A Romantic Story For Valentine’s Day

The Owl And The Pussy Cat (In French)

Written by Edward Lear and translated by Francis Steegmuller

In 1975 my great-aunt, Wylly Folk St John sent me this book in a birthday gift box for my fifteenth birthday. She always sent the best presents, and packages from her were special even when I was uncertain as to why she gave me certain things.

I collected owls or owl themed items when I was growing up and since I did not speak French, this may have been what led her to choose The Owl and the Pussycat translated into French as a gift for me, or perhaps she imagined I might consider taking French in high school. Having a terrible facility for foreign language, I went with Spanish which was said to be easier than French and saved this book  for sentimental reasons even though I could not read it.

When I moved to Cornwall I had loads of books that had to find a new home. This one made the cut because Aunt Wylly had given it to me and it found a home on a bookshelf that my husband John built for me after we married. I displayed it in a way that made the cover visible and it sat there looking pretty next to a little owl that had been a gift from her as well.

A few weeks ago, just before our fifth wedding anniversary, I looked up from my desk and saw it on the shelf and it occurred to me that while I still did not speak enough French to read it, my British born husband did.

John seemed a bit surprised when I brought it in as we were getting ready for bed and asked him to read it to me. I think his exact response was,  “Now ?”

Even though the poem was not new to me it sounded pretty sweet to hear him read it in French, 39 years after opening it on my birthday.

I know most would argue that it was just a bit of coincidence, but I can’t help but wonder what my aunt would think about our love story and how the romantic in me never gave up on finding lasting love.

The Owl And The Pussy Cat (In French)

Today is the sixth anniversary of our meeting face to face having met almost “by accident” online six weeks earlier. I flew to Cornwall in 2008 on Valentine’s Day and when my visit was over two weeks later, we both knew our future was set.

Despite an 18 year age difference that created loads of initial objections from my family and friends, I think we both would agree that the ocean between us, a five-hour time difference, and the limitations imposed on the amount of time immigration would allow me to stay were some of the bigger issues in our early relationship.

Being wooed from across the sea was full of surprises and I can still remember when John quoted these lyrics not long after I had returned to the US from my two-week long Valentine’s Day visit.

How could I not fall madly and deeply in love with a man who said such reassuringly sweet words.

At 17 he falls in love quite madly
with eyes of azure blue,
At 24 he gets it rather badly
with eyes of a different hue.
At 36 you’ll find him flirting sadly
with two or three or more;
When he fancies he is past love,
It is then he meets his last love,
And he loves her as he’s never loved before.

~ Peter Dawson

Please feel free to share your own stories  in a comment or links to a blog post you have a special one for today.

I have told our story in different places on my blog, but I will include a few links for those who might be here for the first time. The highlighted words above will take you to other earlier posts if you wish to know more.

The Gift You Keep

Will You Stay With Me Will You Be My Love

Remembering The Day We Met – Valentine’s Day 2008

Buttercup Madness and Mid – May Diversions

What’s In The Bag?

Heathrow Airport Arrival 2013

Coming home is particularly sweet after an extended time away.

There’s the obvious happiness of seeing my husband John waiting for me, and the ahhh feeling I get when the plane lands safely and I make it through customs and immigration, but this time has been different and I have been trying to figure out why.

I recently returned from a ten-week stay in the US and have been a bit overwhelmed since my arrival a little over a week ago.

I hear you thinking, What do you mean overwhelmed … how long can it take to unpack your bags and settle back into your routine?

Sometimes, it’s not about the stuff in the bags.

As you can see I am pushing a very full luggage cart and it’s not the first time I have arrived from an international flight looking like a smiling beast of burden. This collection of suitcases is fairly light compared some of my past Heathrow and Gatwick arrivals. Due to decreasing weight allowances, but increasing checked baggage costs, I tend to travel lighter on my trips between what I think of as my two homes.

Except this time.

This time the extra bag I checked carried some favorite product brands I can’t get in the UK along with some new clothes and other things I have needed for a while.

Needed might be questionable, but …

I tend to be a big charity store shopper with Salvation Army, Goodwill, and second-hand shops being my ‘go to’ places. This does not mean I don’t buy new, but when I do I tend stick to the sale section. Thrifty shopping can be just as bad as spending too much on new, a lesson my normally bulging closet would illustrate had its contents not been recently whittled down.

Thursday, John and I took seven huge garbage bags filled with clothing to a local charity shop along with several bags of barely worn shoes and two big boxes of books. I think I struggled more deciding which books to give away than I did with clothes and now after looking at my bookshelves and wardrobe more critically, I have decided to go back through and do another purge.

Remember when I said it’s not always about the stuff earlier …

I have been working on multiple parts of the house since I got home, clearing away clutter and organizing what is left. I have even been in the attic going through boxes and throwing out or giving away things while doing a total overhaul of what is allowed to stay. I’ve emptied a wardrobe and a too-full dresser in the guest room and I’ve reorganized other parts of the house as well even giving away loads of my books that were cluttering John’s study, but what I haven’t done is finish tidying up my studio space.

Studio sounds a bit grand for what I do there, but it is my creative get-away space and where I do most of my writing and photography work. It also doubles as my dressing room and has an en suite bathroom attached to it both of which have been an absolute tip (trash site) since I arrived ten days ago. I left it very tidy when I flew to the US in early July, but with the big clear out over the last week things have fallen into a bit of state.

Looking at it feels overwhelming and I have been finding ways to avoid slogging through what’s left to finish it off.

I decided to take a look at how my need for perfection keeps me from getting more done creatively after reading this post by Nadia Eghbal titled  Why I Wore The Same Outfit Everyday For A Year.  As good writers and bloggers will often do, she got me thinking.

Sure I can clean like I’m still in the Army getting ready for an inspection, or make a time-consuming special something _________ insert what ever suits you here, but be sure it’s something that could use a bit more of this, or a touch of that because that’s what my rarely satisfied self would do with something I make.

I could say I’m only nesting with all this clearing and decluttering, making room for the birth of some semi-new blog or book idea, or even some business daydream that can travel with us when John and I pack up and go and some of that would be true, but I have to wonder if there’s not something bigger underlying my need to restrict and control disorder in my environment to the extent that it distracts me from other parts of my life needing attention.

I’m not going to spend any more time mulling that one over as I do better when I make a decision and move on. With that in mind, I am committing to tossing a few extra things into my partially full give-away bag.

I am willing to begin by dropping in my perfectionist tendencies along with a too tight sweater and a dress that’s really a little young for me. Then there’s that old comparison rag where I tend to judge my work against that of others. Yep, that’s going too.

That will do for me for now, but what about you?

If you’ve got something you want to get rid of, something that’s keeping you stuck or distracting you from your next best thing, feel free to leave it behind in a comment.

Go ahead, I’ll bag it up and dispose of it for you.

Because you know I do like a tidy work space, and I’m already going that way.

One-Shot & Me

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Becky & Jenny at the One-Shot Cabin

When I was six, my Great-aunt, Wylly Folk St John published her first book, The Secrets Of Hidden Creek.

She was 58.

After Wednesday’s post, you can probably understand why this knowledge is more than a bit comforting to me.

That said, Aunt Wylly wrote for years before publishing her first book. As a journalist for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, she had to constantly meet deadlines and she was paid to write long before she graduated from the University of Georgia where 47 boxes of her writings are archived in the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

She went on to publish eight books, two of which were nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Mystery Writers of America award.

My cousin, McKenzie posted a comment on Facebook yesterday where she talked about how she and her young son were reading one of Aunt Wylly’s books at bedtime and how it gave him more insight into who his Grandmother Becky was as a girl, as well as his Great-great-grandmother Wylly.

Aunt Wylly loved using real children as characters in her books so McKenzie’s son is enjoying reading about his grandmother as the teenager she was in 1966 when The Secrets of Hidden Creek was published. Much of the story’s setting and characters are clearly modeled after the real thing. First books often pull in parts of the author’s life and my unfinished novel is no different.

If you’ve followed my blog for long it probably won’t surprise you to learn that there is a character in my book who is modeled in some ways after my aunt and you might also understand why seeing McKenzie’s message on Facebook felt like a little cosmic push especially since I’ve  been so unproductive lately.

Aunt Wylly would probably appreciate my thinking she was sending me a message given her interest in ghosts when she was alive.

The hammock in the first picture figures into the story that McKenzie is reading with her son. It was used on the book jacket in 1966 as you can see from the image below. In addition to Becky and Jenny, their brother, Chuck is in the illustration with them.

Wylly Folk St John

I have some lovely memories of time spent at the cabin with Aunt Wylly and later on with my cousins. And while my daughter doesn’t really remember it, she once had a chance to wrestle for the hammock like her cousins did as characters in Aunt Wylly’s book.

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Miranda & Elizabeth at the One-Shot Cabin 1993

This oft fought for spot had to be replaced more than a few times over the years as the humidity of hot Georgia summers and squirmy children did their damage. One of my favorite memories of Aunt Wylly’s lakeside hideaway, it was always snug like a little cocoon, making a perfect nest to read a book and drift off to sleep. Comforting and safe, it was a place I where could let my guard down during a dangerous time in my life and just be for a while with normal kid worries and daring daydreams.

The seed of storytelling for me may not have been planted at the One-Shot cabin, but it was most certainly nurtured there … in a hammock, on a porch, overlooking a lake, with a secret hidden deep under the water.

Big thanks to McKenzie for helping me aerate my roots a bit. 

A Castle For Your Dreams

13th Century - Restormel Castle, Cornwall, England

13th Century – Restormel Castle, Cornwall, England

Hundreds of years ago someone imagined a life on hillside overlooking the River Fowey. Not content with the natural height provided, they scooped up the earth to build a motte and bailey design castle. The first structure appeared around 1100 in what would eventually become the stone remnants you now see in the photo above. Restormel Castle in Cornwall is considered one of the best remaining examples of a motte and bailey castle and according the English Heritage site, one of 70 remaining in Britain.

Fulfilling the dreams of others

When my best girlfriend Patrice came for a short visit in 2011, she had a list of things that she wanted to do while she and her partner Lisa were here for a few days. One of which was a visit to a castle.

I took them to Sunday services on St Michael’s Mount and later John walked with us through the attached castle, but I wanted more for her. I wanted her to see a remote castle with no furnishings and few people, a place where she might have a moment alone to think about her mother who had died a few years earlier without going on the ‘Castles of Europe’ tour she’d always imagined she’d see one day.

I remember Patrice telling me how she’d asked her mother if there was anything she wanted to do in the time she had left and how they had talked about castles before her mother began chemotherapy. Her mother died without going on that trip so this was more than just another tourist stop for Patrice, it had a special meaning and while she didn’t mind which castle she saw, I wanted it to be really special and I had a feeling that Restormel Castle might be that place.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

When I see this photograph of Patrice, I can almost hear her saying, ‘I’m here, Mama’ as she pauses in the first entrance to the castle.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

You can see a second entry point into the castle where the person in blue is walking under the arch. The gatehouse was originally three stories high but was partially dismantled during the Civil War. I found the history of this building style fascinating when I researched Restormel Castle. If you’d like to know more, I have done some of the work for you by providing the highlighted links above.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

You can see the entrance to the chapel in the center of the photo above. The chapel projected out past the circular structure and had points of entry from smaller side doors.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel CastleLooking to the middle left of the photo above, you can a side entrance to the chapel as well as an arched entry leading directly into the sanctuary.

Patrice & Lisa

Here’s a shot looking mostly down into the space. I’m afraid these images are not my best work as it was wet and windy shooting that day, but perhaps you can still get a sense of the space.

Patrice & Lisa

From this angle so you can see how thick the walls are and get a glimpse of the lovely view from the castle walls.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

There are stories about a dungeon, but I’m not sure they are more than stories.

Patrice & Lisa

There are stairs which lead to all kinds of hidden areas like this one with Patrice. I said she looked like a monk from a distance with her dark hood up to avoid the rain so she assumed a prayerful position at the end of a moss-covered passage way.
Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

In this photo, you have a window in the center with an open space  to the left where a fireplace once stood. There’s a matching window (not seen here) on the other side of the fireplace shell.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

I wondered how many faces must have looked though these great stones windows over the last 800 or 900 years and thought about how the view must have changed along with the ownership of the castle. My imagination goes wild thinking about the lives of those privileged to have been able to stand or sit near the windows in a room with such an important function.

Patrice & Lisa, Restormel Castle

You can see how the windows and fireplace might have looked in the great hall by double clicking on this image of a plaque from the castle grounds.Patrice & Lisa, Restormel CastleHere’s a last look at what the interior of the keep might have looked like. You can see the window outline and the fireplace off to the left in this photo of one of the English Heritage information plaques. I usually take a quick photo of these to use later as a reference when I want to do more research online at home. I thought these might be helpful for this post.
Duchy Nursery

One more shot of Restormel Castle from a distance … the first and last photographs were taken during the last week and all others in September 2011.

It was good to help Patrice complete a goal that had been one of her mother’s dreams. Two castle visits may not have been the ‘Castles of Europe ‘ tour her mother dreamed of, but walking through Restormel Castle and St Michael’s Mount, I can’t help but think that Patrice’s mother would have had a little chuckle to see her daughter fulfilling a few of mom’s unfinished dreams.

I imagine most of us have something like that. There are so many places I see living in the UK that I know my dad would have loved to see himself, but the thing I feel most keenly is the connection he and I shared with writing and imagination.

My father left a fair amount of unpublished words and ideas and at least one story he wrote for his daughters. I know he would have been a big fan of my writing (being my dad) and would have encouraged me to go beyond the limitations of my blog. I hope to manage that one day and do something that he, like Patrice’s mom, never had a chance to do himself.

How about you? Are any of you secretly hoping to complete a dream desire that someone special to you can no longer do for themselves or maybe one like mine that you shared with a parent or other loved one?

Oversharing – Opening The Door A Bit, But Not All The Way

You may have noticed that I’ve been absent for about seven weeks. I just closed for business without so much as a sign on the door or a note saying I’d be gone a while and disappeared.

I didn’t intend to stop writing and it was not due to lack of interest in blogging or a shortage of things to write about but rather an overwhelming indecision about how much I should share about an unnerving experience I had last November. It left me feeling as if everything I wanted to write about was either too much or too trivial so I got lost in the inertia of indecision.

I often worry about over sharing the details of my life especially the darker parts of it and I rarely hit publish without considering the long-term effect a revelation might have on my future or that of someone I love.

It’s tricky deciding how much is too much. I notice other folks asking the same question from time to time, most recently Caitlin Kelly and Cindy La Ferle and I often wonder what my readers think.

Sometimes I happen upon a blog that is so deeply personal I feel I’ve stepped into someone’s therapy session by accident and I don’t know whether to pull up a chair and join in or slip quietly out the back door. I don’t want people to feel that way when they stop by GOTJ, but I do want what I say here to have meaning. That said, there are times when I worry that what I want to say is too personal … so much so that instead of spilling it here I go quiet afraid that if I open the door I’ll unleash a beast I can’t call back.

My words and posts are about my life and my experiences. It’s not always been happy, but it hasn’t all been bad either providing a balance that usually makes it easy to avoid the darker topics for less weighty ones. I generally feel as if I’ve been gifted with the power of resiliency, enchantment, and joy  … almost as if storybook fairies paid a visit to my crib and waved their magic wands over me as an infant saying a few words to try offset the evil they knew would surround me as a small child.

Childlike enthusiasm and leading with my heart have been used more than a time or two to describe me and where some might see these as the attributes of someone weaker than others, I see them as defiant badges that affirm my ability to hold on through the hard times.

But as strong as I am I sometimes need support.

Last November I had a panic attack. I’ve never had one before and actually thought I might be having a heart attack. John was out for a walk with his daughter who was down for a visit and I was alone in the house. Just as I was about to dial 999 for an ambulance, I did an abbreviated version of what I’d heard a doctor friend of mine refer to as a systems check.

Once I realized I was having a panic attack, I sent my old therapist a short email and she responded within ten minutes which I found remarkable considering I had not seen her as a patient for 17 years. I’ve mentioned Nancy Loeb here in the past and I say again, if you have a history like mine and need someone who can help you change your life, she’d be the one.

During my unplanned blogging hiatus, I spent three weeks in the US only returning about a week ago. While I was in Atlanta, an old friend of mine from my university days sent me an email after noting my blogging absence to ask if I was okay. Here is a bit of what I said in response.

” My reasons for not blogging lately have to do with a few internal struggles. I can’t decide whether to blog about it or not, but I have so much of substance that I want to say that it makes it difficult to write about travel and trivial things. In many ways I am doing very well and in others I feel I’m walking the edge at times as I deal with some ghosts.

It may sound odd, but the Paterno/ Penn State media coverage followed one night by student protestors being beaten with police batons and unable to escape triggered what I can only imagine was a panic attack of big proportions. I don’t have panic attacks and almost called an ambulance it scared me so bad. I was having trouble breathing and thought it was my heart for a minute and in reality it was my heart, but in an emotional way.”

Later, when reread the email I’d sent to my friend, I thought, ” Oh no, I meant Sandusky/Penn State “as he was the abuser, but then I realized that for me, I got it right the first time. The world is full of people like Sandusky, but it’s the Paternos of the world who are the real disappointments.

I think people who have the power to save a child and do nothing are as bad as the abuser and part of what caused me to become undone that day was description of what Mike McQueary witnessed and the obvious collusion involved that allowed a pedophile to have continued access to children. McQueary’s trial transcripts coupled with a video of college students being beaten while protesting, acted as a trigger for the panic attack and forced me over the last few months to confront my thoughts as to how much sharing is too much.

Secrets like the ones I had growing up are usually kept due to fear or shame. Good therapy can change that, but even when I think I have said all I need to say whether in therapy or with the people I’m closest to, there are still times when the urge to say more here is overwhelming.

Pat Conroy, author of one of my favorite books, The Price of Tides, was quoted years ago in a Vanity Fair article saying, ” One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family ” and I’m sure he would give me added points for having a family with deep southern roots as well.

Bits of my life creep into my characters when I write fiction which satisfies me for now. Some things are still too horrible to write on their own and I think writing it into someone else’s imagined life gives me the distance I need not to get lost in my own story. That may be a better option for me than memoir, at least for now.

That said, I’ve decided that certain details will not be part of what I write here. It doesn’t mean the tough topics are off-limits, just the amount of detail I’ll share about any similar personal experiences.

Many thanks to those who sent an email to check on me during my time away … it makes me smile to think I was missed.

When Memory Fails You

The Ghost Next Door by Wylly Folk St John. Illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

I’ve read Kyran Pittman’s work for longer than I can remember beginning with her first blog, Notes to Self. I think I found her around 2006 when I discovered there was a community of folks doing something called ‘blogging.’ Her talented husband, Patrick created a logo for me back in 2007 which helped me track time through old emails, but I’d be hard put to come up with an exact date.

All this chatter about memory, dates, and Kyran Pittman is due to a comment I left on her  website, Planting Dandelions a few days ago.

It turns out that in addition to our expat identities as women who married and moved for a love met online, we both collect owls.

Owls you say … stifling a small yawn perhaps.

I’ve loved owls from childhood when I read a book written by my Aunt Wylly called The Ghost Next Door. Kyran recently wrote about her owl collection and asked if any of her readers had collections as well. I left a comment sharing a brief bit about how my aunt was responsible for the start of my owl collection and how her book had influenced my choice of collectables when she’d asked me around age eleven if I had a favorite animal I might like to collect.

Everything I said was true except my memory of the book cover which is ironic when you consider that it’s been sitting on a bookshelf in every place I’ve lived over the last 40 years  except for those that occurred during my transient time in the military.

In my comment I said there was an owl on the cover with love in its eyes, but as it turns out the book cover I was recalling was not mine above, but the one below, a reprint from much later and one I’ve only seen online.   

See what I mean … there’s the ghost child Miranda holding the owl with love in its eyes.

Kyran left a followup comment to mine asking where she might see the book cover and it was then I remembered that my first edition copy had the owl on the title page and not the cover.

You’re probably thinking ‘ so what ‘ unless you write or read memoir and know how important it is that your memories are accurate. Kyran will know exactly what I’m talking about as her book, Planting Dandelions is a memoir and is as she says ‘ … about becoming a family, while still belonging to myself. ‘

I write a lot about family and sometimes I can check in with them to see if our memories match knowing that while some of our experiences may mirror each other, how they affect us and what we remember, may vary a great deal.

Writing memoir is tricky. There are some things you can never forget as much as you might wish you could, while other memories shift just as my cover story did leaving me with an uneasy feeling about future stories. You can bet I’ll be tighter on fact checking in the future.

My brother-in-law, Leon is a writer, editor, and blogger and he has a cute disclaimer at the top of his blog that reads: ” Warning: The following contains opinions and ideas. Some memories may be accurate. ” I loved the ‘ may be accurate ‘ when I read it thinking how clever his warning was, but after my little mixup I wonder now if perhaps he was being more serious than cute.

There are things about The Ghost Next Door and my aunt that never get confused and I’ve written about her impact on my life and inadvertently my daughter Miranda’s in other posts on my blog. You can find them if you use the search space. (I’ve left you a clue below)

Aunt Wylly’s books were always mysteries filled with the kind of delicious clues a curious girl needs growing up, particularly when her home life is such that she needs a more pleasant distraction. Her books made me think and it does not surprise me that the still unfinished novel I began during NaNoWriMo has evolved into a mystery with a fantasy twist. As much as memoir appeals to me, I do like the freedom of making things up as I go when sorting out the plot lines in my novel.

Gifts From Wylly Folk St John

Gifts From Wylly Folk St John

I’ll leave you with the image above of two owl gifts that my aunt gave me when I was a girl. Both sit on a bookshelf in the studio space where I do most of my writing. The book is written in French, a language I never learned, and I’ve had it since it arrived in a birthday package on my 14th birthday.

I kept it all these years because it was a gift from Aunt Wylly never knowing that 34 years later I would marry a man in another country who would speak French and be able to read it aloud to me.

There are loads of memories that connect me to my aunt, some of which I may remember differently from time to time, but all tender and all connected to love.

Margaret Harper, Wylly Folk St John, holding Pam Jones, & Elizabeth Harper

Margaret Harper, Wylly Folk St John, holding Pam Jones, & Elizabeth Harper

This photo was taken at my aunt’s home in Social Circle about the time I made my owl preference known. I couldn’t know then how much influence she would have on my life or how she would affect my writing years later.

Looking at her smiling in these last two images, I can’t help but notice there’s a bit of an owlish look to her and I’m surprised I never saw it before.

Thomas St John with Wylly Folk St John

Fleeting And Forever

Juliana sighed deeply and watched from her desk as the last of the visitors made their way through the gatehouse finally leaving as they did this time each day. Strangers in her house, how had it ever come to this she thought as she listened out of habit for the familiar footsteps of her husband. He moved so silently these days that he was able to slip up without warning surprising her even now as she still held the poem she had found tucked in a book in her private library.

His voice was full of memory as his eyes took in the faded sheet of paper she held and he said, ” My dear, you really shouldn’t bother yourself with my old ramblings, my heart was quite broken when you left me.”

Taking the hand he offered in hers, she stood and said, ” All those years together before the fire, we were so lucky weren’t we, Thomas? ”

” We still are my darling girl, we still are … ” His voice trailed off softly as he lifted her hand to his lips lingering just long enough to leave a gentle kiss that felt both fleeting and forever.

Inspiration 

I found the poem above tucked in a book being sold with others in an area set aside in one of the old sections of stable at Lanhydrock. I took a photograph to remember it and put it back in the book for the next person to find. Seeing it in my photo files the other day made me think it might be useful in a post. While I don’t usually read romance novels, I am always intrigued by fiction that includes a bit of love and longing in the plot and it didn’t take long for an idea to come to me.

Having read about the fire that destroyed much of the house in 1881 and led to the death of Lady Robartes four days later, I couldn’t help thinking about forever love when I saw that her husband of more than forty years died less than a year later of what many said was a broken heart.

Lanhydrock is one of my favorite National Trust properties and I wanted to imagine more to their story than one that ended in death. We’re frequent visitors to the house and gardens and I never tire of walking up her stairs and down her hallways. Having created another ending for Lord and Lady Robartes, I wonder if I’ll hear his footsteps behind me the next time I’m there.