The Importance of Brag Files—My Father’s and My Own


, , , , , , , ,

1988ish TTC Greenie 20150308_132747During my first visit to my father’s house after his death, I reviewed all the papers in his office. There were at least six file drawers, plus a two-shelf cupboard, plus two plastic boxes under a desk—all crammed full of neatly labeled folders, and all the folders were stuffed with papers.

I packed about six inches worth of the most important papers to take with me back to Kansas City—information I thought most critical for estate administration. I moved about three boxes worth of files to my sister’s house, where she could send me things if I needed them.

The rest, I decided, could wait—and I would throw out most of it, I was certain.

A couple of months later I made another visit. The purpose of this trip was to empty the house of anything the family might want, prior to an estate sale.

As part of our project, my siblings and I tackled our father’s garage. Suspended on shelves over the cars were about twenty more boxes—all crammed full. Old tax returns and brokerage statements. Pictures . . . and more pictures. And a large plastic box containing clippings and correspondence and pictures about my dad’s career—his “brag” file, as it turned out.

We should all have brag files. We should all keep mementos that bring to mind what we have accomplished in life, that help us reflect on the value we have created in this world, and that show us in the light we want to be remembered.

After we cleaned out the garage, I took over 100 pounds of paper to OfficeMax to be shredded. But the box of Dad’s work papers I moved to my sister’s house. On my next trip, I went through the box.

As I read what Dad had kept from a career that spanned from 1955 until about 2003, I found my father in ways I hadn’t known him before. I’d known of his activities, even of some of the milestones in his career. But I had not known how others viewed him, nor how he viewed himself. This file revealed some of these things about my father.

1995 ANS fellow 20150308_131835My father was a fellow in the American Nuclear Society. For people who work in the nuclear industry, that’s a big deal. I knew he’d received this honor, but seeing all the articles about him at the time brought it home to me. And I saw photos for the first time of my father with nuclear industry colleagues from countries around the world.

I also found pictures of him with his classmates at the Harvard Business School Executive MBA program he attended—something he was very proud of. He’d attained technical knowledge with his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, but he relished acquiring the broader business background as well.

As he approached retirement, my father was a loaned executive from Battelle Pacific-Northwest Laboratories to what is now Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington. He built the science department at Heritage, where most of the students are first-generation college attendees from Native American and Hispanic families in the area. I learned how these students and his faculty felt about him.

None of these accomplishments relate to memories I have of my father, but they are facets of him that I am glad to have found. They enrich my understanding of the man I knew. They teach me that we are all more than even those closest to us can understand or appreciate.

I, too, have kept “brag” files. Many of my documents ended up in boxes I stashed in our basement. My husband decided several years ago he didn’t want this stuff in the house, so he moved them to a storage unit. Over the years, we ended up with about thirty boxes in that storage unit. Old tax returns and brokerage statements. Pictures . . . and more pictures. And several boxes containing files from my career.

The cost of this storage unit increased far faster than inflation. The space suffered water damage a couple years ago. My husband has another enclosed facility now where he keeps his boat; that place has shelving that could hold some extra boxes. And so it became time to deal with the contents of the old storage unit.

A couple of weeks ago, I screwed up my courage to examine what we had. (It took courage because I was sure there’d be spiders amongst the files.) I found that because of the water damage, most of the papers were useless. We took the bulk of the thirty boxes to an industrial shredding facility, where, for $32.50, all our records were securely destroyed. For that price, it was easier to shred everything than determine what was confidential and what was not.

In a matter of hours, a lifetime was gone, including many of my career files, which had been on the bottom of the stacks and suffered the most damage.

A lifetime, gone. And I have been mourning it. Not because this stuff was intrinsically valuable, but because the loss felt like a loss of self. The value was in what I remembered about the creation and receipt of the documents. The value was in the glimpses into myself and others which they revealed. The value was in the tangible proof that I and my work meant something to others.

I brought four of the boxes home. One has some framed pictures, a few of which may be salvageable. One has old computer stuff that couldn’t be shredded, most of which will probably go in the trash or to a local recycling facility. And two boxes contain some old work and personal correspondence, which I will review, hoping to glean a few pieces to retain.

For example, the sole remaining copies of my law review note, as well as copies of U.S. Supreme Court briefs I wrote. And the letter my sister wrote me when she was in middle school, which she signed “R___ the Great”. And other letters from my mother, who left no brag file other than the family she raised.

Yes, I’ll go through these boxes hoping to salvage at least a few reminders of my life.

So keep your brag files. Keep them safe. They probably mean something to you, and maybe they’ll mean something to your loved ones in the future.

What do you wish you had retained that got thrown out?

Book Review: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx


, , , , , , ,

barkskins coverI’ve seen several reviews of Barkskins, by Annie Proulx, that compare her book to James Michener’s epics. The comparison is apt, and I felt the similarities myself. But her saga of the development of forestry in North America was more like Michener’s later works, not his earlier, stronger novels. It was history, thinly covered with a layer of story.

For the first hundred pages or so, I wanted to enjoy this book. It had a lot of things I like—a sense of history, factual information about the lumber industry that could learn from, and a sweeping narrative about the settling of the New World. But after trying for one hundred pages (of 700), I decided all I could do was slog through it. And I did make it to the end.

Michener depicted places over long periods of history. He often began with the land before human habitation, starting his books even eons before men arrived. Proulx doesn’t quite begin with the forest primeval, but she does begin with white men’s arrival in the New World in the 1600s.

In a nutshell, here’s the plot (no real spoilers): At the outset of Barkskins, two indentured Frenchmen are brought to Canada to chop down trees for their master. One man, Charles Duquet (who changes his name to Duke), escapes, and the other, Rene Sel, serves his time. Each man survives, and the book follows the Duke and Sel families through more than three hundred years of North American development. Both families remain associated with the logging industry as it progresses through time. Their fortunes rise and fall. Through the novel, Proulx delivers a polemic on the destruction of forests and its impact on both Native American and white cultures through the centuries.

As I read, I kept thinking I should like this book. My grandfather worked in the lumber industry in Oregon, producing machine parts for sawmills from about 1940 until the early 1960s. I should have appreciated the descriptions of the labor and machinery needed to get logs from forests to the mills.

I remember many drives through the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes we saw denuded forests, slow trucks bearing logs with circumferences larger than I was tall, and booms of logs floating down rivers. On other trips I saw virgin stands of towering trees, second growth almost ready for harvest, and miles and miles of mountains covered in trees. I should have liked Proulx’s depiction of scenes I remember from my youth. (The Pacific Northwest is somewhat different than Maine and French Canada of the 1700s, but the sense of limitless forest—though it is in fact limited—must be similar.)

I’ve seen the impact of the logging industry. I know it has built the New World for better and for worse, at great profit and at great loss. While I’m not a true preservationist, I understand the idiocy of those who thought the forests were infinite—one of the main points of Proulx’s book.

But despite all these aspects of my background that should have given me reasons to enjoy Barkskins, I just didn’t like it. Despite my enthusiasm at the beginning of the novel, despite trying desperately for 100 pages, I just couldn’t like the characters.

What I like best about historical fiction is when an author creates a sense of real people in a real time. I admire Proulx’s research. Her depiction of woodcutting and processing over centuries is detailed and, I assume, accurate. But I had little sense of where the plot was in the larger scheme of world events. The characters barely dealt with the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the World Wars of the 20th Century—all of which must have had an impact on the commerce she describes.

I loved Michener’s The Source and Hawaii. Both novels had a sense of history, of the sweep of development. And they had strong characters that I cared about. By contrast, the characters in Barkskins felt manipulated, like the author created them only as archtypes to make a point, not to tell a story. I felt like Proulx was a deus ex machina pulling the puppet strings of her characters.

Now, as an author, I know that all characters are manipulated by their creators. But good writing makes this manipulation seem organic, invisible to the reader. In Barkskins, I felt like the characters existed only to serve her soapbox, not to give readers insight into the human frailties that lead to misconceptions and mistakes such as real people make.

I read an article in which Proulx spoke of her own family history in North America, which began with a French ancestor brought to the forests of Canada. Again, I admire her fortitude in researching the long history of woodsmen in Canada and the Northern U.S. The Duke and Sel family trees through the generations were detailed and sprawling. But I didn’t feel her connection to these people any more than I developed a connection with them myself.

Proulx’s prose can be beautiful. But every character has a different gruesome way to die. Arrows. Limbs lost. Fire. Cholera. Consumption. There are a few murders. When she was ready to move on, she killed off another character. I quit caring how they died, ready to move on myself.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was another novel with beautiful writing. I wrote earlier that the only character I cared about in that saga was the painting. In Barkskins, I didn’t even care about the forests.

Barkskins is dark, with hardly a moment of humor in it. Proulx’s novel The Shipping News was also dark, but I didn’t feel my emotions manipulated in that book. In The Shipping News, I felt I was looking in the window at people with very real problems. In Barkskins, I felt I was looking down on them from Mars.

Part of my problem with Barkskins is that I am not a fan of the omniscient narrator who sits above the characters, seeing into one’s head and then another’s. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded if she chose to tell her story through one character per generation, but she sometimes moved from head to head from one paragraph to the next. I even caught a few places where she was in two heads in one paragraph. This technique added to my feeling that I was being manipulated.

In short, this polemic didn’t need to be over 700 pages to make the point that denuding forests, in the belief that they are unlimited, was stupid. And it needed more humanity to care about.

When have you been disappointed by a novel you really wanted to read?

Embrace Your Geekness Day


, , , , , ,

Embrace Your Geekness DayAccording to the Days of the Year website, July 13 is “Embrace Your Geekness Day.” The point, the site says, is that we have to be a little geeky in today’s world, and on Embrace Your Geekness Day, we are told to go “show the world how intelligent, technically savvy and clever you really are!”


I admit it, I’ve always been a geek. Since about the time the word was invented. (The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “geek,” meaning to people without social graces and who are obsessed with new technology and computers, began to be used in about 1983).

My experience of being “without social graces” dates back longer than 1983, but as a kid I was never obsessed with technology. I didn’t have to have the latest stereo equipment or tape deck. I didn’t have a fancy calculator, because I stopped math after Algebra II. I did learn how to use a slide rule, but I used one of my father’s—I didn’t have a shiny new one.


An IBM XT – remember these?

But once I saw the utility of computers, I was hooked as a geek. I was one of only two attorneys in my legal group to use a word processor. I taught myself how to use it in 1982 or 1983. By 1984, I had moved on to an early PC, and I bought my first PC for home use in 1985.

Back in that era, I knew as much about PCs as the Hallmark “Management Information Systems” group—the predecessor of the IT folks. They had all built their careers on mainframes and were slow to see the utility of these picayune desktop machines. I, however, was all in favor of anything that permitted the cutting and pasting of words, rather than retyping. If learning DOS was a requirement to make the thing work reliably, then I would learn DOS.

WordPerfect 5.1 and Grandview were my favorite programs. With them, I could do anything with words—from outline to finished brief to a macro-generated project list. I still think Grandview is a better outlining program than Scrivener, though Scrivener has other advantages for writers. The worst part of one of my job changes was the overnight transition from WordPerfect to Word. Thank goodness I didn’t have to write as much in the new job.

I was a lousy typist back in the mid-80s. The clerical staff in my group laughed at how I typed all in caps (easier than shifting) and at the frequent errors I made. I relied on them to do my real typing. I only typed documents that would never be made public.

Over time, however, I improved at typing. While I’m still not that accurate, I can draft and edit on a screen better than I ever thought possible thirty years ago.

But I’ve lost my understanding of PCs. Now, I have only a slim notion of what makes my computer work. I can troubleshoot a lot of things, but only by Googling the error message and following instructions.

I’ve made every error possible, lost many documents, crashed a couple of hard drives. But I’m not afraid of computers as so many people are. What’s the worst that can happen? I lose my novel-in-progress? It’s backed up.

I hope.

How do you display your inner geekness?

The Summer of ’64: Pacific Grove


, , , , , , , , , , ,

PG house 1963

My grandparents’ house in Pacific Grove, 1963

I’ve mentioned spending summers with my grandparents in Pacific Grove, California. It seemed like I spent several idyllic summers there, but there really weren’t that many.

Only twice did my brother and I spend long vacations with our grandparents. In 1963 we spent a month there, but our mother was with us, so that didn’t really count. In 1964, my brother and I were there by ourselves for a month. In the summer of 1967 we spent a week or two there, but our mother and toddler sister accompanied us. There was a Christmas trip to Pacific Grove also, but since it was too cold to go to the beach then, that didn’t really count.

PG view 1963

The view from my grandparents’ living room, of the Pacific Ocean and the golf course where my grandfather played

So really, when I think of spending summers in Pacific Grove, most of my memories come from the summer of 1964, when I was eight and my brother not quite seven.

Our dad drove us from our home in Richland, Washington, to Portland, Oregon. The interstate highway along the Columbia River was under construction, and the drive was long and slow, but we saw lots of waterfalls cascading from the hills above us toward the river.

After spending the night with my dad’s parents in Vancouver, Washington, my brother and I flew all by ourselves from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco. (It wasn’t our first trip on an airplane—we’d flown from Pasco, Washington, to Portland the summer before.) After our solo flight, our grandparents picked us up in San Francisco and drove us to Pacific Grove, about 90 minutes away.

And then we had four weeks on the beach before our grandparents drove us home to Richland.

T in PG 1964

Me, dressed for church in Pacific Grove, in 1964. We didn’t get to go to the beach on Sundays.

What was so wonderful about that summer of ’64 was how unstructured and undisciplined our time was. Papa Gene, our grandfather, was strict, but he was away playing golf most days. Nanny Winnie, our grandmother, loved the ocean. She took us to the beach almost every day. Pacific Grove had—and still has—a sheltered cove with a public beach. I’ve been back in recent years, and the stone alcove where Nanny Winnie and her beach buddies sat is still there.

We built sandcastles with ocean moats, wondering why they never lasted from day to day. We swam in the water and body surfed in the waves, though we were supposed to stay where we could touch the bottom. (Sometimes we ventured out farther.) We caught hermit crabs and took them home in our plastic buckets, but even in a pailful of sea water with a little sand and seaweed they died by the next morning.

Lovers Point Park Beach PG

Beach in Pacific Grove, showing stone alcove where my grandmother sat, and on the right, the stone jetty for glass-bottomed boats

We stayed on the beach until we were hot, sandy, and cranky, and then we had to trudge the three or four blocks back to our grandparents’ house, with our heavy pails sloshing against our legs on the days we caught hermit crabs.

Back in Richland, things were changing without us. My parents had a second telephone installed—it was so weird to talk to them both at the same time when they called long-distance on Sundays. But what annoyed me the most was the things that changed that they didn’t tell us about—like adding carpet to the stairs to the basement, which was a surprise when I returned. I wanted my world to stay the same while I was gone. Even then, I thought I should be consulted about such things. Or at least informed.

The biggest change was in my mother. I knew she was pregnant when we left, but when we returned in late August, about a week before school started, she had this big round ball in her belly. My sister was born in mid-September 1964, just a few weeks later.

In wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my brother and I had probably been shipped off to our grandparents not for our amusement, but because of my mother’s pregnancy. She had had several miscarriages between 1960 and 1964, and this pregnancy with my sister was not an easy one. Having us gone meant she didn’t have any childcare responsibilities for a month and could rest. And deal with new telephones and carpeted stairs.

I never talked to my parents about why they sent us to stay with our grandparents, but I’m sure that’s why we spent so long in Pacific Grove that summer. But I saw no reason to feel any resentment about being sent away. My parents, my brother, and I all benefited, and I have wonderful memories. Pacific Grove is still one of my favorite places on earth.

What have you realized as an adult about your childhood that you didn’t know then?

Busted! by Ghostbusters (1984)


, , , , ,

ghostbusters 1984 posterI don’t have any particular desire to see the Ghostbusters movie which just opened, but the trailers and reviews that I’ve been seeing bring back memories of the first Ghostbusters movie, released in 1984. My husband and I did see that movie.

We’ve always liked movies—our first date was to a movie, though I can’t remember now what it was (I think he remembers). We spent many a weekend evening at the movies, both before and after we were married.

Right after we were married, when we were still in law school, we often arrived at the last minute and found that the theater was sold out. Mind you, it was my husband’s doing that we were late. To this day, he hates to get to the theater before show time.

Back in law school, when we couldn’t get into the show we wanted, we converted our date evening to a trip to the grocery store. Not very romantic, but, hey, we needed food.

I recall a time or two in Kansas City when we ended up at the grocery store instead of the movie also. It hasn’t happened in years, because I keep the pantry better stocked. Now we just go back home, disappointed.

Once our son was born, our movie nights dwindled. Getting a babysitter on a weekend evening was too much trouble. We didn’t have a VCR yet, though occasionally we rented both VCR and movie.

But then a friend with small kids suggested we try drive-ins. “The kids sleep right through it,” she told me. “Just take them in their pajamas. It’s great.”

The drive-in movies started later than we wanted, but we could put our baby in the back of our station wagon. Or just leave him in his car seat. He could sleep anywhere.

We never worried about the movie’s rating. We went to any movie we wanted to see—sex, violence, it didn’t matter, our son slept right through it. When we got home, my husband carried him up to bed, and he didn’t even budge.

During the summer of 1984, our son was two years old—almost two-and-a-half. Ghostbusters was a blockbuster movie that year. It wasn’t really the type of flick I like, but it was a big drive-in hit. I figured I could tolerate a funny action movie. It was rated PG, so I didn’t think there’d be too much gore.

So Ghostbusters was the first drive-in movie we went to in 1984. Just like we had the two years before, we bundled up our son and his lovey (which he called “Boppy”) and headed across town to the drive-in. We parked, set up the speaker, and settled in for an amusing movie.

“Go to sleep,” we told him. “Boppy’s right here. Just lie down and go to sleep.”

He sat up watching the previews.

“Lie down,” we said, when the main attraction came on. “Go to sleep.”

He sat transfixed.

I worried about the sexual banter, but figured he wouldn’t understand the PG repartee. No big deal.

The green blobby guys showed up. The gargoyles burst into real monsters. The terror dogs roamed wild. Women were possessed.

Our son watched it all. Bug-eyed, he watched it all.

I thought he’d be scared, but he didn’t seem to be. Just star-struck. I could tell the Ghostbusters were going to supplant Superman and Batman as his heroes of choice.

Finally the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man climbed the building, and the good guys blasted away. Marshmallow bits rained down, and civilization was saved.

Our son was still awake at the end. None of our entreaties to go to sleep during the two-hour movie had had any influence.

And that was the last drive-in movie we went to until our children were pre-teens. We bought a VCR the next year.

For years, our son roamed the neighborhood with his pals, all chanting the mantra, “Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!”

What parenting mistakes have you made?

Flags and Foreboding


, , , , , , ,

US flag toyFor the Fourth of July when I was seven, someone gave my brother (who was almost six) and me U.S. flags—one for each of us. Each flag was about 12 inches by 18 inches, and it was stapled to a thin dowel about two feet long. The dowel had a pointed tip at the top above the flag, and the tip was painted gold.

My brother and I waved those flags around the house, marching as we waved like we were in a parade, to the consternation of our mother. We had moved into a new house the preceding October, and many things in the house still seemed brand new.

“Keep those things out of the living room,” Mother said. “I don’t want you knocking over a lamp.” She had a firm rule against any roughhousing in the living room.

So we moved our game to my bedroom, which was bigger than my brother’s room and had more floor space. I had new twin beds in the room, with new blue and white checked bedspreads that fell in ruffles from the top of the mattress to the floor. And matching custom-made curtains on the two windows. It was the first room I’d ever had to myself (well, the first since my brother was born, and I didn’t remember a time before he was around). He and I had shared a bedroom until we moved into this house.

We waved the flags and marched around my room until that got boring. Then the flags became spears. I don’t know whose idea the spears were, probably my brother’s, because he was more bellicose than I was.

We didn’t poke each other with the flag-spears, which is an amazing thing, given that we got into regular physical fights as kids. Those fights lasted until he got to be as big as me, when I rationally decided that punching and kicking didn’t make any sense if I couldn’t count on winning. But on this day in July, after a few half-hearted jabs at each other, we realized someone might get hurt by the pointed tips.

So we jabbed the bed, starting with the bed I slept in.

And my new bedspread tore. The tip went right through the cotton into side of the soft mattress, creating a rent about two inches long. It was deep in the ruffles and couldn’t be seen at first glance, but I was sure Mother would find it when she changed my sheets.

We stood stunned, flags in hand, staring at the bedspread. “Don’t tell,” I said.

My brother looked at me with wide eyes. “I won’t,” he said.

After a few minutes of chastened silence, we were back to jabbing—at the other bed this time.

And, of course, the same thing happened—the flag tip went through the other bedspread and created an almost identical tear.

“I don’t want to do this any more,” I said.

My brother shrugged, took his flag, and went off to his own room, leaving me with the evidence.

And I waited day after day, week after week, for my mother to find the rips in the bedspreads. Every wash day I cringed, sure that that would be the day she would start shrieking at the destruction we had wrought.

I couldn’t eat out of worry. I picked at meal after meal. I couldn’t even eat my dad’s pancakes.

My parents grew worried. “Eat,” they urged.

“I don’t feel good,” I whined.

Finally, one Sunday morning, I retched at the sight of pancakes, left the breakfast table in tears, and ran into my bedroom.

My dad followed me. “What’s wrong, Theresa?”

And I sobbed as I confessed that my brother and I had torn holes in the bedspreads. I showed him first one rip and then the other. He didn’t seem too bothered.

He called my mother in, and I had to tell the tale all over again. I think she was mostly disgusted that I’d made such a big deal about it. “Well, you’ll have to live with it,” she said. “We aren’t getting new ones.”

I hiccuped and nodded.

“But we can switch the spreads so the tears are against the walls.”

And that’s she did. Those bedspreads lasted for years—until well after my younger sister, not even born at the time, inherited that bedroom and its furnishings.

When did you overreact to a problem as a child?

Read Local Kansas City


, , , , , ,

Most people are familiar with the “buy local” movement. There’s also a trend now toward getting readers to “read local”. Just as buying local” helps consumers find fresh vegetables, unique clothes and jewelry, and original home decor, “reading local” lets readers discover authors with fresh new voices and intriguing tales right in their neighborhood. If you like to buy local artwork and crafts, why wouldn’t you look into buying local books?

From my perspective as an independent author, it makes sense to promote “reading local.” My novel, Lead Me Home, is about travel on the Oregon Trail. The Kansas City area was one of the major “jumping off” points for emigrants to the West, and it feels natural for me to engage with Kansas City readers about our local history when promoting my book.

Also, I have fun sharing my novel Lead Me Home at book signings and with book clubs. These events are easiest to arrange with audiences close to home. I know there are lots of readers in the Kansas City community who would enjoy reading and discussing my story about the Oregon Trail.

To support the “read local” initiative, I’m a part of two groups trying to connect authors and readers in local communities across the nation.

RLKC banner pic

Read Local Kansas City

RLKC profile picThe first group is a new Facebook page Read Local Kansas City. This page was created for Kansas City readers, but it is open to everyone on Facebook. It is sponsored by a group of local Kansas City writers. The page is designed to engage readers in discussions about reading and help them discover books and events in our community.

I hope readers of this blog will “like” the Read Local Kansas City page, whether you live in the Kansas City area or not. You’ll hear from authors, librarians, and others involved in the literary community, and get notice on events of interest to readers.

I’m the “In the Spotlight” author on Read Local Kansas City this week, so head on over there to see what I’ve written about my novel.


Read Local Kansas City is just one piece of the bigger movement toward “reading local”. A new website,, is showcasing local writers and their books in communities around the U.S. They recently added Kansas City to their list of cities.

I’m biased, but I think the Kansas City page is beautiful. Several of my writer friends have books featured on this page, but I’ve already discovered authors in our community that I hadn’t known before.

Readers, I hope you’ll browse through the site—the Kansas City page and all the other pages as well.

Writers, if your community is already featured on, you might want to sign up and publicize one of your books. If your community is not featured, get a group of writer friends together to get your location added to

* * * * *

My question this week is directed to readers:

What events about books and reading are you most likely to attend, and how would you like to learn about these events?

A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: It’s Okay to Stop


, , , , , ,

2013-2 LSCHristmasBuffet046 (touched up)

The last picture of my mother

The last time I saw my mother was in mid-June 2014—just over two years ago. That was the trip during which she spit out the Communion host, which I then had difficulty disposing of. This week-long visit gave me my last memories of my mother before she died.

Mother had been hospitalized for a gallbladder issue the week before I visited. Surgery to remove her gallbladder was not an option because her physical and mental disabilities would not allow her to cooperate in the post-surgical care. So, while her infection had been healed, she wasn’t eating much and was physically frail. Moreover, her mental acuity had ratcheted down even further, which often happens when Alzheimer’s patients get ill. She was not well.

Every morning during my trip, my father and I went to see her in the dementia care facility where she lived. Dad liked to be there when Mother was brought to the dining room for breakfast. She couldn’t feed herself any more, and his daily routine included feeding her breakfast, then sitting with her for an hour or two.

On the first or second morning I was there, Dad left Mother and me in the dining room and went to talk to one of the staff. Mother had barely touched her breakfast, so I continued to try to feed her.

“How about a bite of pancake?” I suggested, placing a piece on a fork against her lips. I coaxed her to eat. She rejected the food or took a bite and then didn’t chew it.

She kept saying, “It’s too much.”

Did she mean the pancakes? I asked her what was too much.

“Stuff,” she said. I couldn’t get her to explain any further.

A bit later, she said, “I can’t take it any more.” And she told me she was tired.

“What can’t you take?”

“You know. It.”

Because her verbal abilities were so limited, she couldn’t explain what she meant. I didn’t know whether she was expressing normal fatigue, whether she didn’t want any more breakfast, or whether she was trying to tell me she was ready to die. I suspected the last, and I didn’t know what to say.

Mother repeated similar comments throughout my week-long visit.

“It’s too much.”

“I can’t take it any more.”

And she shook her head when I asked her to explain further.

It seemed like she was telling me she was done with her struggle, that she was ready to let go of life. But I didn’t know whether to ignore what she was saying or whether to soothe her with promises everything would be all right.

Or whether to tell her it was all right not to fight any more, that it was all right if she wanted to slip into death.

I wanted to tell her it was okay to die. I wanted to tell her we would miss her, but if she was ready, she should go. I wanted to tell her I loved her, and I didn’t want to see her tired and in pain. Her quality of life was poor, and her family’s love should not keep her in a struggle she did not want.

“It’s okay to stop,” I wanted to tell her. “If you can’t take it any more, it’s okay to let go.”

But if all she wanted was a nap, then how could I tell her any of this?

So I said nothing.

When I left to go back to my home halfway across the country, I kissed her cheek. “Good-bye,” I said. “I love you.” I wasn’t planning to return for several months, and I thought I was probably seeing her for the last time.

The week after I left, my father placed her into palliative care. Two weeks after that, she died, and I returned to help my father with her funeral and other plans.

I’m sure now that she’d been trying to tell me she was finished. And I wish I’d told her it was okay.

When have you left something unsaid you wish you had said?

Gambling with Gold: Vice in San Francisco in 1849


, , , , , , , , , ,

As I continue to research and edit my work-in-progress about the early years of the California Gold Rush, I recently found some interesting first-person accounts in A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, edited by William Benemann (1999).

Some of the more fascinating information concerned the construction of gambling houses in San Francisco and the events that occurred in these great halls. (Of course, this may only be fascinating to me, because some of the scenes in my novel take place in a saloon, which I also have functioning as a brothel. I want the scenes to be historically correct and also to feel familiar to readers, who get their perceptions from Hollywood. Sometimes history and Hollywood differ, and then I need to make choices.)

Saloons opened everywhere in San Francisco as soon as the miners arrived. Some were constructed of fine wood buildings, others were ten foot by ten foot tents.

San Francisco Plaza, 1864, with Bella Union in the upper right corner

San Francisco Plaza, 1864, with Bella Union in the upper right corner

The Palmer House and Bella Union were the largest gambling houses in San Francisco in 1849, both built on the Plaza in the center of town. Both were wood-frame buildings, but their interior walls were largely canvas. Despite this meager construction, inside the buildings contained fine furniture and oil lamp chandeliers. They offered loud music, imported liquor, and beautiful women to the miners who patronized them. They were the social centers of town.

Prostitution flourished in the gambling halls and saloons. In 1848, the year gold was discovered in California, Benemann’s book reports that 700 prostitutes arrived in San Francisco, mostly from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. A top prostitute could make $200-500/night, though Latinas made less than those of U.S. or European descent.

Saloon owners either offered a free room in exchange for percentage of the woman’s income, or they rented her a room outright. But the prostitutes kept most of their profit in the early years of the Gold Rush, before the saloon owners began exploiting them. Even the most destitute women could own their own brothel or saloon within a few months—the Miss Kitty character of Gunsmoke was not so far-fetched.

By October 1849, San Francisco had become so rough and disorderly that the more “refined” women who came to California said that it was “madness” to travel to San Francisco without a husband for protection. The gambling halls and saloons did not close on Sunday—as one woman wrote, there was no respect for the Sabbath.

Although they must have seemed ornate to prospectors returning to town from the mines, the saloons and gambling houses were sometimes violent establishments. On December 14, 1849, a man was stabbed to death in the Bella Union. Once his murderer was identified, a $1000 reward was offered for the man’s arrest.

The goal of the prospectors, of course, was to get rich. Many men found wealth in the mines, then came to town and lost all their money. Gamblers won and lost thousands of dollars at a time. The monte tables had $2000-5000 on them all evening long. I read of one man who made $23,500 in four months in the mines, then spent it all in San Francisco in five nights. Another man lost $30,000.

Some men were complacent about their losses, and simply returned to the gold fields to find more. But suicides were frequent after men lost their fortunes gambling.

The gamblers were so prevalent in town, and the stakes they played with were so high, that they effectively set the rents and other prices in San Francisco. In September 1849, rent for good lodgings could be as high as $1800/month.

Fire was another danger. On December 24, 1849, a fire started in the Dennison Exchange, which was a gambling house. Other similar establishments that burned in that fire included the Parker House (one of largest hotels in town), the El Dorado, the Haley House and Bella Union. One observer wrote that it looked like the whole city was burning—there were no fire engines or ladders available.

San Francisco’s Plaza filled with men and the goods they were trying to salvage. Even the gold and silver stored in these buildings melted, and neighboring buildings were blown up to stop the fire. Restaurants gave away their wine for free before blowing up their sites. Merchants hauled their safes and large sacks of gold dust to the Custom House, which was fire-proof. (I’ve written another post about the frequent fires in San Francisco in this era.)

One of my surprises in doing my research was learning that enterprises called “exchanges” had nothing to do with commerce—or at least not with what we today consider legal commerce. Exchanges were usually gambling halls—perhaps alluding to the exchange of gold from honest labor for the get-rich-easy gold of good luck.

Nothing beats first-person accounts of an era for providing accurate descriptions of places and customs. I always come away from reading a book like Benemann’s with useful “nuggets” for my novel. I hope as a result of my research the novel is both historically accurate and fun for readers.

When have you been surprised by something you learned about an earlier era?

A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: The Time Dad Cussed At Me


, , , , , , , , ,

Family in boat cropped 72360158-SLD-005-0043

My family in our boat on Coeur d’Alene Lake, on a day my dad didn’t cuss at me. I’m the one in the shades and long dark hair.

I only remember my father swearing at me once. I heard him curse in general on occasion—a “hell” or a “damn” when he pounded a finger while hammering or the like. And he’d call politicians “damn idiots” sometimes. But he didn’t even say these things often in my presence when I was a kid.

The incident I remember happened on a Sunday morning during the summer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The whole family was vacationing at our cabin on Coeur d’Alene Lake. We were heading across the lake to Mass in Harrison, Idaho, in our boat. I’ve written before about boating to Mass in Harrison.

On this particular summer Sunday morning, I was driving the boat. I approached the dock at the Harrison marina at a shallow angle, just as one is supposed to do. Admittedly, I approached the dock rather rapidly, but I had it under control.

“God damn it, Theresa!” my father shouted, as the left side of the bow careened toward the dock. “Slow down!”

As the words left his mouth, I slammed the boat into reverse, just as I had intended to do. The boat made a perfect glide into the dock. True, the passengers were jerked around a bit, but my dad and brother easily jumped onto the dock and tied us up.

My father continued to berate me about driving more carefully for the entire walk up the hill from the marina to the church.

I was in tears at his unjust accusations—I had been careful. I’d known exactly what I was doing. And I was particularly upset that he had sworn at me. That wasn’t appropriate at all, I thought self-righteously to myself.

I had a lump in my throat all through Mass. I didn’t listen to the scripture readings nor to the homily. All I could think about was how poorly my dad had treated me, and how unfair life was—as only a teenager can do. I was so indignant I couldn’t even mutter the proper responses to the prayers, and spent the hour brushing tears out of my eyes.

Late in the service, it was time for the congregation to offer the sign of peace to each other. My father turned to me and said, “I guess I overreacted, didn’t I?”

I nodded, swallowing that lump in my throat.

He hugged me, and I hugged back. The incident was forgiven on both sides. But I never forgot.

My dad could be strict, and he had high expectations of his children.

But he was a fair man, and he admitted his wrongdoing, once he got to the point of acknowledging it. And he must have learned something from this, because he never cussed at me again.

Now I wish I’d asked him before he died if he even remembered the incident. If we had laughed about it together, maybe then I could have written this story sooner. And I’d have let him swear at me again if I could have spent Father’s Day with him yesterday.

What apologies do you remember from family members or friends?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,405 other followers