year 2014 archives

Home in Time for Christmas

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Home for in Time for Christmas

Cassie stood at the kitchen window, her hands wrapped around a coffee cup for warmth. Outside, snow swirled in a series of mini tornadoes, not that she’d ever seen a tornado, or snow, either, for that matter. A snow tornado, that’s how she’d describe it to her mother back home in Seattle. Between the steam from the coffee fogging her glasses and the swirling snow outside it was impossible to see the corral let alone her husband Jim.

“I need to put Ole Henry in the barn,” he had said as the snow started to fall. That was thirty minutes ago. She was sure the horse was no longer outdoors, but that gave Cassie little comfort as she watched the sky thicken with snow. She shivered while upstairs the twins squealed as they wiggled into their new snowsuits.

“Hurry up,” Tracey said. “We need to build a snowman before the snow goes away.”

Cassie smiled. As if this snow was going anywhere, not if you believed the meteorologist on Channel 7. If she’d been more of an outdoors’s girl she’d button her coat and join her children. But she was a city girl, more in love with Seattle than the Idaho prairie, so she let them enjoy the excitement of their very first snowfall without expressing her discontentment.

She turned as the door squeaked opened flooding the kitchen with cold blustery wind. Jim was covered in snow, his face redder than the barn. He warmed his hands over the wood stove and called upstairs. “Girls? What are you waiting for, Christmas?”

They giggled their way toward the kitchen. Tracey had her stocking hat on inside out and Stacey had her scarf wrapped so tight around her neck all Cassie could see were her eyes.

“Yes,” they cried in unison. “We can’t wait for Christmas in Idaho.” Tracey pointed to the calendar. “Only twenty more days.”

It was hard to believe Christmas was less than three weeks away. In the four short months they had been on the Camas Prairie, Cassie’s sickly-looking six-year olds had blossomed into sturdy pioneer stock. Freckles bridged their noses, and their once pale faces were now the golden color of honey. If only their grandmother could see them, Cassie thought. She wouldn’t believe their transformation.

“Cass?” Jim straightened Tracey’s hat and tugged the twins’ zippers tight. “Aren’t you going to join us?”

Cassie shook her head. “No thanks. I can watch from the window.”

Tracey pulled at her mother’s hand. “Awe, come on, Mom. It’ll be fun.”

Cassie gave her daughter a hug. “I’ll come out later and take pictures to send to Nana.”

Closing the door behind them, Cassie brushed at the tears threatening to fall. The thing she wanted most wasn’t going to happen. She wouldn’t be spending Christmas with her mother in Seattle. She wouldn’t see the city decked out in holiday fare from the top of the Space Needle, or stop for hot cocoa at the Fairmount Olympic after riding the Holiday Carousel at Westlake Park. She would miss the hubbub at Pike Place Market and the horse-drawn carriage rides. Just last week she had begged, even pleaded. “Please, Jim. Can’t we go home for Christmas?”

“This is our home,” he’d said without looking up from his newspaper. “I want to have Christmas here. So do the twins.”

Cassie bristled. This stupid farm was driving a wedge between them. What did they think they were doing anyway, a Seattle attorney and accountant on a run-down farm in the middle of nowhere? Her poor attempt at a garden had proved a disaster. Mending fences filled her hands with calluses and broken fingernails. And the grasshoppers and rabbits ate better than she and her children.

“It will bring us closer as a family,” Jim had promised as he transported them from Washington to Idaho. Fairfield, Cassie thought the moment she saw the farm. Nothing was fair about Idaho or the abandoned ranch either where cell phone reception was spotty at best. Four months, but it felt like years.

She finished her coffee, then pulled her camera from the top of the closet, buttoned up her coat and joined her family outside.

“Watch out, Mom!” Tracey said, as a snowball whizzed over Cassie’s head. Before Cassie could duck, another hit her square in the face. Cold and icy, the snowball fight was anything but fun.

She brushed the snow from her eyes and interrupted their game by pulling a carrot from her pocket. “Here. Frosty needs a nose.”

“Thanks!” Stacey’s cheeks were red; her eyes sparkled like fairy dust. The only thing that would make them shine brighter was Tinker Bell appearing with her magic wand.

Positioning her twins beside the finished snowman, Cassie said, “Say, Cheese.”

“Cheese.” Her twins smiled as Cassie clicked the camera.

“Wait. One more. So I can put it in a frame for Nana so she’ll have something to admire this Christmas.”

Jim looked pointedly at her. Without a word he walked toward the barn.

Go, she thought. Go talk to your stupid horse.

That night at dinner she tried again. “Please. One week. Surely you can spare one lousy week.”

Jim put his fork down and kept his voice even. “I promised Roger I’d help reroof his barn.”

Cassie scoffed. “Who roofs a barn in the middle of winter?”

“Farmers since they’re too busy any other time of the year.” She looked at her plate, and they finished the meal in silence.

While Cassie cleaned up the kitchen and washed the dishes, she made a decision. She was going home for Christmas, even if she had to go alone.

The next morning, after the twins were safely in school, Cassie stopped at the library. A large sagebrush sprayed white and decorated as a Christmas tree stood in the middle of the lobby making everything smell pungent instead of like pine.

“Isn’t it lovely,” the librarian said when she saw Cassie looking at the tree. “Just last week the first grade elementary kids helped decorate. Look. Aren’t these just the sweetest?”

All the decorations were homemade, including the paper garland and tissue paper snowflakes. Ornaments in the shapes of stars and candy canes cut from paper plates hung from the twisted branches. Pretending to admire the artwork, Cassie turned a glittery pink star over, startled to see her child’s name written in bold red letters: Tracey Ann Mink – 1st grade.

She searched until she found the other, a candy cane colored red and green: Stacey Marie Mink – 1st grade. Beside her name, Stacey had added a smiley face wearing a Santa’s hat. They hadn’t mentioned decorating a sagebrush, had they? No, she would have remembered. Cassie chewed the inside of her cheek while she waited for her computer to connect to the Internet. Why was she the only one who couldn’t seem to bond with this stark Idaho landscape?

As soon as she was on the Internet, Cassie purchased three plane tickets to Seattle. After checking email and her Facebook page, she turned off her computer and drove the ten snowy miles home, all the while humming, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The storm had passed, leaving everything glittering white. The contrast between the blue sky and the white trees was striking she had to admit, prettier than the dreary gray skies she knew her mother was experiencing in Seattle.

That night as they settled around the kitchen table slurping tomato soup and devouring grilled cheese sandwiches, Cassie broke her news. “Jim,” she said, “I’m going home for Christmas, and I’m taking the twins with me.”

Everyone stopped eating. The only sound in the kitchen was the refrigerator running.

“I thought we were staying here for Christmas,” Tracey said. “That’s where I told Santa to bring my presents.”

“He can still bring your presents here. That way you can celebrate Christmas twice,” Cassie negotiated.

“It won’t be the same,” Tracey pouted.

Stacey folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not going. I promised Miss Miller I’d help hang the star at our Christmas pageant.”

“I’m sure someone else can help her out,” Cassie coaxed.

“Maybe they can,” Stacey said. “But I said I was gong to do it. And I am.”

Cassie looked at her husband. “Jim, help me out here.”

He pushed away from the table and grabbed his coat. “You’re own your own,” he said. “I need to check the livestock.”

Stacey finished her sandwich and said, “ I’m staying here for Christmas.”

“Me too,” Tracey said.

“But what about Nana?” Cassie said. “She will miss you.”

“No, she won’t,” Tracey said. “She already said it would be all right. Don’t you remember, when we talked to her on the computer?”

“Fine.” Cassie was disheartened but she wasn’t defeated. The following Monday she drove into Fairfield. Again using the library Internet, she cancelled the twins’ tickets and changed her ticket from a week to a long weekend. She’d spend Christmas Eve with her mother at Westlake Park and fly back Christmas day in time to wish her children Merry Christmas.

With Christmas coming the twins were so excited their happiness was contagious. All week long they practiced the songs they would sing in the Christmas assembly at school. What Cassie had convinced herself would be easy, was proving hard to do. She didn’t want to be away from her children at Christmas, but she didn’t want her mother to be alone, either. As she backed out of the driveway and pointed the car toward Boise, she tried to mimic the twins’ holiday spirit. “Oh Christmas tree,” she sang as she maneuvered the icy roads. “I’ll be home for Christmas.” In spite of the happy songs, her heart was heavy. But the surprised look on her mother’s face would make the sacrifice worthwhile. She’d be back soon. She wouldn’t miss their Idaho Christmas.

Her parting with Jim had been icy at best. He didn’t kiss her goodbye; he didn’t wish her a Merry Christmas. “Watch the roads,” he’d said before walking off to the barn. She knew in her heart if something didn’t change soon her marriage was doomed. But she would worry about that next week after the holidays. Next year was soon enough to decide how to resolve their differences.

Arriving early for her flight, Cassie stopped at Starbucks in the Boise Airport and enjoyed a real cup of coffee. Along with their festive display Starbucks was selling holiday coffee cups: Snowmen, candy canes and reindeer. She selected two cups, each painted green and red to look like elves’ shoes. She envisioned filling the cups with hot chocolate on Christmas Eve and settling down to a movie on TV, maybe “It’s a Wonderful Life” with her mother. The thought made her smile. Why, then, was she so close to crying?

Christmas was everywhere, in the corridors, on the escalators, and especially in families reuniting again. Cassie watched as family members greeted holiday travelers with hugs and kisses. She almost cried when a young woman holding a baby embraced her husband returning from active duty. She kissed her husband repeatedly, “This is the only thing I want for Christmas. I’m so glad you made it home. Just like you promised.” The soldier smothered the baby with kisses and Cassie had to look away to stop her tears.

Finally they called her flight. As she stood in line to board the plane the anticipation in the air was catching. Everyone was headed home for Christmas.

Cassie squared her shoulders. My mother needs me.

She dug through her purse and found her ticket. My husband needs me.

Ticket in hand for scanning, Cassie knew instantly no matter how much she hated Idaho, no matter how much she missed her mother, she loved her husband and children more.

“Miss?” The attendant said. “Your ticket?”

Cassie fumbled with her purse. “Oh, I think I lost it.” She picked up her carryon and stepped out of line.

As Cassie passed Starbucks she stopped and picked up two more coffee mugs. She’d fill them with hot chocolate Christmas Eve after they decorated the tree. It could even be a scrawny sagebrush sprayed white, it wouldn’t matter as long as they were all together. She’d be home to hear Tracey sing and to see Stacey hang the star. She’d be home in time to kiss her husband good night and tell him how much she loved him.

Cassie pulled away from the airport and onto the interstate highway. She wouldn’t wait to see their faces. “Oh Christmas tree,” she sang. Only two more hours. She’d be home in time for Christmas.

Reproducing Miracles

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I have a cast-iron bathtub I’ve converted into a water garden. It’s heavy and ugly but makes the best place for lilies to bloom and fish to swim. For ten years it’s graced my flower garden, the sound of the fountain soothing on many summer nights. Years ago when I planted my water garden, I added ten goldfish. Nothing fancy, just ten small feeder fish from my local WalMart. I didn’t know if I had males or females, nor did I care. If they made it through the season I’d consider myself lucky. Being optimistic, I bought some fish food and as soon as the fish were acclimated to the water, I dumped them into the tub.

Since I live on ten acres and have more than a water garden demanding my time, I didn’t hover over the fish. Most of the time I forgot about them, stopping occasionally to check how they fared. One—two—three I’d count anxious to know how many adapted and survived. Quickly I discovered they weren’t interested in the store-bought food. They were more interested in the organisms growing in the roots of the water hyacinths and the insects hovering over the water. So much better than the tanks at Wally World, my fish were happy in their new environment.

Because I didn’t want my water lilies to freeze I purchased a water stock heater and placed it in the bathtub once the outside temperatures neared 30°F. The lilies didn’t freeze that first winter and neither did the fish. I’d read that goldfish eat their young so I wasn’t worried about the tub overflowing with new fish each year. Every spring I’d count the fish to see just how many had survived. The first year I lost three. The following year I lost two more.

Yesterday I was outside getting the yard ready for winter. Still too early to install the water stock heater, I stood over the tub and watched, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fish. The water rippled and I started to count. One—two—three—four—five. Wait a minute. Six—seven—eight—nine—ten. Oh my gosh. My fish had multiplied. My fish had had babies and some of them didn’t get eaten. Like a happy child I clapped my hands. My heart was full of wonder.

I watched the water garden a long time before I went on with my yard work. Nothing that day compared to the joy and surprise I felt as I counted those fish. Reproducing miracles. A ray of surprise and sunshine on a typically ordinary day.

Meet Arleen Williams, author of The Alki Trilogy

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I’m delighted to have as a guest today Arleen Williams from Seattle, Washington. Her book, Biking Uphill was released this fall by Booktrope. Please say hello to Arleen.

Fall quarter starts with a bang and I am reminded once again why I write. Or more specifically, why I am writing The Alki Trilogy.

When I’m not writing, I’m an English as Second Language instructor at South Seattle College, a large urban school which is among the most diverse colleges in the country. The average student age is 31.5, 54% are first generation, 41% do not speak English as their first language and there are 35 languages spoken on campus on any given day. (2012 statistics http://www.southseattle.edu/campus-information/student-statistics.aspx)

This is my twenty-eighth year working with refugees and immigrants at this college. I’ve been teaching ESL for almost forty. When I introduce myself, when I tell my students these numbers, they inevitably ask me why. My response is always the same: I love to teach because I learn as much as they do. These are not empty words. The classroom has given me a world-view that does not stem from news stories but from the people who have lived the experiences that fill our headlines.

The Alki Trilogy began with a story about suicide, a topic I wanted to understand more completely. The character of Gemila Kemmal appeared to me unbidden but understandable: I work with African immigrants eager to gain the language skills necessary to enter our college nursing program. I did not plan to write three novels about the immigrant experience in the U.S. In fact, I didn’t plan to write a trilogy at all. But there we go. I fell in love with Gemila in Running Secrets. When I began Biking Uphill, a novel loosely based on a teenager I met years before when I was a lonely college student, I decided to hold tight to Gemila and Carolyn. Now, I’m working on Walking Home, the final novel in the trilogy, where the reader will meet new characters and revisit those who came before.

So I suppose the old adage, write what you know, guides my work just as it shapes the person I am. As I enter the classroom and greet the students before me, I wonder about the experiences they’ve lived, the things they’ve seen, the sacrifices they’ve made to come to class each morning hoping to glean the skills they need to build a new home in America. It is humbling. It is an honor. It scares the crap out of me … even after a lifetime of the same.

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Arleen Williams is the author of three books. Running Secrets (Booktrope, 2013), the first novel in The Alki Trilogy, is about the power of friendship in helping overcome the dysfunction of family and life. Biking Uphill (Booktrope, 2014), book two of The Alki Trilogy, invites the reader into a world of undocumented immigration, where parents are deported, and a young girl is abandoned to face life on her own. The Thirty-Ninth Victim (Blue Feather Books, 2008) is a memoir of her family’s journey before and after her sister’s murder.

Arleen teaches English as a Second Language at South Seattle College and has worked with immigrants and refugees for close to three decades. Arleen lives and writes in West Seattle. To learn more, please visit http://www.arleenwilliams.com.

I Love My Job

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Today we stopped by Morningside Elementary in Twin Falls and presented the Principal, Steven Hoy, a copy of our book, Billie Neville Takes a Leap. Billie attended Morningside in 1974, the year Evel Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon. Thank you, Morningside Elementary for letting us wander your halls. You have a great school.DSC03696

 

Goodbye Summer

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Summer leaves today, which reminds me of a recent trip to the mountains. It was the weekend before Labor Day. My husband and I were enjoying the summer weather at our cabin near Featherville. It was one of those gloriously quiet weekends. Soon enough the roads would be thick with dust and campers eager to celebrate the last summer hurrah with the upcoming three-day weekend. But that weekend the only thing stirring was the Feather River and an occasional chipmunk scampering over logs in the woodpile.

“Let’s go for a ride,” my husband said, wanting to take advantage of the nice weather. So we hopped in the truck and meandered over the back roads following the river.

We passed horses, we passed sheep. Gravel skipped under our tires as deer bounded across the road in front of the truck. We slowed down and Emily sniffed the air while Boo and Riley barked.

“Wow, did you see that big dog,” I taunted my pets. They all wagged their tales.

“Stop.” I pointed to the hillside. “Look at that.” I opened the door and walked over to the shrubs, thick and plump with purple chokecherries.

“I can’t believe it. They’re usually gone by now.” I popped one in my mouth, enjoying the tart fruit. “If we had some bags, I would pick these. They are delicious, just perfect.” I popped one more in my mouth, spit out the pit, and jumped back into the truck.

Farther on down the road, I made my husband stop again. This time I didn’t leave the truck, but peered at the hill beside me.

“Last year’s forest-fire didn’t devour everything,” I said. “Look at the elderberries.”

They were everywhere. Some green, some purple, some powdery white meaning they needed picking soon. I was beyond tempted, immediately imagining my juicer full of fruit, the kettle on the stove humming. We studied the hills for a while and then traveled on, empty-handed.

As we rounded the road back to our cabin we pulled over and stared down at the small pond Fish and Game stock in the spring. No one was angling, and as we watched fish jumped at insects, leaving concentric circles on the water.

“I’ve never seen the pond this low,” my husband said. “Look. You can see clear to the bottom of the dredge.”

I aimed my camera at the abandoned machine, a dredge that years ago chewed up the riverbed, spitting it out into odd-shaped Cairns. Carnage the dredge left behind. From where we stood we could see river-bottom, the place where the dredger finally stopped to rest. It was impressive. It was sad.

“Well,” my husband said as we pulled into our driveway. “Are we getting a bucket and going back for those berries?”

“Naw,” I said, even though I was tempted. “We’ll leave them for all the berry-pickers coming to the hills next weekend.”

“You’re sure?”

I nodded. I’d leave them for someone else to enjoy.

“Okay.” He settled into a chair on the back deck. Enjoying cool drinks, we listened to camp robbers chatter and watched hummingbirds dive-bomb the feeder.

“This is nice,” I said. One simple day filled with summer wonder and all the things we left behind.

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Breath taking

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There is nothing as glorious as Fall in southern Idaho. The days are warm, the skies clear. The colors on the trees start to change as leaves flutter to the ground.

On such a dazzling day my writing partner and I arrived at Rock Creek Park to shoot video for a book trailer. Mid-afternoon, it was warm and we were having trouble with one of our props.

“Move it to the left,” my writing partner said.

A young boy, perhaps six or seven approached. “What are you doing?”

“We’re making a film.”

“For what?” He watched as she aimed the camera and pushed the lever.

“For a book.”

He gave her a funny look and continued to watch until he realized no superheroes where going to jump out of the tree.

“Now what, director?” I said.

Bored, the young boy drifted away.

“I’m too short,” I said as I tried to straighten the prop, now lodged in the tree. “I wish I had something to stand on.” As I looked around for a log or a rock, a teenager scaled the tree and unlodged our prop.

“Thank you,” I said, extremely grateful.

Curious but silent, he watched. Then as quick as he appeared, he was gone.

Fussing with the prop, my writing partner said, “I wish I had a piece of wire.”

Just like that, the teenager reappeared, this time with a rusty piece of wire.

“That’s great,” she said as she adjusted the prop.

He stood back and watched as she filmed the video.

“Check this out.” She hit the playback button.

I waved him over. “Come see.”

Silently we bent our heads over the screen.

She shot it again. Again we peered at the footage.

“That’s a wrap,” she said satisfied.

“Thanks for your help,” she said as the teenager walked towards his little brother. “You make a great director’s assistant.”

He didn’t say goodbye. He didn’t vandalize our car, or glare at us with drug-hazed eyes. He didn’t ask for money. I didn’t see his face, but I know he was smiling.

For one brief moment on a Sunday afternoon, three strangers converged. Silently we touched something in each other. Heart-stopping, it was beautiful.

An Awesome day in Twin Falls.

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We had so much fun today at the Perrine Bridge Festival. It was a little windy, but, then, this is Idaho. Thanks,  everyone, for stopping by and saying hello!

 

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And a famous superhero holding one of our storybook houses!

 

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