Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Power of The Past, The Future, and Words

He sat on the floor in the middle of the front row of children at my feet, chin propped in his hand, big round eyes staring, challenging. I often wondered if he was really interested in what I had to say, or did he doubt every word that came out of my mouth? Once a week I visited my daughter Emily's first-grade classroom to read a picture book to the children. Sometimes I took my puppet, Etta Molly Gee, who "talked" to them about the origins of words.

I'm no ventriloquist. "Your lips are moving," the boy said when Etta Molly Gee spoke. "Is that really true?" he asked me when Etta told him the word "phony," meaning fake, came from the word "fawny" - gilt rings that British swindlers long ago sold as real gold. I wondered if he thought I was a phony.

When Emily was in sixth grade, she started "going out" with this boy. I found her crying in the upstairs hallway. "Tim br-broke...up...with me." I locked my hands on her shoulders and made her look me in the eye. "There are so many fish in the sea." If she didn't know before, surely she knew then that her mother had an amazing way with words. Still, the alphabet letter she chose to draw in her study of heraldry in social studies was...yep...a "T."It sat on the top of her dresser for years.


Tim abandoned North Carolina when he moved to Boston to play hockey in prep school and stayed to attend college at some school whose name I always find it hard to remember. I came to admire his athletic skills and his intellectuals ones. But most of all, I admired how he always kept close ties with his friends back home, fitting in with the crowd during holidays and vacations and parts of summers like he'd never left. At some point during the early college years, I said to Emily, "That Tim is getting so handsome." "Yeah," she replied. She always loved seeing him but nothing more. She dated other people, and so did he.

All that changed when she finally visited Tim at Harvard late in the first semester of his senior year. They discovered they held dear the exact same memories from years and years of shared experiences and friendships. They decided to give this dating thing another try...ten years down the road from sixth grade.

Now, almost four years later, at midnight on 11-11-11 in a lovely restaurant after a CMA concert in Emily's favorite city of Nashville, Tim spoke words of love and proposal...and Em replied, "Yes!" Two days later at the Blue Bird Cafe, they unexpectedly saw Phil Vassar, the singer/songwriter of "their" song. They couldn't resist introducing themselves. He enthusiastically wished them well. He's in Raleigh a lot. We think he should sing their song at the upcoming wedding reception!

Friends, loving friends, going fishing too soon, tossed back into the ocean of life to grow and change and learn, yet also, somehow, to hang on to the importance of the past. Caught again, minnows no longer, in the joy and promise of a life together...forever!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Precious Memories, How They Linger...

Concert Review: Dolly Parton sings, raps and dances her way through stellar show
Dolly Parton

I'm a huge music fan. All kinds of music. But I'm choosy in each genre. Particularly country. Don't ever, ever give me "Reeber." Bleh. And while Brad Paisley is cute and nice, his songs are cheesy. But goodness me, bring on the Zac Brown Band any time! Or Kenny Chesney. Or Dolly Parton.

Dolly is a famous person I'd love to meet. And there aren't many celebrities I'd walk across the street to waylay in hopes of a chat. Paradoxically, under all that makeup and glitter, behind the boobs and the botox, I do believe I'd find a purely genuine spirit.  This week I finally got the chance to attend her concert, to see her in person, at the Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham, NC. (And if you haven't been there, you're missing one of the best venues in this country!)

[Here's a great concert review: ]

Dolly held that audience in the palm of her diminuitive hand for over two hours (granted, some of the men she held spellbound somewhere else!). Her sweet, high, trilling voice is as strong as ever. And not only can she sing in every style there is (country, country rock, bluegrass, rock, ballads, hymns, you name it!), she played the guitar, the banjo, the saxophone, the harmonica, the autoharp, the fiddle with ease. Gosh!

While the ballad "Little Sparrow" was my favorite, the song that spoke the most to me was "Precious Memories." The concert had been quite lively, the band a little too loud, when suddenly Dolly sat on a stool and began to sing a cappella:

Precious memories, how they linger,
How they ever flood my soul.
In the stillness of the midnight,
Precious, sacred scenes unfold.

Surprisingly, tears began to stream down my cheeks. Thankful the theatre was fairly dark, I attempted to wipe them away while pretending to brush back my hair, scratch my eye. But there were so many, I finally decided what the hey and let them pour.

Clear as day, I could see my grandmother, Ethel Jane Matthews, standing at her kitchen sink, belting out that very song over suds and piles of dirty dishes. I remember one day when I was quite young, I noticed a couple tears trickle down her face as she sang. And I asked what was wrong. "Sometimes I just miss my mama," she said. At nine years old, I couldn't wrap my head around such a thing. My old grandmother missing her mother who'd long been dead and would have been ancient if she were still alive. People are missed that long?

Now I know they are. Ethel Jane's been dead for 37 years. I still miss her. Terribly. Dolly completed a circle for me this week. I didn't sing "Precious Memories," but the words and the melody filled my soul. And the tears poured. For the grandmama I just miss.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Invisible, As Music ~~~ Positive, As Sound


There were five of us. Five creative women. We met three or four times a year to encourage and inspire one another in our pursuits. Creativity needs positive energy. Lots of it. Many times it's hard to find.

Now...there are only four. Yesterday morning, unexpectedly, prematurely, our friend Lynn collapsed and could not be resuscitated.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around this outrageous reality. All I can picture is my sweet, smiling friend. She was the epitome of a Southern lady - easy-going, soft-spoken, composed. Yet underneath that calm and welcoming exterior burned a brilliant mind, a tireless work ethic, a wonderful wit, a wealth of creative spirit and vision, an obvious love of family and friends.

More often than not, it was Lynn who touched base with the rest of us. "We need to get together. It's been too long." I've searched and searched for a foundation on which to regain my balance, an unshifting footing where I can imagine this world without her.

I have an Emily. So does she. Another Emily, of the famous Dickinson variety, spoke to me today. I stretched to her words, arms wide, soul parched, thirsty for certainty and reassurance. Here's what she said:

This world is not conclusion,
A sequel stands beyond.
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.

I will miss you, Dr. Lynn Jones Ennis. I will think of you often ~ uplifting, inspiring memories ~ full of beauty and positive energy!

If I Could

Monday, July 25, 2011


One beautiful royal wedding cake

Don't give me a sad-sack, single-layer cake. I want lots of layers, padded with thick icing. Hey, if you're going to splurge, do it right!

I feel that way about books. If there's just one simple storyline with no juicy subplots and themes, I can't be bothered. Too many books, so little time.

Give me a novel like Gary Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars.  Though the central plot, of Holling Hoodhood and his seventh-grade teacher Mrs. Baker interacting and discovering one another's personalities, is fully developed, satisfying, and oftentimes hysterical, the subplots -  1) of good ole Shakespeare shaping Holling's life and loves, 2) of his father's personality and domination crystalizing for the reader and Holling, 3) of the maturation of Holling's relationships with his sister and Meryl Lee, and 4) of the poignant turnaround of Mrs. Bigio's and Mai Thi's feelings for one another - give this novel a bittersweet flavor and subtle appeal on a subliminal level. Underneath everything, Schmidt paints the year 1968, weaving in details of home life and everyday citizens affected by the politics and realities swirling around the Vietnam War.

The same explosive atmosphere and blatant intolerance are pushed in our own faces today in various multi-media formats, making this novel extremely relevant to our own times.


Let's concentrate on the cake...

Royal wedding cake

Friday, July 22, 2011

Giving Emma a Shout-Out!!!

Working out how to set up static pages on blogspot has been a challenge for me. HTML!!! Are you kidding? Maybe in my next life...or a parallel life totally unknown to this me (fat chance!). But I persevered, and in my determination I've managed to toot my horn.

I published a middle grade historical novel in 2001 that almost made it to the top of the heap for two annual awards. Emma and the Civil Warrior has sold lots of copies in a five-state area. The novel continues to sell today. I visit classrooms every year to talk to excited readers about Emma. Those visits are standout events for me! My readers pump me up and give me the encouragement to sit down and work on new novels, work long and hard.

Please visit my Books page. One day soon I hope to expand that page with tidings of a new novel!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Dam Novel

So what do I do to pass the time as I wait to hear from my agent that THREADS is ready for an editor's eyes? I work on The Dam Novel. No joke!

This is an aerial view of the tallest dam in the Eastern USA. Fontana Dam. Ever heard of it? If so, you're one of the few. It's located in a remote area of the North Carolina mountains and was constructed in only three years (yes, that's right, three!) during the height of World War Two, January 1942 - January 1945. This photo was taken in early 1945. To give you a sense of the 480-foot height, notice the "tiny" building at the base of the dam to the right. That building is seven stories tall. Behind the dam is huge Fontana Lake, a man-make lake created when the dam was completed and water from the Little Tennessee River backed up and flooded over 7,276 cleared acres, including seven former towns. The lake extends 30 miles into the mountains, and its shore line measures 240 miles.  

The building of Fontana Dam was a miracle. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, the need to build a dam near Welch Cove, North Carolina became urgent. ALCOA plants demanded a tremendous increase in the amount of electricity to run their plants that produced aluminum. Aluminum for war machinery.

One month later, in January 1942, the first workers arrived near Welch Cove, lived in tents, and began construction on the dam. In six short months, the tiny cove was transformed into a town. 6,000 workers lived in homes in a community that boasted two schools, a grocery store, a post office, a barber shop, sports facilities, dormitories for single workers, a large cafeteria, a community building, and a hospital. These workers, who came from 46 of the country's 48 states, worked in three shifts every day of the week, 24 hours a day (one of the most intensive work schedules known in the engineering field). Their children attended good schools, church, dances, baseball games, tennis matches, and winter ice-skating outings - all in a brand new, thriving community on a mountain hillside.

My latest work-in-progress features ten-year-old Joe Miller. He reluctantly moves to Welch Cove in January 1944 for his mom and uncle to work on the Fontana Dam project. The mountains are a challenging place for Joe. He has intense fears of heights and water. Can he control these fears and his stutter and fit in with his fifth grade classmates? Can he earn the respect and friendship of Frankie, the outspoken Irish/Cherokee Indian girl, whose family and heritage he grows to admire? Can Joe and Frankie solve a local mystery and save the lives of men who work on the monstrous dam hundreds of feet above a dry river bed? 

I have spent much time at Fontana Dam. I have had the great honor and privilege to interview multiple Dam Kids - men and women, now in their 70's and 80's, who lived as children in Welch Cove during the actual building of the dam. They have shared their unique lives and stories and memories with me so willingly, so unselfishly, that I am forever indebted to them. Many of them I call my friends.

I am happy to introduce Doris, Homer, Mildred, and Harvey!


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Swinging in a Grapevine...Wuh?

You may be wondering where I came up with my blog's title.

I've just sent a revision of my complete manuscript, THREADS, to my new agent, Erzsi Deak, of Hen and Ink Literary. Here's an encapsulated description of this upper middle grade/lower YA novel:

In 1909 during the industrial revolution in North Carolina, a powerless 14-year-old girl has little more to hope for than work in a factory under manipulative mill bosses. But Trilby King, with a voice like a nightingale, has dreams: dreams of going to music school, of teaching others to sing, of leading choirs. When fate disables her parents, Trilby must somehow keep the family afloat. How can she possibly make her dreams come true now? THREADS is a story of determination, family love and conflict, and budding romance. Ultimately, it is the story of how one girl conquers the odds stacked against her and literally finds her voice.
At the beginning of each chapter, I include a stanza from a southern poem from the late 1800's/early 1900's. Here are the lines from Chapter One from a poem, The Grapevine Swing, written in 1892 by an Alabama poet, Samuel Minturn Peck:
Swinging in the grapevine swing,
Laughing where the wild birds sing,
I dream and sigh
For the days gone by,
Swinging in the grapevine swing.
I love the past. I love to read about it and research it. I dream up interesting characters and place them in very particular circumstances, in places and time periods that highlight the significance of that slice of history not only for my characters, then, but for us, now.
I have loved swings all my life, especially the one my father made in the backyard of my childhood home. Constructed of tall steel pipes and thick metal chains, I could swing so high, I felt part of the trees at the top of the arc. The one in my yard today is not as exciting, but it's a great place to curl up with a good book...and it does have a vine growing over it!