My Dear Friend
Volume XIX, Issue Four | December 2020
My Grandmother Dallas could have been designed by Norman Rockwell. She was a chubby, jolly woman with springy white curls who was always laughing and teasing. I remember her sitting in her rocking chair beside the wood-burning cookstove in the farm kitchen in Kansas. She was the oldest of eight children, seven of them boys, one of them born when Grandma was about 25. They called her Sister. Their children called her Aunt Sister. We dubbed her Grandma Sister.
It never occurred to me that the Grandma was once a young woman—not until last summer when I received the letters she and Grandpa had exchanged before they were married. My cousin had died, and his wife was kind enough to send them to me. They weren’t what you’d call love letters, more notes between good friends.
I don’t know how or where Grandma and Grandpa met. I think it must have been Eskridge, Kansas. My great-grandfather McCauley was the town sheriff, and the Dallas family owned a farm on a hill above the schoolhouse. Grandma was born in 1878 and died in 1958. I don’t know Grandpa’s birth date. He outlived her, dying about 1964. Her name was Carrie Effa McCauley. Grandpa addressed the letters to Effie McCauley. Sometime later, she was known as Faye (my middle name.) When Grandpa was courting her, she lived on a farm with her large family and wrote of everyday doings.“ Mr. Trevis (is) going to brand cattle over here this afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. Lockhart were out here yesterday, she wrote in a letter addressed to “Dear Friend Howard” and signed “Your friend Effie.”
Although he was a farmer for many years, Howard Brookins Dallas worked as a school teacher when he courted Grandma. His contract signed in 1895, paid him $38 a month. His letters were literate, often formal, and filled with kind thoughts. “My Dear Friend,” he wrote in one. “It has only been a few days since I saw you, but it seems an age, so slowly has the time dragged along.” In another, he thanked her for “the little gift enclosed. If it was, as you said, from your little brother instead of yourself, please do not tell me for this is a case of ignorance being bliss.”
There was no talk of marriage in the letters, which were written in 1898, a year or two before they wed. But the letters were clearly affectionate, not a bad start for a marriage of 60 years.
We don’t write letters like this today, and more’s the pity. Today we text and email. Nobody’s going to tie a pink ribbon around those messages and save them for 122 years. I see Grandpa’s humor that passed down to my father and brother. Those letters are a heritage, and I feel a connection to that couple who wrote them over a century ago.
Words from a Friend
Last winter, when Bob was in the hospital with sepsis, my friend Jane Kirkpatrick sent me a copy of her Promises of Hope for Difficult Times. Jane is the author of historical novels based on the lives of real women. She has a deep spiritual side, and she also writes books of personal reflections. I found comfort in her book, and I still pick it from time to time when I’m discouraged or even when I just want something inspirational to read for a few minutes.
Recently, I was flipping through it and came across an essay entitled “Look at me and help me! I’m all alone and in big trouble.”
Jane writes, “Colleagues tell me that writing is a lonely life…But I never feel less alone than when I’m writing. Perhaps because for me writing is a kind of prayer, so I am in a conversation. Or maybe all those characters living inside my head and trying to get onto paper keep me from experiencing the depths of sadness that is a cousin to loneliness.” Jane summed it up perfectly.
I was with Bob every day during those awful weeks he was in ICU, then in rehab, and finally in surgery. It was a difficult time for him, of course, but also for me, as I grappled with the possibility of debility and dementia and even the unthinkable. I came home at the end of each day exhausted.
The support of our daughters kept me going. Povy was at Bob’s bedside constantly. Dana flew in from New Orleans to be with her father. But still, I felt a terrible sense of loneliness, a conviction that I alone was responsible for Bob’s battle. What kept me sane was my writing. Each day before I left the house, I wrote. My normal schedule is a page a day, and I kept to it. For an hour or two, I lost myself in those characters and in their lives. I poured the emotion and the loneliness into my story. Writing is a passion, something I do for myself, and carrying on was an affirmation that I was not lost in the fight for Bob’s health.
By the way he is fine.
A Strange Year for Awards
I was thrilled when Someplace to Call Home won two awards this year—the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Juvenile Fiction and the Women Writing the West Willa Award for Best Children’s Fiction & Nonfiction. I planned to attend both conventions to accept them. That was not to be, thanks to coronavirus, of course. WWA wisely postponed, then cancelled its get-together. WWW held its online.
Accepting an award on Zoom was strange. Instead of dressing up for a formal banquet, I sat in the dining room barefoot, dressed in jeans and a blouse, my laptop on the table. The ceremony was informal, filled with glitches, but there was an intimacy to it that was endearing. Although a hundred people were tuned in, I felt like I was sitting around with old friends. I hope both organizations can return to traditional conventions next year, but this folksy ceremony will always hold a place in my heart.
Thank God for books! What would we do, cooped up with the threat of coronavirus, if we can’t read? Here are a couple of my favorites.
By Paul Theroux. HMH Books.
I’ve loved Paul Theroux’s books for years, ever since I read The Old Patagonian Express. His books are about long journeys, often by rail, to exotic or obscure lands. In Deep South, he stays at home. The book is a series of trips to the Southern U.S., but even though Theroux doesn’t venture out of the country, this is his kind of book. Instead of the standard travelogue to historic plantations and pageants, Theroux spends time learning about the people, the culture, the music and food—and the poverty. One of Theroux’s talents is getting people to open up to him. He talks to preachers, teachers, down-and-outers, and bigots. Instead of a tale of white pillars and magnolias, Deep South reveals the entrenched poverty and the helpless of people who’ve lived in worn-out farms and crumbling towns for generations. They live in a time and place the rest of the world has deserted.
My Midnight Sun
By John Shors. Blackfin Books.
Ever since his block-buster Beneath a Marble Sky was published some years ago, John Shors has been known for his haunting love stories set in exotic lands, told in more than ten novels. My Midnight Sun follows in the Shors tradition and does not disappoint.
The book’s protagonist is Owen Sterling, whose wife is killed in a tsunami while honeymooning in Thailand. Unable to deal with his grief, Owen goes to Bangkok in search of peace. He is drawn to a street ragamuffin and Suchin, the young woman who protects the boy. When Owen discovers Suchin is fighting AIDS, he is determined to help. Suchin, confides her dying wish is to stand on a mountain top in Nepal. Owen impulsively agrees to take her there.
The story is an enchanting one. Although she has only weeks to live, Suchin is upbeat and accepting, philosophical and with a delightful sense of humor, as she sets Owen straight on who is in charge. “You only number two boss,” she tells him. She is number one.
As they meet the challenges of the trek, Owen slowly overcomes his grief. As Suchin’s physical strength declines, Owen’s emotional strength grows. The two are not lovers, but they develop a love so intense that Owen knows Suchin will always live in his heart.
Shors admits in a forward that My Midnight Son was written years ago, before he published his first novel. Stuck at home during the early days of coronavirus, he retrieved the work, which had haunted him for years. It will haunt readers, too.