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The Sad and Glad of Memorial Day, 2024

The Sad and Glad of Memorial Day, 2024

The sad and glad of Memorial Day is pressing on my heart this year as never before. The mix of emotions is due the passing of the people in the picture above.

Aunt Donna died in September of 2022.
Mom died in June of 2023.
Uncle Jim died in October of 2023.

This Memorial Day we will be honoring these strong, hard-working, exasperating people who loved their family above all else in this world. Our memories of them will not be enough to fill the holes riddling our hearts in the aftermath of their passing. Yet those memories and the emotions accompanying them are their legacy to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And so this Memorial Day…

We’re sad to be without them.
We’re glad they and my dad are together again.

We’re sad they can’t enjoy bouquets of irises and peonies this spring.
We’re glad they taught their children to love and grow them.

I’m sad they will never read the the 5th book in my mystery series, in which characters based on them are prominently featured.
I’m glad for the rich fodder of adventures they took us on that make writing their scenes glorious and funny and joyful.

I’m sad knowing we will never visit and reminisce and eat together again.
I’m glad to have talked with each of them in the months before they died.

We’re sad. I’m sad.
We’re glad. I’m glad.

Above all, we are blessed to have been loved by them and to love them in return.

Labor Day Weekend Will Be Different this Year

Labor Day Weekend Will Be Different this Year

Labor Day weekend will be different this year. For as long as I can remember the holiday was more about celebrating my mother’s birthday than celebrating laborers. Then again she was born on September 3, which was Labor Day in her birth year of 1928. Which means her birthday was and will always be a celebration of labor, though not of laborers.

Because Mom’s birthday usually occurred during a three day weekend, it often coincided with gatherings of our extended family. Though Labor Day weekend will be different this year, that much will remain the same.  Our annual cousins’ reunion––there are 39 of us, a number that swells quickly when you throw in our spouses and descendants–– will be held the day before Mom’s birthday.

This year will be quite different in other ways. Mom left this world on June 23 and will not be with us in body on her birthday. Then again, our memories of her and of her seven siblings who waited patiently for her to join them in heaven, will be present in full force. We will tell our family stories. We will share favorite memories of our parents. They were all farmers and housewives and teachers, remarkable people though not well-known outside our circle and never, never showy.

Since some of my cousins weren’t able to attend Mom’s celebration of life, I will take the memory book the funeral home compiled for them to see. I’ll also bring the scrapbook, filled with photos of our parents and their parents, which I made the year Mom turned 80. How can that be 15 years ago? I will also take the birthday cake she loved best, homemade German chocolate cake. Not the cupcake version on the chocolate bar pictured above, but the traditional version pictured below. The cake is delicious, moist and very big. A good thing in an extended family as large as ours.

My piece will probably be on the salty side, not because I have a heavy hand with that ingredient, but because I will be crying as I eat. My tears will be good. Sad. Joyful. Healthy. I expect them to flow freely as my cousins who knew and loved Mom teach me what they already know. She, like their parents who went before her, is alive and well in our hearts.

Happy birthday, Mom, from all of us.

In loving memory of Dorothea Lorraine Stratton
September 3, 1928-June 23, 2023

For Mom, Another Birthday Means Reinventing Herself

For Mom, Another Birthday Means Reinventing Herself

For Mom, another birthday means reinventing herself

For Mom, another birthday means another chance to reinvent herself. For some people, that means claiming to be younger than they are. For Mom, it means the opposite. She began making such claims five years ago, about a month before her birthday.

“What do you want to do to celebrate turning 91?” I asked.

“I’ll be 95,” she replied.

“What year were you born?”

“1928,” she replied correctly without missing a beat.

“If that’s the case, you’re going to be 91.”

Faced with the math, which she could still compute at that time, she conceded the point. But not any more. For 2 years now, her insistence that she is 5 years older than her birth certificate claims has been remarkably consistent. I’ve been equally consistent about seeing if she’ll slip up.

“You’re going to be 94 on September 3,” I told her in late August. “What do you want to do to celebrate?”

“Nothing. And I’m going to be 99,” she shot back.

“Nothing at all? Not even cake and ice cream.”

“I could do that.”

“What kind of cake?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe homemade German Chocolate Cake?” I mentioned her favorite.

“That would be okay.”

The morning of her birthday, my brother and I served up cake and ice cream in her room at the care facility where she lives. My sister who lives out of state called and chatted with her.

After we sang Happy Birthday to her, I asked, “What’s it feel like to be 94?”

“I’m 99.” She handed my brother her half-eaten cake and ice cream. “I can’t eat any more.”

Soon after, my sister said good-bye, and Mom fell asleep. My brother and I packed up the food and went on our way.

“The only question now,” my brother said as we walked down the hall, “is whether she’ll be with us on her next birthday.”

“And if she is,” I added with her twinkle in my eye, “whether she’ll be 99 again or 100.”

The Road Home for Thanksgiving

The Road Home for Thanksgiving

The road home for Thanksgiving was a long one when we lived in Harding County.

550 miles from Camp Crook, South Dakota to Le Mars, Iowa.
Speed limit 55, even on the interstate.

School dismissed an hour early on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and we were on our way by at 2:45. It was a 12 1/2 hour drive with 1 time change to slow us down. That meant we would arrive at my parents’ home around 4 in the morning if nothing went wrong.

Something always went wrong.
Not during the few remaining daylight hours spent on desolate stretches of highway.
Not when we drove through Rapid City where there was a gas station and motel at every exit.
Not before midnight when we were part of the steady stream of home goers on Interstate 90.

Our troubles lurked in the darkness, waiting for the wee hours of the morning until we neared the bridge over the Missouri River. Year after year, like clockwork, as we drove past Chamberlain and our car tires hit the bridge, snow began to fall. The snowfall grew heavier as the car climbed the hill on the east side of the bridge. When we crested the hill and hit the open prairie, the wind blew. By the time we reached Mitchell, sixty miles further on, we were driving through blizzard conditions. More than once–in fact I think every single year we drove the road home for Thanksgiving–we ended up in a cheap motel room somewhere between Chamberlain and Sioux Falls. We called my parents (remember, no cell phones) to update them, woke up the next morning, and hung around until the weather came on the television (again, no cell phones). Then we got in the car and drove the remaining 2-3 hours home.

Sometimes on drifted roads.
Sometimes through ice storms.
Sometimes in frigid temperatures.
Every time, we made it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with our extended family.

Our experiences on the road home for Thanksgiving made their way into the first chapter of See Jane Dance!–with a few notable changes.

Jane’s parents live in Sioux City, so her trip home is a little shorter than ours was.
She is single so she makes the trip by herself.
She encounters bad weather on the way home from Thanksgiving.
She spends the night in her car instead of a motel.

She’s going to stay right there until the fall of 2022 when the publisher releases See Jane Dance! It’s a long time to be stuck in a car, but don’t worry. Jane’s mother, just like mine, loaded her down with Thanksgiving leftovers, so she won’t starve between now and then.

With Thanksgiving only a day away, neither will I!

If You’re Wondering Why Jane Is a School Teacher…

If You’re Wondering Why Jane Is a School Teacher…

If you’re wondering why Jane is a school teacher–and the Jane being referred to here is the protagonist of See Jane Run!, the picture above holds the explanation.

See the woman in the second row, far left, standing by the little girl with the pixie hair cut? That’s my mother. She taught school for 39 years.
Do you know how many students were in her third grade classroom during the 1963-64 school year? 32

That’s 32.

In a time when
classrooms weren’t air conditioned,
special education classes were few and far between,
men were paid more than women for doing the same job,
and women had to wear dresses and hose every day, even during recess duty in the winter.

While Mom was in charge of the education of 32 eight and nine-year-olds, she was also

furthering her education by completing her 4 year degree and a master’s degree,
caring for a husband who had multiple sclerosis,
raising three kids, who were 10, 7, and 4 in 1963-63,
and raising a ruckus with the school board which resulted in women’s salaries being raised to the same level as their male counterparts.

My mom was living proof that an elementary school teacher are tough enough to be the protagonist of a cozy mystery series. The country school and the town where Jane teaches are based upon my teaching experience, not Mom’s. As a result, Jane’s

biggest class consisted of 15 students in three grades (1st-3rd),
she earns the same salary as men,
she wears pants in fall, winter, and spring,
and her classroom isn’t air conditioned.

Therefore,

Jane can afford to go to the cafe for supper,
she can spend less time correcting papers and more time looking for clues,
and she can run around the short grass prairie in blue jeans in all kinds of weather.

All of which make the story move along faster,
make me grateful for my tough elementary school teacher mom,
and even more grateful never to have had a class of 32 students!

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Jane’s Mom and Mine: What’s the Same and What’s Not

Jane’s Mom and Mine: What’s the Same and What’s Not

Fiction writers, whether they admit to it or not, write from what they know. I’ve made it very clear that See Jane Run! is based upon the years my husband and I spent in northwestern South Dakota.

A major character in the book is Jane’s mother, Doris Stanton. She is fashioned after my mother Dorothea Stratton. The two mothers are similar in many ways, but they are not identical. No character, setting, event, or sequence of events in See Jane Run! is identical to the original. To give you a peek at how that works, at least in the case of Doris/Dorothea here are 5 ways the fictional character and the real person are the same, and 5 ways they are different.

What’s the Same

  1. Both women helped their daughters move from tame Iowa to the wilds of South Dakota. (See above picture with Dorothea standing on a hillside on the east side of Missouri River near Chamberlain.)
  2. Both women wear polyester pant suits they sewed themselves. (Again see the picture above.)
  3. Both women had bouffant hair styles, and the South Dakota wind did a number on in both cases.
  4. Neither Doris or Dorothea were excited about their daughters being a 12 1/2 hour drive from home.
  5. Both mother/daughter pairs shared a bed during the first night in the daughters’ new homes. Both mothers clung to their daughters through the night and repeatedly whimpered, “I can’t believe my baby is going to live here.” (I’m not creative enough to make a scene like that up.)

What’s Not

  1. While neither mother was thrilled to have a daughter living so far away, Doris is far more bent out of shape by it than Dorothea ever was.
  2. Both mothers gave their daughters advice over the phone, but Doris (she’s the fictional one, in case you’re confused) gave way more advice and it wasn’t as helpful as Dorothea’s (she’s the real deal) was.
  3. Doris was an unapologetic matchmaker on Jane’s behalf. Dorothea never, not even once, tried to find me a husband because I already had one. Mom’s always been good that way.
  4. Doris sent money so Jane could treat herself to a haircut and buy groceries. Such a thought would never have occurred to Dorothea. If it had, she would have taken two aspirin and gone to bed early in hopes of feeling more like herself in the morning.
  5. Doris was not a fan of Jane’s neighbor Merle Laird. Dorothea got a kick out of the real person Merle Laird is fashioned after. She even milked his cow, made butter, and talked gardening with him. I think he had a crush on her because he was always asking about her.

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