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Last week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle where Bob Dugoni (A New York Times best-selling author) talked about the reasons we write. According to Bob, the first step in writing is to know who you are as a writer.  Knowing this will help you understand the stories you write and why you write them.  I'd never thought about this before. And in the process of thinking about it, I realized he was right-- my novel characters are born of me. They are not me, but they are always of me. 

I also know I write stories and poems about relationships. I am defined by my family of origin and the children I birthed and love.  Bob suggested we write down 5 things that define us. This is a good exercise for everyone--not only writers. It illuminates your life in so many ways--shows you who and why you are. I challenge you to try it. 

In my list, I included my mother's early death from breast cancer,  the way she sang gospel while she worked in her garden and how those songs influenced my love of language and poetry.  I listed the stories my father told me about his childhood during the great Depression, the death of his mother when he was six-years old, his alcoholic father and the way his siblings were separated--either adopted or farmed out to other family members. I included the bookmobile that stopped on our street and filled my young life with walls of stories. I listed the 1,000 square foot house I shared with my parents and four brothers. The extended family living on the same street and the way holidays were filled with drama and laughter.  

But, perhaps most significantly,  the first thing on my list was the grenade that blew up in my father's hand during his basic training at Ft. Jackson.  It's odd, in a way, because this event took place before I and three of my four brothers were born. Yet,  in many ways, that bomb exploded in our lives as well. We were all profoundly affected by it.  This smiling photograph of my dad was taken just three weeks before the grenade. In it, I see a beautiful boy, in love with my mother, optimistic for a bright future, and innocent of what awaits him.  

To illustrate how this event still haunts me, I'm going to share a poem written a few weeks ago.  I thought I'd said everything I needed to say about my dad and that grenade. I was wrong. Maybe we writers spend a lifetime trying to understand the one thing that most defines us.


On that July day in nineteen forty-four
you are eighteen, a country boy,
crawling through combat training at Ft. Jackson.
You see the piece of mud-caked metal
nuzzled beside a Hickory stump.
Too innocent to know there are things
we can reach for but shouldn’t,
you dig it out with your bare hands,
dust the treasure off on your khaki sleeve,
then toss it across the narrow field
of high grasses and bright yellow
dandelions to your best friend.

He turns it over, sniffs for a clue.
The smell takes him home….
Rich earth and shell-shaped blossoms
in his wife’s summer garden.
Baffled, he runs toward you,
pitches it back, an impromptu
baseball game between battle maneuvers.
When you reach up to catch it,
the pin dislodges and the grenade,
leftover from another war, explodes.
The boom reverberates for miles,
lifts your friend into a faultless sky,
a hero’s grave in Arlington.

Now, so many years later, I imagine
your hand, my father’s hand,
its long, blood-stained fingers,
buried with the pieced-together fragments
of your lost friend. That when his wife is led,
as memory will, into that yesterday, she
carries a bouquet of fresh gardenias,
steps inside the perfect rows
of white crosses and kneels in thick,
fragrant grass beside the miniature flag
on his grave. She bows her head,
prays for her husband,
and she prays for your hand.

Ressurecting Henry

One of the reasons I write stories, journals, poems and novels  is to catalog my life and make sense of it. I write to preserve moments that would vanish if I didn’t.

We all consume dozens of stories every day. We read books and newspapers. We watch television and listen to the radio. We even hear stories standing in line at the local grocery store.

The death of my son’s favorite stuffed animal, Henry, was a gradual process, but the realization came suddenly for me. One night, at 2:00 a.m.,  I tiptoed into my son’s room, as I often did. I looked at the blonde head of a little boy nearly four years old and it seemed like only last week I’d put a baby to bed. But something was wrong. David’s arm wasn’t wrapped around his stuffed dog, Henry.  In fact, Henry was no where to be seen.

I found Henry in the bottom drawer of David’s dresser—the one he used for his toys and “important papers.” I closed the drawer quickly. I preferred to remember Henry doing a silly little dance at the foot of David’s bed, or flying in from Dulles Airport just in time to sleep with his human friend.  We created a special voice and vocabulary for Henry—very dog like, I believed—but I’m sure David thought of Henry as his brother and a product of his own mom and dad. I guess that’s not too far from the truth as we did make Henry come alive and develop his own unique personality. Henry even had a son—an exact replica of the old man except in miniature. David called him "Pup".

Henry travelled thousands of miles and shared many a bed with David.  He took several airplane trips and travelled cross-country in the back of our station wagon with his head resting on David’s pillow. One time, David was holding him outside the car window so he could feel the wind on his ears and accidentally dropped Henry on the busy freeway.  I risked my life to go back and grab that stuffed dog before he was crushed under the wheels of 18-wheeler. 

I sewed a new nose on Henry and repaired a battered ear. One time I reattached his tail and laughingly called it hemorrhoid surgery. But Henry was the real doctor in the family and his devotion to David was unwavering. I can still see him in the hospital crib under the oxygen tent the many times David had croup. I remember the way my son clutched Henry in his arms while the doctor stitched the back of his head. 

When we were toilet training David, Henry wore a pair of thick cotton training pants, too. David would pick him up and race into the bathroom and if he was too late, he’d hug Henry against his chest, pat him on the back and say, “It’s okay Henny. You is only yearning.”

For four years, Henry was an active and vital member of our family.  Perhaps, in the lifespan of a stuffed dog, that’s not bad. What can I say? “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boy.” I couldn’t blame David. He was growing up. “Painted wings and giant rings make room for other toys.” I only know that as we get older it’s hard to give up anything we love and I loved Henry, too. 

UPDATE:  David is now a father. When his son, John Martin Taedu Clayton, was born with jaundice he spent an extra day in the hospital nursery under a special light. David wrapped him in the blanket I'd made for David when he was an infant. He took me into the nursery to see his son--and there, tucked inside my grandson’s bassinet, was Henry’s pup—watching over a new generation.