Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Life Archiving: Aunt Gerry's 85th Birthday

Aunt Gerry and Me

Today is my Aunt Gerry’s 85th Birthday. I am reminded by her photo on the family calendar and a note on Facebook, reminding me to wish her a happy birthday on this day. Aunt Gerry won’t get my note on Facebook, however, because Aunt Gerry passed away on December 31, 2016. Her funeral was the first family event of 2017.

Here I am, coming up on a year of the anniversary of her death, and exactly a year ago today since I last spoke to her. I called her on her birthday last year and we had a great conversation. I remember feeling relieved that she sounded so relaxed and happy, a state of being that wasn’t typical to the one my aunt had a tendency to dwell in.

Gerry was my mother’s big sister, and I claimed her as my own from a very early age. I remember swimming at the city pool (the old one in Wright Park before it was torn out and replaced by the new pool near the civic center), my arms looped around Aunt Gerry’s neck, and someone asking her if I was her daughter. It must have been the answer that made the memory stick so solidly in my young mind.

“No, she’s my sister’s girl, but I claim her. She’s mine.”

The stranger then told me how much I looked like my aunt and, just like that, I could see the resemblance. I claimed her, too. She was mine. Never mind the fact that she had two sons. Brent and Leon were near-adults by the time I came along. At least, they certainly always seemed grown up already to me. I was saddened by the knowledge that my aunt had two babies, twin girls, who had died at birth, long before I was born. I think this made me even more determined to be Aunt Gerry’s girl. Boys were fine, but sometimes Aunt Gerry would brush my hair or help me pull it into a ponytail and she’d say, “I’m not very good at this. I didn’t get to practice on my girls, and though my boys had long hair for a while, they never wanted braids.”

I don’t know all of the details or the timeline, but my aunt got sick when I was very young. She was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease and her skin, which was already darkly olive in complexion, like my own, turned near-black. I have a memory of visiting her in the hospital, and wondering how the paint had been applied so thoroughly, and then she got better and her skin lightened, but not entirely. After that, I remember my mom keeping a close eye on the Gerry’s color, and if she seemed tired or weak, Mom would encourage her to rest and take better care of herself.

When Mom had her first breast cancer surgery, I was seven, and I spent even more time with Aunt Gerry than usual. That summer, it was Aunt Gerry who took me shopping for a new swimsuit, and we went to JC Penney’s where I picked out a two-piece bikini covered in tiny little polka-dots. The suit was in “our colors” as Gerry and I were drawn to deep blues and purples while my mom tended to be a fall color sort of person who wore lots of reds, oranges, browns, and golds.

Aunt Gerry pretty much became my dedicated shopping partner, and whenever I needed a dress for a special occasion or a new outfit, it was Gerry who would head to the dressing rooms with me or help me brainstorm and select fabric for the outfit my mother would eventually sew from scratch. Mom’s and my tastes eventually diverged so completely that she relied entirely on Aunt Gerry for gift selection of all kinds. It wasn’t unusual for me to open a birthday or Christmas gift to hear Mom say, “Aunt Gerry picked it out,” as a way of assuring herself that it would be something I would like.

Aunt Gerry and Mom (Ethel Geraldine and Evelyn Reaujean, were their full names) often presented as a pair, and they were probably together, the older they got, more than they were apart. They lived right next door to each other in the country with only their mother’s house (Grandma Skaggs) in between, and I grew up understanding that where you were to find one you would likely find all three. They drank tea together in the mornings – hot tea if it was cold out and cold tea if it was hot. They had their own garden plots laid out pretty much with borders touching, and could often be heard having conversation between the weed pulling and hole digging. When it was harvest time, they’d can together in the kitchen and they’d watch their soaps, of course, and worry together about what ole’ Lisa Hughes on As the World Turns was up to now.

As I entered my teen years, I began to think of Aunt Gerry as the realistic one of the duo. My Mom was quick to don her rose colored glasses and paint away the wrongs of the world with rainbows and glitter. Mom was always urging me to put myself in other people’s shoes and consider things from another’s point of view, while Aunt Gerry would simply nod her head in agreement that what the supposed BFF said in front of everybody in school that day was rotten and then she’d help me plot revenge. It was no wonder Aunt Gerry’s house became my first stop off the school bus through the deep, dark days of junior high school, a time I wasn’t sure I even wanted to survive. In Aunt Gerry, I was always sure to find a sympathetic ear.

I was living in Grandma’s house with my husband and my firstborn, between Mom and Gerry, when my mother passed away in 1997. Grandma was 89 at that time and had been dividing her time between Mom’s house and Gerry’s, and when I returned to Kansas, Grandma started staying with us, part time, as well, as it seemed like returning to space in her own home would be good for everyone. Gerry and I grew even closer through our grieving for Mom and caring for Grandma. My Uncle Riley, just down the road, traded days with us, as well. We moved forward, best we could, all experiencing a world lacking the luster and shine my mother’s dedication and care added to our lives.

I had a second child. Grandma passed away in 1999. My third child was born. Gerry and I attended Sunny South Extension Club (the old homemakers’ meetings of Gerry’s and Mom’s days) together monthly and I encouraged her to sync her grocery shopping trips with my own as much as possible so that we could ride together. With three kids in tow, it was always helpful to have another set of arms available.

The hardest thing about the decision to leave Dodge City, for the second time in my life, was leaving my Aunt Gerry behind. She still had Uncle Barney, but I knew the vast yard, former vegetable and flower gardens would feel even lonelier to her without my family there, right next door, to help fill some of that quiet space. She wasn’t my mother, but she was still mine. We claimed each other. We viewed the dull grays of the world together and did our best to help each other carry the weight of my mom’s left-behind rose-colored glasses.

Every visit home, I would see how much older she had gotten. She’d confide to me that life just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be with Mom gone, Grandma gone, and eventually my Uncle Barney gone. I’d drag Aunt Gerry off to whatever family gathering we were planning—I was told I was the only person she wouldn’t say no to—and we’d visit and reminisce and marvel over how all the kids were growing.

She was mad when she had to move into the nursing home at Fort Dodge, but Aunt Gerry being mad had never really phased me. “They say they are worried about me falling down at night,” she told me on the phone, “But it’s not the night time I have trouble with falling down!” She’d lost her little dog and it had been added to the list of all that Gerry missed when I would call and we would visit. It would take no time at all, of course, to get her to laughing and talking about something else, maybe the last book she had read, or the book I was writing that I had been sending to her in pieces to read. She would ask about the kids and I would ask about her grandkids and she would update me on all the growing little cousins and talk about the most recent one to visit.

We last talked on her birthday, one year ago today. I got the call from my beautiful cousin, Carla (thank you, Carla) shortly after we arrived home from a family trip abroad. Our last in-person visit had been a happy one. Aunt Gerry had been full of smiles and jolly. She’d even been happy with her roommate at the nursing home, and I’d thought that she reminded me an awful lot of Mom on that day as we carted her off to eat pizza with the family at my brother’s house.

Aunt Gerry didn’t linger long or suffer at the end, and I was content that we’d had our good times together. Driving to Dodge City for Aunt Gerry’s funeral was not the way I would have wished to start the year, but the time with family was a bonus, and it was at least a reminder to all of us to say hello and hug each other an extra time or two. We needed the extra hugs this year. We’ve lost too many.

I’ve missed Aunt Gerry immensely these past 11 months and I’ve regretted, again and again, not having taken—or made—the time to put some of these thoughts and memories about her down on paper for the archives of my life. For her birthday, I give myself the gift of this time.

I like the image I carry in my mind of Aunt Gerry and Mom and Grandma Skaggs—together again—drinking tea and watching over the whole family. I like looking in the mirror and seeing the fine lines of white just beginning to appear in my black hair, on its slow transformation to silver, just like hers.

I don’t know that I’ll be the Aunt Gerry of any of my nieces or nephews lives, or if I’ll be the Aunt Jean or the Aunt Bonnie or the Aunt Lynetta or the Aunt Vadonna or any of the Great Aunts that have touched my life and made me uniquely theirs in the way that only an aunt can. I hope that they will know—in the way that I always understood with Aunt Gerry—that I claim them. That they are mine. Just as I remain, Aunt Gerry’s.

Ethel Geraldine "Gerry" Skaggs Lee
November 21, 1932 - December 31, 2016

Me with My Mom's Siblings, Gerry Lee and Riley Skaggs

Monday, October 23, 2017

Kansas Authors Club 2017 Convention in Coffeyville

October 13-15, I attended my 15th Kansas Authors Club Convention. I’ve only missed two since I became a member 17 years ago. This year the event was held in Coffeyville, Kansas. I have circled the state more than twice now attending conventions with KAC, and, as almost always, I was extremely pleased with the quality of presenters, I very much enjoyed the time spent with my writing family, and I came away with new ideas and inspirations sure to fuel my writing work well into the coming year.

Some highlights: Pete Walterscheid performed his magic for us twice! Attendees got a show on Friday evening, a great warm-up for the weekend, and he performed again for the youth awards event on Saturday.

Speaking of youth awards, I think we had the best event for our young writers that we have had to date. Our programs for young writers keep improving and I am so proud to be a part of KAC’s efforts to encourage these kids. For many years now, formatting the Youth Awards Book (printing courtesy of Mennonite Press) has been a highlight of my KAC experience. This year, I continued my support of the creation of the book by lending the talents of an intern for my publishing company, Meadowlark Books. Sammy Beck is a senior at Emporia State University majoring in English with a minor in creative writing. She did a fantastic job on the publication and her original artwork for the book’s cover was a hit.

I attended several worthwhile workshops, but I think my favorite this year was listening to Michael and David Frizell talk about the story of their graphic novel, Bender. Michael is a writer with more than 20 graphic novels on his resume. David is a graphic artist. The brothers spent their school years in Labette County were the Bender family legend was rooted and grew. They entertained the audience with stories of their collaboration, from the results of research on the Bender family history to details on constructing a graphic novel.  Especially meaningful to KAC members was the fact that Fern Wood, Michael’s grade school teacher who first sparked his interest in the Bender family, was president of our organization from 1996-97. Fern was the author of The Benders: Keepers of the Devils Inn (published 1992).

I also enjoyed hearing from (but didn’t hear nearly enough from) busvlogger James Moore. His YouTube channel is billed as a lifestyle vlog and I was intrigued by his focus on featuring people who are following dreams. He had some lessons on branding that I need to study more closely. Lucky for me, I can now follow him online!

We had a fantastic presentation on travel writing by Lisa Waterman Gray and I also enjoyed the workshop on outlining novels by Cherilyn Hearn. My only regret was the workshops I was unable to attend, with so many great ones to choose from, there was no way to make it to them all.

I always enjoy this opportunity to connect with my writing friends from across the state. The 2017 convention has come and gone, and I find myself sorting through post-convention responsibilities. Though I have passed the job of yearbook editor on after ten years, I continue to be a member of the state board as the assistant to the financial secretary (membership chair) and unofficial advisor/helper for both youth and adult contests. I’ve got pages and pages of notes to fuel my own projects in the new year and I look forward to putting them to good use.
1. Ronda Miller presents my friend, Gloria Zachgo, with the Coffin Memorial Book Award for her novel, Hush Girl: It's Only a Dream. 2. My Emporia writing peeps made quite a showing at the convention!

Our final speaker of the convention, Kevin Olson, wrapped up the event with so many words and lessons I wanted to capture to carry home.  His message summarized: What we have to give is not as important as that we give what we have.

Next year’s convention will take place the first weekend of October in Salina, Kansas. Go ahead and mark your calendar! Anyone with an interest in writing is welcome to become a member of Kansas Authors Club. You can find them on Facebook, and in-person meetings and writing groups in several locations in Kansas.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Life in Progress Book Release Party Scheduled at Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore

A Life in Progress and Other Short Stories, by Tracy Million Simmons
Published by: Meadowlark Books
ISBN: 978-0996680134 

September 7, 2017 - for immediate release

A Life in Progress Book Release Party Scheduled at Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore

Emporia, KS: Award-winning author, Tracy Million Simmons, will hold a release party and book signing at Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore, 1122 Commercial, on Thursday, September 14, from 4-6pm. Readers are invited to come and go. Her newest book is a collection of short stories titled, A Life in Progress. The book is being published by Meadowlark Books of Emporia and sells for $15.

In this collection of short stories, Simmons captures slices of life, glimpses of everyday people and everyday thoughts and actions, and the many moments—touching, amusing, happy, and sad—of lives in progress. This book is an intimate peek into a writer’s stash, written across the decades, an experience of timelessness and the human condition. Through fiction, these stories reveal relatable truths.

 About the book, Cheryl Unruh writes, “Tracy Million Simmons shows clearly the moving parts of relationships. Her stories reveal the irreversible ties of family. She shows the push-and-pull between spouses, between parent and child, between dear friends, and we see how we’re all recklessly and joyfully bound one to another.”

A Life in Progress and Other Short Stories will be available after the release party from Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore and through any book retailer. It can also be ordered direct from the publisher, Meadowlark Books, Emporia, Kansas. Learn more at www.meadowlark-books.com.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Impromptu Writing Retreat

My Munchkin Boy had a state 4-H meeting that kind of snuck up on us. It was far enough away that making two round trips for drop-off/pick-up seemed unreasonable, so I checked the points on my Choice Hotels rewards card and got myself a "free" room with a desk. Bought myself some fancy coffee drinks and healthy snacks and shut myself in for a writing marathon. Hit the ten-hour mark before crashing sometime this morning. Let myself wake up naturally rather than by alarm and am pleased to have another couple of hours to devote to writing before I need to be anywhere.

Wrapping up:

  • WaterSigns -- new poetry book by Ronda Miller
  • A Life in Progress -- short story collection by moi!
  • Essays about vendors and my time at the market. I am calling this a market memoir. I believe it is going to end up being a fairly comprehensive history of the 35 + year history of the Emporia Farmers Market!

What a satisfying way to start a week!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

5 AM Ode to Eggplant

With the rain this morning, it seemed like a good excuse to stay in bed, to sleep in.
But my eyes were open, and I could not stop thinking about eggplant... so I got up and wrote an essay about it. I think I'll call it -- 5 AM Ode to Eggplant.

I've been hungry for eggplant parmigiana. It is very nearly market season for eggplant. I had hoped to buy eggplant at yesterday's market, but the line for the little that was available was super long. I remain hungry for eggplant and dreamed all night of making my favorite casserole.

It's okay.

My hunger for eggplant got me out of bed to write.

See You in the Parking Lot
A Memoir of a Farmers Market

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May Musings

Starting the fifth month of the year that is 2017! Is it too late for a blog about plans for the new year?

Between travel, the loss of two very special loved ones, and just trying to keep up with life in general, I decided that this was going to be a say-YES year to publishing. My own collection of short stories is well on its way to being complete and, via Meadowlark Books, I am working on building a bigger bookshelf for Kansas authors! I was honored to work with my very good friend, Cheryl Unruh, on her first book of poetry, Walking on Water, which was released in April.

Walking on Water - April 2017
I have found myself returning to this post in recent days, where I wrote, among other things:

"I am convinced that writing is a profession of constantly becoming." 

I guess I have long understood that I find a great deal of satisfaction in simply putting together beautiful books. That I find this process as meaningful--and perhaps even more enjoyable--when I do it for others is still catching up to me. Working as part of a team is fun, and with each Meadowlark book, new team members have added depth and richness to my experience, and Meadowlark, as a publisher, has grown. 

Working so closely with writers fuels my creative fires. Dedicating time to book formatting and production seems to bring balance to my own endeavors in fiction. Each read through a book brings me closer to an author, and more appreciative of the view and perspective that person is sharing with the world through their writing.

Could I get my own work done more quickly if I didn't pursue these publishing endeavors?

In theory, yes. But my reality seems to be that I stay better focused on my own work when I surround myself with other writers up close and personal.

My short story collection is still on its way. I expect to have a proof ordered by the end of May, and I hope to be sharing it with the world by July... or so. In the meantime, there is a lot of becoming to focus on, including writing, publishing, travelling, and time with my family.  I am enjoying living life on that book mountain, helping others up and down the path.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Max Yoho

Today I join the friends, family, and lucky readers who have had the pleasure of knowing Max Yaho, an author who has left us a legacy of fine work and words to enjoy. I know his friendship has touched many, his stories many more.

Here's my 2013 interview with Max.

His obituary.

Tracy with Max Yoho - Kansas Authors Club
Convention, October 2013

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