that she would understand why I was sending the cards.

Maybe it wouldn’t matter whether she understands or not, any more than it mattered to that baby boy so long ago why his grandmother sent him cards. Maybe the cards are as much for the sender as for the recipient—an expression of love and of memories.

Happy Birthday, Son, from your mother . . . and from your grandmother.

My Grandfather’s Quest for Sulfa

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I didn’t know my grandfathers as well as my grandmothers. Maybe it’s natural for a girl to spend more time with her grandmothers. Maybe it’s because both my grandmothers had more forceful personalities than their husbands, my grandfathers.

My maternal grandfather died when I was not quite ten, but I had lived with my maternal grandparents for a few months as a toddler, and I visited those grandparents often. So I knew him as the dour businessman I have described before.

My paternal grandfather and my brother -- note the footie pajamas (though these are pink, so they may be hand-me-downs from my sister)

My paternal grandfather and my brother — note the footie pajamas (though these are pink, so they may be hand-me-downs from my sister)

My paternal grandfather didn’t die until I was in college, but he was probably the grandparent I knew the least. According to my father, his dad was a born salesman and marketer. I remember him being a traveling salesman for Carter’s and other children’s products, and we were always well supplied with footie pajamas in my youth. I knew my grandfather had a good sense of humor, or at least he teased us frequently.

But I don’t know many stories about him as a child or young man, so I enjoyed hearing a story from my father a few years ago—a story I had never heard before.

From birth until about age six, my father lived with his parents and younger sister in the small town of Pratt, Kansas, where my grandfather managed the downtown Woolworth’s store. In 1938, when he was five, my father developed rheumatic fever (which is caused by a strep infection), rickets (caused by vitamin deficiencies), and pneumonia in both lungs—all at the same time. He was hospitalized, and the doctors were not encouraging about my father’s chances.

His father—my paternal grandfather—did not accept the doctors’ opinion. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” he asked them angrily.

“Well, there’s a doctor in Wichita who’s doing some tests with a new drug.”

My grandfather drove the 80 miles to Wichita to get the drug.

And that’s how my father came to be the second person in Kansas to take sulfa.

0198529171.sulfonamide.1Bayer AG had started experimenting with sulfa in 1932, and sulfa quickly became a miracle drug, stopping many bacterial infections cold. The drug was the first medicine to deal effectively with strep, and presumably wiped out both my father’s rheumatic fever and the pneumonia.

But my father may have been lucky yet again. Not all of the early sulfa medications were safe. In 1937, over 100 people were poisoned with a sulfa derivative that contained the same chemical as anti-freeze. The problem was first discovered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, although the fatal drug was sold across the nation and took much detective work to track down. That disaster led to adoption of the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act in 1938.

Maybe it’s a good thing Pratt was closer to Wichita than to Tulsa.

My personal experience with sulfa drugs was not as pleasant as my father’s. I took a sulfa medication when I was in law school, and I broke out in huge hives all over my body. I itched so much that I was willing to live on antihistamines for several days until the sulfa was out of my system.

My law school classes could wait.

I haven’t touched the stuff since.

In fact, even eating foods preserved with sulfites these days make my skin crawl. I’m told that sulfa allergies and sulfite allergies are different things, but they make me feel the same.

Nevertheless, despite my personal aversion to sulfa, it is quite possible that I am here today because my grandfather insisted on getting the miracle medicine for his son almost 75 years ago. So I must be grateful for sulfa drugs and for a father’s tenacity in curing his child.

What stories do you have of heroes in your family?

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