Forging New Traditions

This is a piece I wrote ten years ago, remembering family Thanksgivings past, and looking forward to forging new traditions as our parents leave us and our children become adults with families of their own. It still has resonance, so I resurrect it here.

New Traditions

There can be no writing about food on Thanksgiving night. No recipes, no cute ideas IMG_0536about yummy things to make the holiday brighter or suggestions for clever décor that sets off a stunning table for an afternoon and for which storage space must be found the other 364 days of the year. Now that the last platter is washed and put away, the wine glasses are back in their boxes and I’ve made refrigerator space for the tattered remnants of a twenty pound turkey, I’m thinking beyond my overfull stomach and my uncomfortably tight pants to the new challenge of making holidays pleasing and memorable as the cast of characters around the table changes.

As darkness falls, carloads of stuffing-stuffed relatives depart, and the boys head out to spend time with their friends, I’m thinking about the way life goes on as we children of the 1940’s find ourselves on the front line, forced to forge new traditions as we face holidays with empty places and new faces around the table.

Two years ago, we celebrated Thanksgiving at the family farm in Maine. My family—my husband, my two sons, and one girlfriend. My brother John and his wife, their two girls and one boyfriend. All gathered around the old oak table. It was a weird and sad day. My mother, who treasured her hilltop farm and the special treat of having her grandchildren around her, was ten miles away in a rehab facility, too heartbroken to come to the farm for dinner if she had to leave it again at the end of the meal. After dinner, we piled into cars and drove to Camden to see her.

It had been rainy and gray as we went through the ritual of cooking together in Mom’s kitchen in a house without her, but as we loaded our cars for the drive to “The Home” the storm broke. Incredible blue sky sparkled through breathtaking patches of bright and boiling Maxfield Parrish clouds. It was the kind of weather and sky that Mom, who wrote for decades about nature and the seasons and country living, would have described eloquently.

We visited with Mom, who rallied to enjoy her grandchildren’s company, and fed her a piece of pumpkin pie. Then, as the pinks and golds and apricots of the clouds faded into the gloom of a late November afternoon, John’s family headed north and we drove down the wet black road from Maine to Massachusetts.

Two days later, she died. And last Thanksgiving, for the first time in decades, my brother’s family and mine didn’t have dinner together. Too sad to face the absence at the table, he went to his in-laws’ house; I gathered together a table full of orphans—other good friends who didn’t have family for the holiday. Our guests were wonderful, we ate too much good food, and the day was pleasant, but it didn’t quite feel like Thanksgiving.

fullsizeoutput_16a8This year we did a family dinner again, a wonderful event that let me see the family being reconfigured as the children become adults with interesting lives. My niece who is in her first year of teaching talked for hours about the challenges of a difficult third grade and her strategies for managing. She described her fondness for her students, even the ones who can’t sit still and never stop talking. She talked about her exhaustion and the huge amount of prep. Unspoken behind the story was how much she wished her grandmother, who had been a genuinely great teacher, was there to listen and to offer unconditional love and advice.

My other niece spoke of her excitement with a demanding new job that called on computer and design skills not used much since college. She and her fiancé described the new addition on their house and how they’re learning to balance desire with reality as they learn how much it will cost. One son shared his adventures learning to drive a car  with a standard transmission on the hills of San Francisco, the other about the process of editing ninety-six hours of film into a two hour movie.

Children no more, these four young adults drifted in and out of the kitchen, making coffee, tasting vegetables, laying out hors d’oeuvres, and sharing their own food preferences, adventures, and stories as Uncle John carved the turkey and they helped get the food to the table. I loved watching them take ownership of the holiday as full-fledged citizens of the adult world. Lisa briskly ties on an apron over her fashionable white blouse and goes to work. A woman confident of her place in the kitchen. Sara Beth photographs me and my brother, tears streaming down our faces and our noses glowing red, as we peel the onions for the creamed onion dish our father insisted was an essential party of any Thanksgiving feast. One niece already has a signature pie. Son Max had made his signature cranberry-apple-orange relish.

Beneath it all, we are all missing my mom, their grandmother, the one who would sit around the table after dinner drawing dragons with her grandchildren. Her emphatic comment about her drawing skills will echo in our minds whenever we try to draw. “I try and I try to draw dragons and every time, they come out looking like fat goats.”

Mom is gone. And my father. And my little sister Sara. But the holiday goes on.

In a few years, we may need a kid’s table. The menu may change to suit the needs of the vegetarians among us. It may lighten as buttery mashed potatoes and gravy and creamy orange squash give way to healthier fare. But I hope we will still be around one table, catching up on news, adding the special people who have joined our children’s lives to the family circle. My stomach is too full tonight but my heart is just full enough.IMG_7953

Revisiting Find Amy

I was on Amazon recently, looking at the launch page for my latest co-written project with Joe Loughlin, Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about police shootings. While I was there, I decided to take a look at our last co-written project, Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine. When a book is coming out, life is full of events, emails, and efforts to schedule readings, guest blogs, and interviews. It was interesting to go back and look at reader’s reviews of the book, and perhaps most surprising was finding all of the great media reviews. Probably I have some of these tucked away in a drawer somewhere, but they felt all fresh and new.

(Author’s note: most of the time I avoid reviews because I am so sensitive that a single negative word can send me cowering into the corner for hours.)

Anyway, here’s what reviewers had to say about the book:

“This one is a triumph and a joy — no showy-made for TV-ness — just the reality of the way crimes and those who do them should be taken to account. This one is the real thing.”–Courier Gazette, Rockland, Maine

“The tale is brimming with insights about police procedure, jurisdictional disputes, and politics. Over and over again, real life trumps fiction. For instance, after a five-hour standoff, the suspect surrenders one of his guns for a soda, the other for a cigarette. Put that in a novel and no one would believe it . . . The reader is never allowed to lose sight of the humanity of the victim, a young girl who accepted a ride from the wrong guy, then had the temerity to say no and mean it.”–Boston Globe

“Few true crime books get behind the scenes and explain how homicide detectives do their jobs the way Finding Amy does.”–Bangor Daily News

“This is one of the best true crime stories to be published in recent years…This book should reaffirm the public’s faith in the police, prosecutors, and Maine’s judicial system.”–Brunswick Times Record

“Loughlin’s recorded entries about the case — his thoughts, emotions and reactions to the investigation — amplify Flora’s straightforward but potent narrative as detectives search for the grave, find it (about halfway through the book) and build a case against a leading suspect. This is a feast for proceduralists, giving countless small details of the work-a-day slogging involved, an effort that leads the department to make good on the mystery, catching Amy’s murderer, and making the case stick.”–Publishers Weekly

“Readers of true crime will find this chronological tale of the search for Amy and her killer especially compelling because of the personal account of Loughlin, who was lieutenant of the Criminal Investigation Department when Amy disappeared. Loughlin’s journal, woven into Flora’s painstaking recreation of the work of the detectives, highlights the intense discussions that took place among the key players and gives readers a look at the slow, steady progress of real detectives on a real case. There are no ‘CSI solutions’ that wrap up the case in a conveniently short time. There are no magic findings of DNA. What takes place in this true story is the passionate belief that they will find Amy, bring her killer to justice, and give closure to her family and to the people of Maine.” –Foreword

Thank you, reviewers! Even a decade later, these lift my heart.

But Will They Like It?

We’ve put in our years crafting the story–more than three since the day when Roger Guay sent that first e-mail asking if we could talk. That talk led to more talks. To long days driving around in Roger’s green truck, talking about the stories that every twist and turn in the road seemed to make him recall. Roger drove. Roger told stories. Kate tried to hold a small tape recorder so that Roger’s voice could be heard over the roar of the engine and the crunch of tires on dirt roads around Greenville.

On our first day out, Roger’s wife Jolene rode with us, editing, amplifying, and correcting. We drove to Jackman, where Roger grew up. Out to Holeb. Past family camps and the scenes of Roger’s happily misspent youth. I was introduced to a form of maple sap collection I’d never seen before–thin pipes to carry the sap winding their way through the forest to the sugar house.

We passed a strange-looking man at the side of the road, and after a brief conversation, Roger climbed back into the truck and remarked: Stoned out of his mind. At a second stop, Jolene got out with her gun and shot a grouse.

There were more rides in the truck. And a meeting in the Hartland Library. And the Curtis Library in Brunswick. Meetings in the lobby of a hotel in North Andover, Massachusetts. And in a seaside cottage in Harpswell. Meetings as we made our way through the story: Talking, translating, writing, clarifying, amplifying, rewriting. A long time later, dozens of hours of interviews had been turned into a book.

Then came the next hard part: It is not enough to write a book. We had to convince a publisher that it was worthy of publication. For that, because Kate will always admit that she HATES writing book proposals and would rather have a root canal without anesthesia, we called on a wonderful woman located through Elance who lives in Atlanta. She took our rough material, gave it a marketing spin, and voila…we had something to show to an editor.

Then the editor at Skyhorse put us all through it again. Check. Clarify. Rearrange. Explain.

Then there are those final moments. Are the names spelled right? How is the geography? Are there some stories where the suspects shouldn’t be identified? But at long last, so long the writers have become old friends, not new friends, the book appears.

As the process of getting the word out slowly evolves, one thing that authors always hold their breaths about is the matter of reviews.

This week, we got our first one–from John Holyoke at the Bangor Daily News. And after a few anxious moments, we began to breathe again. He liked it. He thinks YOU should read it. http://outthere.bangordailynews.com/2016/04/21/books/not-your-average-retired-warden-book-a-good-man-with-a-dog-worth-a-read/

New site coming soon!

Much more doggie lore, writing lore, and other musings to come, but for today, I wanted to share a couple of very special photos with you.

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