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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

When I got married thirty-*&%$# years ago, I had a beautiful bridal shower, given by my high school best buds. I’m pretty sure that’s where I received a wonderful Sunbeam stand mixer. It was sturdy enough to last through most of the rearing of two children and all their Christmas cookie decorating, a three-year binge of homemade sourdough bread baking (during which every member of our family gained 30 pounds), and a plethora of Funfetti birthday cakes.

One day I stuck a metal spoon into the beaters and the Sunbeam was never the same. By that time I couldn’t find replacement beaters (this was before The Internet, people), so this beloved family member was retired to the back of the corner cabinet (where it lies in state to this very day—one day I’m going to find those beaters in an antique store, I’m quite confident).

Anyway, I went to Walmart and bought a simple portable electric mixer that cost about $20 and lasted, to my great surprise, another ten years. No, it would never mix bread dough, but by that time I had recovered my senses and learned to buy bread at Fresh Market. It did just fine, however, with the occasional pone of cornbread or batch of cupcake batter.

Then a couple of months ago, my kids’ Bible study lesson plan called for a portable mixer in a game called “Celebrity Chef Mix-Off” or something ridiculous like that. I searched my kitchen high and low for that Walmart mixer. I found the little flimsy beaters in a drawer, but could not locate the mixer itself. Mystified, I stopped by Walmart on the way to church and purchased a really cool little mixer which came with its own storage box. The lesson and game proceeded without a hitch, the kids had a ball, and Bible principles were learned. Boom.

This afternoon, I was pulling down kitchen stuff to be packed for our impending move to the great metropolis of Saraland—downsizing, you know, have to get rid of unnecessary items. I get up on a stepladder to reach Christmas tins and empty jelly jars and plastic bottles that say things like “Circle K Grab-N-Go” and “Cottage Hill Baptist Church Cheerleaders” and “Providence Hospital—It’s a Girl!” and guess what I find! Yes! It’s my #2 Walmart mixer!

Who put it up there? Scott White, are you trying to drive me crazy? I know I’m absent-minded, but why would I put the mixer way up there? Those questions may haunt me for the rest of my life. And now I have THREE mixers!

And that is all. I’m sorry, but this is the kind of story you get when:

A. You don’t care.

B. The author is on a 3-week deadline and has another 30K words to write.

C. The author is avoiding 1814 American history because she doesn’t know what happens next.

Back to your regularly scheduled programs.

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Cook Sisters, circa 1969

John Mayer occasionally writes a good song. I mean, even a broken clock is right twice a day, huh? I love his song “Daughters” because there’s a lot of truth in it.

On behalf of every man

Looking out for every girl,

You are the god and the weight of her world,

So fathers, be good to your daughters,

Daughters will love like you do.

That’s a pretty serious claim and, if it’s true, a serious responsibility for any man who chooses to participate in the act of creating life.

Cook Sisters, 2009

As the eldest of four sisters, I’ve watched the impact of one man on four young women literally change a good chunk of the world. Wayne Cook was a plain country boy from rural South Mississippi, a high school graduate with no college education, Army veteran of the Korean conflict, civil servant by trade, married for nearly fifty years to one woman. Lord knows he wasn’t perfect. He never could break the addiction to cigarettes. He loved a cold beer on a hot day (if you consider that a flaw), and his attendance at church was sporadic at best. Also, if you hurt his feelings, he could sulk for days.

Wayne Edward Cook, age 9

But the values he instilled in my sisters and me form the bedrock of everything I do, and at least once a day I find myself repeating his words—funny, wise, and/or just plain quirky. Of course, some of the values I’m about to discuss come almost as much from my mother as my father…but then, the two of them were flip sides of a coin, grown together as they were.

This is how my daddy loved…

God comes first. I think one reason my dad didn’t hang out at church regularly is because he was shy, uncomfortable with crowds, and wary of false intimacy. The Depression generation considered spiritual matters private. But his faith was part of who he was, and often, when the rest of us were at church on Sunday, he would turn the TV on to Pastor Adrian Rodgers and worship with Bellevue Baptist in Memphis. One time I asked him about his relationship with Christ, and he shared clearly that he trusted Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Anyway, we girls dressed up on Sunday morning and went to church with or without him. Always.

Me, Mom, and Robin, 1960

Family is your highest investment. Daddy loved my mother with an unrelenting devotion that, as far as I know, never included the possibility of divorce. I was aware of hurt feelings between them, arguments, and occasional silences, but even when my friends experienced the hell of broken families, it never occurred to me that divorce could happen to my parents. That security has been a priceless ticket in my pocket, assuring me that it is possible to work through any interpersonal difficulty.

Family Quilting Bee

The Cook family never took expensive vacations. For one thing, we just didn’t have the money for it. But more importantly, my parents chose to spend their precious vacation time making long drives, on pre-interstate highways, from one corner of the state of Mississippi to the other. I was about five when we moved away from my parents’ home grounds in Lucedale, because Daddy’s job at Brookley Airfield shut down and he was transferred to the Defense Depot in Memphis. But I grew up in a close bond with my grandparents and extended family as a result of that commitment to family. That commitment continues to shape every element of my life, providing an anchor of stability when things might otherwise end in shipwreck. My mother, aunts, sisters and first cousins to this day form a daily circle of fellowship, laughter, and prayer support. The theme of family nurture runs like a golden thread through my fiction—because I cannot imagine it any other way. Readers frequently ask if my characters are based on family. The answer is, yes and no. You’d find echoes of my family in Gilly and Laurel’s tight-knit Kincade clan in Off the Record and Tour de Force, and Meg’s protective father in Under Cover of Darkness is an awful lot like mine.

Wayne, front left, stationed in Germany as an army medic

Freedom isnt free. Daddy’s patriotism was implicit in his military service, not to mention his voting record. He would have been so proud to know that his eldest grandson, my son Ryan, has served for six years with distinction in the U. S. Navy. My throat still closes when I think of the servicemen who came to play “Taps” with such solemnity at my father’s gravesite. A tribute well-deserved.

Story is power. Daddy read the newspaper cover-to-cover, every single morning of his life. He invested in a set of encyclopedias for us girls, he subscribed to Readers Digest periodical and to their condensed best seller series. He always had a dog-eared John D. McDonald mystery or Louis L’Amour western on the arm of his easy chair. And he made sure our bicycles had baskets on the handlebars, mainly so we could drag home piles of books from the public library.

Wayne and Gizmo

My dad was a story-teller himself, too. I loved to hear his accounts of running the back roads of rural Mississippi with his brother and sisters and cousins, of his faithful dog Gizmo and the ornery mule Charley. Of tung oil pod wars, playing mumbledy-peg with pocketknives, and hitching a ride to town on Saturday afternoon, where you’d watch movie double-features for a dime and get sick on too much popcorn. Of working in Grandpa Cook’s corner grocery store, where if you asked just right, you might get a free candy bar or a soda pop. And how he never understood why he clashed so violently with his own father—until he butted heads with my sister Robin!

No wonder I’m a writer. I couldn’t help it.

The Roy Cook Family, early 50’s

Music is the food of the soul.My father had an eclectic taste in music. Country-Western was his favorite. We grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Hee-Haw, and the Porter Wagner Show, among others. Daddy played a mean harmonica, whistled like a bird, and even pounded out “Down Yonder” or “Heart and Soul” on the piano occasionally. He grew up in a family of gospel singers and pianists (specializing in shape-note transcription), so we were indoctrinated at an early age with the likes of the Cathedrals, the Happy Goodmans, and the Florida Boys.

Hannah and I rock the house with “O Holy Night” on toilet-paper-tube kazoos.

I’ll never forget the day he came home with a new stereo system, complete with turntable, tuner/amplifier and giant speakers. He’d also bought a dozen or so LP’s—Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Floyd Cramer, Burl Ives, Flatt and Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and several Elvis Presley albums (Graceland is less than two miles from our house, so we felt a bit of proprietary pride in the King). My sisters and I played those albums so many times we can all sing them from memory. When it became popular to buy 45 records of songs we heard on the radio, I would listen to Bobby Sherman and The Osmonds and the Jackson Five and the Partridge Family on that stereo until surely my parents wanted to take the needle out of it. But they never complained, because music after all is life, right?

Cook Sisters on Christmas Morning

My sisters and I all sing and play musical instruments. I don’t know how my parents paid for all those instruments and lessons—piano, flute, guitar, trumpet, recorder, French horn. But our house was filled with music from sunrise to bedtime, and Daddy’s chief delight in life was to get a cup of coffee and sit on the front porch with the door open, listening to his girls harmonizing on hymns and Broadway tunes and folk songs from the living room. Whenever one of us had a performance at church or school—or anywhere else within driving distance—he would be in the audience, surreptitiously wiping away tears. For a gruff old cuss, he had deep emotions.

Robin and me, both in the band. I’m the drum major, front left.

When I was in high school, he let my mother talk him into driving my neighborhood piano teacher to work every day for about five years—Mrs. Ann could talk the horns off a grown billygoat—in return for free piano lessons. Now that’s love!

Hannah and Larry, just married

Hard work, thriftiness and generosity build financial balance. If there was a job that Daddy could do himself, he did it. More than once my sisters and I wound up on top of the house with him, nailing shingles onto the roof. We washed our own cars, mowed the lawn, weeded the little garden in our suburban back yard. He once tried to teach me to change the oil in my Mustang II, but some forms of stupidity cannot be cured, apparently. Dad taught me to balance my checkbook and to always hold onto a little cash in my wallet for emergencies. Often he’d hand me a ten or a twenty “just in case you get low on gas.” After nearly a year of marriage, my husband discovered that I had a fifty-dollar bill tucked behind my drivers license, given to me by my father on the afternoon after our wedding day, just before we pulled out of the driveway to move to Texas. I made the mistake of telling Scott that daddy said it was “bus money if you ever need to come home.” I’m pretty sure he was joking, though.

Scott, undoubtedly tucking a $50 bill into Hannah’s bridal bouquet

You control your reputation. When I first began to date, my father reminded me (among other things), “You dress and behave like a lady, and you’ll always be treated like a lady.” The implication was that my standard of conduct in every area of my life had better remain at the highest level, whether anybody was looking or not. I get teased for being a first-born overachiever, but I couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing either of my parents, who firmly believed that my sisters and I could achieve anything in the world if we functioned on all-out endeavor, creativity, integrity, and humility.

Hannah, age 6, with her daddy

Hannah, age 6, and her daddy, resting up from a church bike rodeo

Do I, as Mayer put it, love like my father? I sure hope so.

As I bring this little essay to a close, I smile, thinking of what my daughter may write about her father one of these days. She’s “daddy’s girl,” too. It has been fun to watch her absorb and practice some of her grandfather’s qualities passed on through my husband (yes, I chose a man in many ways like my father, though he vehemently denies it). And her young husband seems to be cast from the same mold.

So. Hannah, may you look back on a life rhythmic with music and books and family, may you tell stories that are poignant and funny and true. Most of all, may you impact your world with the love of Jesus. This is the fine legacy of a daddy’s girl.

Hannah, Beth and Wayne—We Love Denim

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In High Places by Tom Morrisey

I hardly ever write book reviews anymore, particularly for books I haven’t yet read. For one thing, this blog is not about sales and promotion, except incidentally as the subject arises. But today I received notice that a good friend of mine, Tom Morrisey, has a book being offered FREE in electronic form for the next few days, in time for Fathers Day. I have already downloaded In High Places and plan to gift it to my son, who is an avid reader. (Aside: I have read and enjoyed other books by Tom.)

My first connection with Tom was through one of our mutual publishers. We met at an author retreat in Grand Rapids a few years ago, where we had a chance to encourage one another in writing and family and ministry. I discovered Tom to be funny, warm, adventurous and a knock-your-socks-off writer. In fact, he’s so good that the Disney corporation hired him to be their on-site “writing guru.” He currently suffers for Jesus in Micky World, Florida!

In High Places is a Christy Award finalist about the journey a father and son each take to deal with their loss in their own way. I hope you’ll take advantage of this great offer as an introduction to a wonderful author.

Here are the URLs:

Kindle

Nook

Kobo

iBook: Available through the app or the iTunes Store

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I wish my teaching experience could be all beaming smiles like those of my beautiful Advanced Chorus ladies in the photo above….

Unfortunately, the knuckleheads have to come to school, too. And they have to have a Fine Arts credit. And they get stuck in my beginning chorus class. And it’s fourth block, the wrap-up to the day. Erg.

So here’s the ridiculous thing that happened yesterday.

There’s this boy and girl in the beginner class, neither of whom possess one iota of interest in singing. Nothing unusual. But not too long after the semester started they decided they couldn’t live without each other, and it became progressively more difficult to keep them from breeding more morons right in the chorus room. And before you start throwing rocks at the teacher, remember I’ve got 12 practice room/studios off the main room, and at least half the locks are broken on the doors. I do what I can, but the CIA I am not.

Three days ago I noticed the two of them actually sitting on opposite sides of the room without being ordered to do so. Hmm. Strange. And then yesterday all heck broke loose. I’d disbanded rehearsal and asked the students to put away their books and folders (normal procedure) while I shut down the electric piano and stowed equipment. I heard a little bit of a ruckus in the back of the room behind the risers, which didn’t disturb me much—it’s a loud, rowdy class.

But the rumble grew to a roar, so I rounded the risers to see what was going on. There were my two lovebirds, Darryl and Shanquita, in a double headlock, with the two biggest boys in choir trying unsuccessfully to pull them apart. Hair pulling, dreadlocks flying, profanity that would singe your scalp. How could a love so right go so wrong?

Needless to say, we called for administrators, the two combatants were suspended, and classtime today was eerily peaceful. Hoo-boy.

Well, I press on.

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White Picket Fences

White Picket Fences

Readers of emotional dramas who are willing to explore the lies that families tell each other for protection and comfort will enjoy White Picket Fences. The novel is ideal for those who appreciate exploring questions like: what type of honesty do children need from their parents, or how can one move beyond a past that isn’t acknowledged or understood? Is there hope and forgiveness for the tragedies of our past and a way to abundant grace?

The story in a nutshell:

When her black sheep brother disappears, Amanda Janvier eagerly takes in her sixteen year-old niece. Tally is practically an orphan: motherless, and living with a father who raises Tally wherever he lands– in a Buick, a pizza joint, a horse farm–and regularly takes off on wild schemes. Amanda envisions that she and her family can offer the girl stability and a shot at a “normal” life, even though their own storybook lives are about to crumble.

Here’s my interview with Susan!

What led you to write White Picket Fences?

Several years ago I was a court-appointed advocate for children involved in protective services. There were times when I saw that despite the outward appearance of a less-than-perfect home, a child could be loved there. Just because a parent is unconventional or unsuccessful career-wise or makes choices that buck societal norms, it doesn’t mean that he or she is by default a “bad” parent. Likewise, parents who we would traditionally call “good” -meaning they provide, they protect, they don’t hit, they don’t ridicule – can nevertheless make decisions regarding their children that have hugely negative effects and yet their outward appearance would never lead anyone to suspect it. Even if you live behind a white picket fence, you still have to deal with the fallout of a living in a broken world. You can’t hide from it. The perfect, idyllic life is an illusion. Life is a weave of both delight and disappointment and it’s precisely these things that give it definition and depth. To ignore what is ugly is to cheapen what is beautiful.

You dovetailed a current day family drama with the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. Why the connection?

I think it’s fair to say that the depth of the atrocities inflicted during the Holocaust wasn’t fully appreciated until after the war. There was ugliness happening, if you will, and much of the West failed to see it — for whatever reason. Within the horror, though, people made brave choices, selfless choices. And there were survivors who had to choose what they would take with them from the ashes of their suffering. I wanted to explore how a person makes that decision. Even the decision to pretend it never happened is a decision regarding those ashes.

What do you think interests you about the intersection of personal relationships and perceptions – a theme you wove into both The Shape of Mercy and White Picket Fences?

I see every great work of fiction being about human relationships. Gone With the Wind is so much more than just an epic story with the Civil War as a backdrop. It’s a story of human relationships. Scarlett and Ashley, Scarlett and Rhett, Scarlett and Melanie, Scarlett and her father.  It’s within our closest relationships that our brightest virtues and worst flaws are exposed.  That’s why there is such tremendous story value within intimate human relationships. We are at our best and our worst when we are responding and reacting to the people who shape who we are. Human history is the story of relationships and what they teach us about what we value. And what we don’t.

White Picket Fences is a different kind of novel than your acclaimed book, The Shape of Mercy, but there are some similarities too. Can you explain those?

As with The Shape of Mercy, there is a historical thread in White Picket Fences, though it is not as dominant. The invasion of Poland by the Nazis is woven into the story, and provides the backdrop for Chase’s and Tally’s discoveries about hope, dreams, and redemption. This thread is enhanced by visits to a nursing home where Chase and Tally meet a man blind from birth who survived the occupation of Poland. It is also a story that draws its pathos from family dynamics and the near-universal desire we have to make straight what is crooked. There are two young protagonists in White Picket Fences, like there was in The Shape of Mercy, as well as a third character, who, along with the two men in the nursing home, provide a similar multi-generational story thread.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading White Picket Fences?

The pivotal moment in the story for me is when Josef says to Chase:  “[This] is what all survivors must decide. We have to decide how much we will choose to remember, how much courage we are willing to expend to do so.” It takes courage to acknowledge and remember what drove you to your knees or nearly killed you. If you choose to forget – and that’s assuming you actually can – then it seems to me you suffered for nothing. You are different but you don’t spend any time contemplating – or celebrating – how.  I’d be happy if there was a takeaway for someone out there who needs to consider that.

Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner

Meet Susan….

Susan Meissner is the multi-published author of The Shape of Mercy, named one of the Best Books in 2008 by Publishers Weekly the ECPA’s Fiction Book of the Year. She is also a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. A devotee of purposeful pre-writing, Susan encourages workshop audiences to maximize writing time by mapping the writing journey and beginning from a place of intimate knowledge. She is the leader/moderator of a local writer’s group, a pastor’s wife and the mother of four young adults.  A native San Diegan, Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University. When she’s not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at The Church at Rancho Bernardo.

You can purchase White Picket Fences here.

And read an excerpt here.

Susan Meissner

http://susanmeissner.blogspot.com

http://theshapeofmercy.blogspot.com

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Hurley Public Library

Hurley Public Library

Somebody asked me yesterday, what’s your favorite part of being a writer?

The answer came easy: This is! Standing here in a room full of books, behind a table loaded with stacks of my books, and talking about books with people who love books.

Of course there’s the inherent joy of putting words together for the creative purpose of jogging the imagination. That goes without saying. But making up those stories and working hard to make them as vivid as possible wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the opportunity to make personal contact with readers.

So when I was invited to show up at the Hurley, Mississippi Public Library for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning for a Friends of the Library event, I jumped at the chance. It was raining, and I’m still recovering from a nasty case of the flu, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat, just for a few conversations that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

One of the first book-lovers I talked to could barely see over the edge of my table. She was a kindergartner at East Central Elementary school, possessed of a long brown ponytail, big brown eyes and a shy, gapped grin. I asked her about her favorite books, and she told me she loves to read about science. Alll-righty-then. Way smarter than me. I watched her leave a little while later with a chin-high stack of board books, happy as a little clam.

In and out over the next hour or so I signed books for several people who’d actually seen the notice in the paper and came to meet me. As it turned out, some professed to be “fans” and wanted the two newest books—which naturally made my day. And a couple of them, after we got to talking, thought we might be distantly related. Which could very well be. My paternal grandmother, Nina Jones Cook, grew up in Hurley. Her two brothers stayed in the area, married and apparently had bazillions of Jones descendants. So I met a couple of second and third cousins I’d never run across before. That was delightful.

One of those cousins, named Karen, came in with her little two-year-old daughter and bought a couple of my books. Even if we hadn’t been related, she’d be in my tribe. Anybody who starts a book and can’t put it down…Oh yeah. Karen’s going to be a teacher or maybe a school counsellor. She’ll be great at it. So nice to meet you, Karen.

One of my new writer friends....

One of my new writer friends....

Two other favorite conversations were with avid teenage readers. One of them was a homeschooled 10th grader who loves Harry Potter and scary mysteries, and is already writing short stories. Discussing plotting with a kid who “gets it” and encouraging him to journal and get his thoughts on paper was beyond cool.  An hour or so later a bright young lady with a camera came in, taking pics for her mother, who is a local journalist. A student at East Central High School, she asked great questions (she’s the source of my opening sentence here), and answered mine with intelligence and humor. She “reads everything,” including the classics, so I predict a bright future.

And then there were the library’s “Friends” representatives, who made coffee, served donuts, and made sure all guests were welcome. Seniors, some of them, but not all. Thanks to Mrs. Jean Goff (retired head librarian) and Mrs. Helen Barlow (currently serving in that capacity), everybody did their jobs with smiles and efficiency. I’m happy to report that print books are not yet going the way of the dinosaur. In libraries like this one, authors are held in esteem, books are treasured, and readers are treated like friends.

Just a little report on the state of the public library. All is well.

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The Litton Family

The Litton Family

Thursday evening I had the blessing of attending the wedding ceremony of my pastor, Ed Litton (who happens to be my husband’s boss and best friend), and Kathy Ferguson, whom I have grown to love as a woman of God and one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Scott and I drove to northwest Arkansas, which was an event in itself (been a long time since I was in the Ozarks, and oh my, what a sight).

A little over two years ago, Ed’s wife, Tammy, was killed in a car accident…and about seven years ago Kathy’s husband, Rick, died in a similar circumstance. Tragedy took two families and two churches and broke them.

But God does not leave us without hope. Ever. Ed and Kathy’s courtship and marriage is a full-color 3-D ad for the love and mercy of our Father.

So…on Thursday evening in a small stone chapel in the hills of Rogers, Arkansas, five skilled musicians provided a time of worship for a congregation of about 150 family and friends. Nicole Nordeman’s beautiful song “Seasons” opened the ceremony. Read the lyrics sometime. Exquisite. And perfect for the theme of the occasion. And Pastor Ronnie Floyd, who shepherds the church where Kathy has been serving as Women’s Minister, gave the opening charge.

Then the rear doors of the chapel burst open. Kathy’s two-year-old granddaughter Aubri stood there looking like a terrified little flower-decked angel. All those grown-ups staring at her! So she started squalling and her mother had to come lead her down the aisle. Funny and precious.

And the bride. Long, fitted white off-the-shoulder gown with fluttery chiffon overlays on the skirt, dragging the ground just a bit. Classy hair and make-up…I have no words for how beautiful. When the pictures of Ed’s face come up, you’ll see what I mean. Kathy came down the aisle on the arm of her elder son, both serious and joyful, and Ed’s dear friend Pastor Johnny Hunt began the ceremony in prayer.

After his stirring “Amen,” little Aubri, sitting in her mama’s lap, echoed like a true Southern Baptist woman-in-training. Loudly. Lightened the mood considerably and took the edge off some nerves, I imagine.

So while rain splashed against the stained glass window behind them, Ed and Kathy said their vows, exchanged rings, recited Ruth’s promise to Naomi, and left as husband and wife. There was a reception at Kathy’s church (an amazing place in its own right), full of food and laughter and music before we all saw them off to their honeymoon–driving off in a white Mustang convertible.

Not the end of the story, by a long shot. Just the beginning. Or maybe the middle, I’m not sure. All I know is, my perspective is always warped by the here-and-now—when God knew about this long long ago. He has good in mind for each of us. Sometimes we reject his good plan and go our own way. Sometimes we don’t recognize it when we see it because it looks funny.

But sometimes we get to see it bright and clear. God is good. God is love.

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