The Stories Behind the Stories

Grandma’s Scissors

Most stories come to me in bits and pieces, percolating for days or weeks or months before I ever put words to paper (or computer screen). Some stories, however, appear almost fully formed. Such was “Grandma’s Scissors.”

One year ago, in October of 2017, a title of a story came to me along with an image. The image was of a little boy sitting in his backyard playhouse surrounded by all the pictures of Grandma. The boy held a pair of scissors and struggled with coming to grips with Grandma’s illness, an illness his parents were trying to protect him from. The title that came to me was “Cutting Out Grandma.” That title, thankfully, was scrapped, but the premise remained.

From that initial spark I wrote the story quickly (followed by a couple months of revisions), culling from my memories of my mom’s parents, Granny (who had passed away about six months before) and Grandpa.

One of my best memories of summers in Fair Oaks, California is rising early in the morning before the sun was up and joining Granny and Granny Dianne (Granny’s next-door neighbor for decades and practically a part of the family), cousins and aunts and uncles and anyone else who was visiting (except for Grandpa; more on that later) as we walked down the twisting Fair Oaks roads to the American River. Some days we walked to the river and then back up to Granny and Grandpa’s house and some days we crossed the river (on the bridge that Uncle Jerral jumped off of when he was a teenager, a daredevil act that Granny didn’t learn about until 50 years after the fact) and took the long way back to Granny’s house, past the business from which we rented rafts for rafting down the American River and through “downtown” Fair Oaks with its rolling hills, massive oaks and wild roosters.

Upon getting back to Granny and Grandpa’s house we would be greeted by the smell of sausage and pancakes and a massive breakfast cooked by my perpetually shirtless and handle-bar-mustachioed Grandpa who had been a cook and glider pilot in World War II. My cousins and I didn’t help make breakfasts, but we certainly enjoyed helping eat the massive amounts of food. The food from those breakfasts often lasted until later in the morning. I remember stopping by the kitchen for a mid-morning snack of cold sausages. Grandpa called me a “garbage disposal” because of my commitment to not letting food go to waste (I was what some people called “chubby” in my younger years).

In the summer of 1988 (just before my family left for what would become two years in central China) Granny, Grandpa, Aunt Jonette, my cousins Warren and Renee, my mom, sisters and I all piled into Granny and Grandpa’s van and drove from Fair Oaks, California to Amarillo, Texas for a family reunion. Granny valued family above all but her faith. She dedicated immense amounts of time to researching our family’s genealogy and stayed connected as much as possible with her Texan relatives. That many-day journey formed the inspiration for the second picture in “Grandma’s Scissors.” I don’t remember how many relatives attended the reunion, but I remember the light blue “Clay-Burdine” shirts Granny made for us so that others would know which branch of the family we represented, the all-you-can-eat buffets we frequented on the trip (a description I considered a personal challenge; I distinctly remember Grandpa leaving the restaurant while everyone else enjoyed dessert and him discovering me in pain, laid out in the van because my overly-full belly would not allow me to bend at the waist) and the unexpected stop we made for Grandpa because of a heart incident.

That memory of Grandpa in the hospital is the basis for what I imagine Henry finding when he and Papa visit Grandma at the end of the story. I don’t remember what the exact concern was for Grandpa (I don’t know if any of us cousins knew the details), just that I could tell Granny, my mom and aunt were more worried than they let on. They couldn’t keep Grandpa’s condition a secret, but they tried to shield my cousins, sisters and me from becoming overly worried. Grandpa recovered and lived another six years with (as far as I knew) no more heart scares.

Many other memories came back while writing “Grandma’s Scissors.” Some of these made it into earlier drafts of the story and some were simply fun memories. I hope that if “Grandma’s Scissors” is ever illustrated these other memories will have a chance to be the inspiration for some of the pictures in the picture book version of the story.

 

 

To Catch a Leprechaun

I’ve fancied myself a writer for most of the past twenty-five years. First, came poems. Then songs. Then essays. I tried my hand at a few novels. Along the way I met with occasional success, but these were few and far between. None of these endeavors captured the wonder that is inherent in great writing. I could never quite put into words the magic I heard in my head. So it was in March of 2016 when I found myself itching for a new literary challenge.

On St. Patrick’s Day 2016 I picked my daughter up from school and we headed to my classroom. As we walked she did her happy walk (one regular step followed by one skip) and regaled me with tales of “the leprechaun” that visited her classroom while she and her classmates were at recess. He left “gold dust and orange hair and tiny footprints.” She described a “leprechaun trap” that she wanted to build in the hopes of catching her very own leprechaun. “Daddy, Daddy, will you help?” she asked.

How could I not?

Back in my classroom we searched for string and tape. She asked if I had any chocolate coins. “You know, the ones wrapped in gold foil.” I was fresh out of all chocolates, but I did have a tin of Jolly Ranchers I occasionally shared with my students (unlike the chocolates I tell my daughter I “share” with my students which taste so good after a day with middle schoolers). She picked out the perfect Jolly Rancher and tied it to the string. From there she enlisted me in the design and construction of our very own “leprechaun trap.” She described to me the path the leprechaun would take, climbing up a plant, onto a desk, leaping to the white board, following the line she’d drawn on the white board up to the Jolly Rancher. The expectation in her voice was contagious.

We eventually headed home for the day, but before we did she made me promise to check on the trap the following day and tell her if the candy was gone.

From this experience was born “To Catch a Leprechaun” as well as many other stories featuring Genny and Papa. “To Catch a Leprechaun” became the first children’s story I had written in a long time and the first of hundreds I have written as a children’s author. I still dabble in poems and songs and essays. I’ve returned to the less-than-finished novels a couple times, but I keep coming back to children’s stories, still trying to put into words the magic of that afternoon and still trying to capture my own leprechaun.

 

 

Mercy and the Waterfall

I’m trying something new with this TSBTS entry, sharing the origins of a tale that hasn’t yet been published. Think of it as a teaser, something to whet your literary appetite.

“Mercy and the Waterfall” is inspired by my years in Nigeria, West Africa. I fell in love with Nigeria, a love that has persisted despite almost two decades of separation, a love that still causes ache every time I run in a downpour, every time I smell smoke like the gate guard’s nightly fire and every time I hear rain on a tin roof.

It makes sense that I remember the sensations listed above. I felt or smelled or heard them often. But there’s another memory I think of more often than is logical. It was an experience I had only once, a camping trip I took with my classmates (all nineteen of them) my senior year. For almost twenty-four years I’ve thought of the fire around which we slept at night, and the river where we hiked and splashed and played, and, mostly, the waterfall at whose base we swam. I don’t think I spent more than half a day at that river and waterfall, but I think of it at least monthly. That waterfall (and the river it flowed into) serve as the setting for “Mercy and the Waterfall.”

Another aspect of Nigeria I miss is the strong sense of community. This was never more apparent than in the structure of many family groups. “Family” in Nigeria consists of parents and kids and aunties and uncles and cousins and grandparents all living under one roof, in one compound or at least in close proximity. It’s a family structure that produces bonds between generations and gives older cousins a chance to nurture younger cousins, a family structure that makes everyone responsible for everyone else. That strong, almost sibling-like, relationship between cousins, is one that I missed out on with my biological cousins. But the close-knit community in which we lived in Nigeria allowed me to adopt “cousins” from my friends and classmates.

The final link between the story and the Nigeria of my experience is more personal. It was in Nigeria that I began, like Mercy, to seek my independence. On her family’s picnic at the waterfall, Mercy feels the pangs of wanting to be older, longing to be included by her elder cousins, while still loving the nurturing relationship she has with her younger cousins. Although I was much older than Mercy, I felt these same longings when I lived in Nigeria.

When I decided to write a story about a child who feels caught in the middle, a child who wants her independence, but wants to still hold onto the nurturing relationships she has with others, I knew the only setting I could choose was Nigeria. I hope someday you get a chance to read “Mercy and the Waterfall.”

 

 

A Blessing

The title to this post is something of a misnomer. You see, “A Blessing” isn’t really a story. It began its existence as a song before morphing into a poem. Not that I don’t want it to be a book. I’ve often wondered what pictures would accompany it if it were made into a picture book. One time I even read it to a writer’s group that was accustomed to hearing me share stores. Given its lack of conventional narrative structure, the other members of that writer’s group didn’t really know what to do with it. So, calling “A Blessing” a story is misleading. I should really call this post “The Story Behind the Poem,” but that doesn’t have the same ring. Whatever. Here we go.

One of the traditions at my very small high school (graduating class of 1995: 20) was the song the graduating Seniors sang to their parents. The parents responded with a song of their own. I don’t know what the parents thought of this tradition (of the other Seniors for that matter), but while listening to possible songs I heard Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” For all I knew, the song was brand new. (I was wrong. Dylan released it before me or any of my fellow Seniors were born.) Regardless of when it was first released, the song made an impact on me. I hadn’t started writing stories or poems or songs. I hadn’t even picked up a guitar and produced anything more melodic than an angry tomcat (in high school my dad introduced me and my sisters by saying, “Sarah plays the French horn, Ruth plays the viola and Paul plays the basketball”), but I knew then that I wanted to write a song that resembled “Forever Young.”

My family is not Irish. (That’s not entirely true. Were I of the canine persuasion, I would be generously called a “mutt.”)  But the Irish blessings I heard as a child struck a chord. All blessings, for that matter, resonated with me. Something about the power of spoken words to change the course of a person’s life struck me as amazing. The Bible has many blessings (none of which I’d turn down), but the blessings that always spoke to me with the greatest power were Irish in origin, particularly those that started with the word “May.” When I started writing my blessing, I knew I wanted to model it after the Irish blessings I love.

In the introduction to this post I alluded to the fact that “A Blessing” began its life as a song. When I first fancied myself a writer I focused on poems (free verse can be quite forgiving), but after working at summer camp I picked up a guitar and proceeded to write pretentious songs instead of pretentious poems. For my college years and a few years after graduation I wrote and performed songs at local coffee shops (to the dismay of some of the patrons who would have preferred sipping their “decaf, iced, low-fat, half-soy/half-almond,, 2-pump, no whip, green tea latte” to the accompaniment of the dulcet tones of Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman). In naming my songs I followed the tradition of my Lutheran youth of titling songs after the first line. “A Blessing” was one of the few song titles in which I got creative. Not too creative, mind you, but thank your lucky stars the title of this post isn’t “The Story Behind the Story: May Your Steps Be Light.”

Well, now you know a little more about “A Blessing” and a lot more (than you wanted to know) about its creation.

 

Take care,

Paul