Instead we each remember her in our own ways. Last night, my father, who keeps her grave so beautifully pristine, stopped by to show me the calla lilies he will take her today. She would have liked that so much. She would have been deeply moved by my father's constancy—always there, even when the rain starts to fall.
I will think of her listening to the chimes that play every day, the songs that float above. The flicker of butterflies. The call of birds.
Happy birthday, Mom. We miss you.
Heard word from the reporter that the photo and column about our Young Writers Contest winners will be in the Good Neighbor column during the week of May 30. Be on the lookout!
It's a book I'd bought months ago, a book that has always sat right there, on the top of my massive TBR. Jessica is what they call a Facebook friend, but she has always seemed, to me, far more substantial than that. When she comments on something, her words have gravitas. When she shares a moment in her life, it most often acts as a form of outreach, as an idea bigger than herself.
It was, then, with that sense of tugging familiarity that I began to read Night Swim, a debut novel for adults that has a teen at its center. Sarah Kunitz (lovers of poetry will recognize the power of her last name) is growing up in the 1970s, in a suburb of Boston, in a home of muted stresses. Her mother—beautiful, loving—occupies a buffer zone, needing pills to dull her aches, parties to bolster her confidence, a live-in maid to clear the dishes, more wine. Sarah's professor father, meanwhile, is strict and, in his own way, remote, losing control of his four children as time goes by. Sarah's mother almost dies, and a hush settles over the house. Then Sarah's mother does, indeed, die, and this hush is disturbing, tilted, suffused with a terrible drowning sound. Sarah is sixteen. She'll have to find her way. But the path ahead isn't marked.
Jessica writes quietly, forcefully, and with great knowing about remorse, wrong choices, brief releases, forever shadows. She writes with heart about a daughter's greatest loss—a mother. Just days before I read this novel, I had sat on a bench beside my own mother's grave, trying to tell her stories, wishing there was some way to get through. And so, on that train to and from DC, and then again in the quiet hours of this afternoon, I felt Jessica's own understanding of something we almost all come to face, in our lives. I felt, with this sadness, less alone.
From Night Swim, bought long ago, but perhaps read at the right time:
I turned over but repositioning my body didn't help at all. I turned back over. Mother's death became my life sentence, a different kind of imprisonment, and I realized that Eliot might be right about ghosts. This one had slipped inside me, pacing for public recognition, seeking that salve of music, a restless, circular longing for condolence and release.
Readers of this blog know that Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent is a story featuring a boy named William—a child of Bush Hill and Baldwin Locomotive Works, the brother to a young man murdered by a cop. William has lived in my imagination for many years. He was a primary character (but not the primary character) in my Centennial Philadelphia novel, Dangerous Neighbors. He rescues lost animals for a living. He matters to me.
Earlier today, I discovered that my friend Ed Goldberg, a librarian in the New York system, put Dr. Radway and Dangerous Neighbors side by side in a review. I love that he did this. I learned from his study. I'm deeply appreciative.
Ed's entire report can be found here, on his lovely blog, 2HeadsTogether. He ends his musings like this:
What both books do so well is describe one city, Philadelphia of the 1870s, although two different worlds. Both books delve into their main characters, William and Katherine, making them come alive. And both books use language as only Beth Kephart uses language.Thank you, Mr. Ed. And thank you, Elizabeth Mosier, for the extraordinary note you wrote to me after you read the book through. No one can ever know just how much words like these matter to an author—especially in the case of this particular book.
It was a luxury reading the books one after the other, because it highlights the contrasts that otherwise would have been hidden. So, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent and then Dangerous Neighbors. The one-two punch in books.
I'll be talking about the research that fueled both books tomorrow, during the Week of Writing at Drexel University. If you're in the city I hope you'll join us, especially so that you can meet my most esteemed co-panelists, Rita Williams-Garcia and Eliot Schrefer.
Strange and Familiar Places in Young Adult FictionExplores the complexities of conducting and incorporating research to create a sense of time and place in YA fiction. Attention to setting is crucial for any writer, but readers often overlook the breadth of historical, scientific, and philosophical inquiry that culminates in successful settings. Panelists include: Beth Kephart, who will speak on the surprises and challenges of bringing 19th-century Philadelphia to life in Dangerous Neighbors (2010) and Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (2013); Eliot Schrefer, whoseEndangered (2012) depicts a bonobo sanctuary as war breaks out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Rita Williams-Garcia, who will describe her research process in recreating the Black Power Movement in 1968 Oakland forOne Crazy Summer (2011) and its sequel in Brooklyn P.S. Be Eleven (2013). Join us to discuss the craft of translating not just physical and geographical detail, but larger social and political contexts to the page.
2:00 pm – 3:20 pm
Lobby of Drexel University Recreation Center
Moderator: Dee McMahon
Beth Kephart, Eliot Schrefer, Rita Williams-Garcia
Ladies and Gentlemen:
we're keeping it real out here in Beth land.
outside, just now! the color of the sun at 5 AM this morning. this seems to be a scarlet tanager, though I'm not completely sure. but what a bird! what a bird!
Recently a friend’s husband drove her to a meeting and returned home after fifteen minutes. Switching on music, he headed to the bedroom and stopped abruptly. Their back window had been smashed; dresser drawers were strewn open, their contents spilling out. Most of his wife’s jewelry was missing, except for a few pieces the burglars had dropped on the floor in their hasty retreat.
“I think he got home in the middle of it,” she said. She was relieved they left her most valued sentimental necklace behind.
Then there was the time my son was four and the floor beneath our feet began rolling. “Earthquake! Run!” I yelled as I scooped up our terrier. We flew past the swinging light fixture and didn’t stop until we reached the middle of the cul-de-sac.
We waited until birds chirped and squirrels chattered once again. After returning to discover overturned file cabinets, right where my son had been playing, I explained what could occur during an earthquake. Later we discovered the extent of the Loma Prieta once we got back our electricity. “Gee,” said Tofer, considering our house could have been demolished. “I should have grabbed Herbie.” (His favorite stuffed animal, which wasn’t an animal at all, but a car.)
During the disastrous Oakland fire of 1991, my friend’s sister and her family were evacuated. She ran past her dresser, noticing a coffee mug, her jewelry box, and a photo album. They didn’t stop running until they got to the base of their hill. That’s when she discovered she held the coffee mug in her hand.
1. What was the first object that held important emotional meaning for you? Why? How did you value it? Describe the item and show how you placed it in esteem.
2. Did your family have any treasured family heirlooms? Write an essay about one’s significance.
3. You have only a minute to grab one item to save from your home. What do you take and why? Describe it using your senses and emotions.
4. In the writing project you are working on now, write about a meaningful object for your main character, a minor character, and even the antagonist. Give background for each. Why do they hold significant relevance? Can any of them be a larger symbol?
We read it all the time: We've got to challenge our brains to keep them fully engaged. We've got to challenge our brains to remain capable.
I'm particularly in need of capability-inducing challenges. I'm the sort of person who can remember the kind of ice cream I ordered at Dippy Don's as an eight-year-old but forgets the name of the person singing behind me in church (forgive me!). I can regale you with tales of memoirs loved and read (hundreds of them) but forget (just ask Libby Mosier) what tense I used for my own first young adult novel (past tense, in case you are wondering; I just checked).
I work to stave off my own decline by giving myself impossible things to do. Reading that is above my comprehension level (hey, that isn't hard). Pottery (because I'm a lifelong craft-o-phobe). And, as most of you know, ballroom dance.
This past week—my head full of too many things (and aching, too)—I was close as I have ever come to canceling the lesson. Just. No. Time. But then, in a hurry, we went. (So much of a hurry that I forgot my dance shoes, because no, we girls don't do salsa in pink Gap slippers—and yes, what does this tell you? My memory is slipping.)
Here's me with a migraine dancing with Scott, our instructor at DanceSport—videotaped so that my husband and I wouldn't forget the steps the second we left the studio. It's not pretty. The shoes are all wrong. I mess up.
But I'm keeping some blood flowing to my brain. And especially when it feels that we don't have any time for that, it's precisely what the doctor ordered.
To the challenges that will sustain us.