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. 

Accidental Meetings – A Place Where Past And Present Intersect

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Most of my friends and family know of my fascination with photographing old churchyards and cemeteries. I can get lost in a one for hours if left alone and I was delighted when I first came to Cornwall to find John living in a village with a lovely church only a short walk from home.

Since marrying him and moving to the UK, I’ve spent a lot of time in the churchyard especially when I felt a need for a quiet moment, not that it’s very busy or noisy in our village of 500. It’s a peaceful spot to watch the birds fly in and out of the church tower or to photograph the seasons as they change and I used to stop there for a rest at the end of a run. Even though my runs have become more of run/walk in the last few years, I still like to have a look around when I’m passing by.

I am always interested in photographing the gravestones, especially the old ones, and I notice when I spot an unusual name. The gravestone below first caught my eye because it is next to one (not in the picture) that has Elizabeth on it. I know it may sound strange, but I always look for headstones with John and Elizabeth lying next to each other. Click here to see a post about a churchyard over looking the sea where I posted some gorgeous photos and wrote more about how we always seem to find our names together.

Like any small community, you can discover a lot about its history through the names on the gravestones. Unusual names like, Axworthy tend to make me head for my computer pretty quickly to see what I can learn, but I have to admit that until I met a member of the Axworthy family last Sunday, I had not followed up on the research.

The Return 2009

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day in the UK and I had the pleasure of meeting a woman who was born in the cottage which use to house the old post office for our village. She moved away when she was seven, but still comes back a few times a year to have a bit of lunch and a look around the village. I recognized her maiden name right away when she told me because Axworthy is one of the more interesting names in the churchyard. She was in the pub with her son and daughter-in-law who told me she still lived in a village nearby.

Gwendoline Axworthy

Gwendoline Axworthy

After she told me her name and where she had been born, her son mentioned that there was a photo on the wall in another  room of the pub that had some of their relatives in it. I went around ‘borrowed’ it and after talking about the men in the photograph, I asked her permission to take a picture of her holding a copy of the photo of her great-grandfather, Austin Axworthy and great-uncle, Edgar Axworthy.

Cornwall 2013

They are sitting in front of the cottage/post office where she was born in 1926. While I don’t think there are Axworthy’s in our village anymore, there are certainly Pengelly’s living here. Tom Pengelly was the postman according the family.

I was pleased to meet such a delightful woman with a history and link to this place that has become my home and I was happy that she and her family gave me permission to use the photo and share our meeting online.

The stone cottage she was born in has changed a lot over the years. You can just see the edge of it where the women are standing in the doorway in the photo above.

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In this old black and white photograph provided by Shirley Runnells, the cottage that housed the old post office is on the right side with the phone box near the doorway. With a family living upstairs, I can’t imagine there was much privacy when trying to use the phone. The two cottages attached to it were later joined to form one.

Cornwall 2013

I took this photo taken last week and while you can’t see it, there is a window behind the blue car that used to be the doorway to the middle cottage. I am not sure when the two became one, but the old post office was housed in the white cottage until 1999.

Cornwall 2013

The stone cottage across from it is the ‘Old Smithy.’ I am not sure why we still call it that when we don’t have another blacksmith in the village.

When I researched the Axworthy name, I confirmed that it was Saxon in origin, something John had already told me, and the earliest recording of it in writing was during the reign of Henry VIII when Harry Axworthy was christened in 1542 in Lezant, Cornwall.

It might be easy for some to take the history of a place for granted, but in a country where you don’t have to go far to see something like the Celtic cross which marks the intersection of two lanes on the left in this photo, it’s difficult not to occasionally imagine the ghosts of those who lived here before me.

Talking with the great-granddaughter and great-great-grandson of the man in the photograph may have answered a few questions, but the real gift was more of a day-dreamy one as I imagined the lady before me as a baby and young girl learning to walk the same paths I’ve come to love in the village where we live.

Have you ever had an accidental meeting of a similar sort? 

You’re Never Too Old For A Party … Now Make A Wish And Blow!

Earlier this year I had a conversation with my husband, John about his birthday and what he might like to do to celebrate it properly in the way one does a significant birthday, particularly those ending in a zero.

When you’re younger the zeros don’t matter as much as the life events that certain birthdays mark such as those that make it possible to drive a car or vote. Others may remember the birthday that allowed them to buy their first alcoholic drink and belly up to the bar legally but birthdays ending in zeros seem to be most noteworthy after a certain age.

For most of us, it begins with 30 and the recognition that we’ve arrived there faster than we’d imagined we might. After that it can feel like it’s just an eye blink or two before we’re talking about retirement plans with our girlfriends instead of our plans for the weekend.

Although John retired from the television industry at 51 after being offered an early pension, he’s been very busy in the years since buying and renovating houses before selling them on. He’s not really lived the life of a retiree, or at least what I used to think that life might look like and he’s inspired me to rethink aging and the possibilities for my life.

He didn’t want a big birthday party opting instead to have a smaller gathering with family. He picked out a rental cottage in Dorset and we spent a fun week exploring the surrounding area. The first few days saw all the family together in the five bedroom cottage and the last three we had it to ourselves.

Surprise!

Since it was a significant birthday celebration, I wanted to have a bit of decoration so I bought some paper bunting I saw on the store shelves last summer for the Queen’s Jubilee celebration. I tucked it away knowing I was going to use it later to display photos from John’s life. I went through hundreds of images and used about 300 that I cut or tore and glued to the precut bunting. I did this on the sly so he had no idea what I was doing or that I even planned on decorating the cottage.

I hung the bunting when he went left to pick up Rachel, his youngest, and her two daughters at the ferry. It was very late when they arrived as the ferry was delayed so when they came into the cottage he was aware that I’d decorated, but he didn’t notice what it actually was beyond some colorful bunting.

We barely had time to speak as I went upstairs to help Jersey Girl get ready for bed while Rachel carried an already sleeping baby to her room hoping not to wake her.  As I was tucking JG into bed and giving her a goodnight kiss, John came in with a sweet smile and said that he’d sat on the sofa and glanced up at the bunting and noticed the name of a boat he recognized and as he stood up for a closer look, he saw he was in the picture and then realized that he was in all the photographs.

Chestnut Cottage, Rodden, Dorset

I cooked a big Italian dinner on the second night beginning with stuffed mushrooms and a hot artichoke dip before moving on to a spicy lasagna, with salad and garlic bread. I had a simple floral centerpiece, but it made the table seem crowded so you can only see it in the first photo.

We finished later with a yummy carrot cake that I made from a recipe given to me by my friend, Scott. It looks kind of funny because I baked it at home and made the frosting at the cottage, but it still tasted amazing six days later when John and I had the last of it.

Wishing On Birthday Candles … Do You?

I kind of insisted on candles on the cake which is the reason for the bossy sounding title of this post. I’m a firm believer in making a wish on your birthday no matter what your age. John was a good sport about blowing out the candles, but he didn’t make a wish.

Later in the evening I snapped a photo of some of the empty bottles by the door … I think they may have added one more after I took this.
Gifts
John received some lovely gifts, one being a weekend away in Wales that came from his daughters. They scheduled it for our wedding anniversary weekend so I get to enjoy it too! His brother, David gave him a Magnolia tree and I had something special made for him that I’ll show you in my next post.
Party Favors
I was so focused on food that I had to forgo a cute idea that I thought of too late to complete. Given a bit more time, I would have framed a tiny photo from the past of John with each person at the party and used it as a place card to show where people should sit at dinner. It would have been nice party favor to send home with them afterwards as a reminder.
My Gift  … Here’s A Hint
Don’t forget to come back and see what I gave him. I think you are going to like it.

Raise Your Hand If It’s Your Birthday!

My sister Jennie has a birthday today … she’s the baby with her hand in the air. She was eight months old in this photo and that’s me holding her. My fourteen year-old sense of style was a bit lacking back then as evidenced by my summer blouse at Christmas topped off by my dad’s old army cap.

Jennie was barely five when I enlisted in the army and acquired some military head-gear of my own. I hate what hats do to my hair and I’ve never  been able to wear them as well she does. I tend to think of hats as necessary to keep the sun off or to stay warm if it’s really cold outside, but Jennie does it with flair, making them both useful and a fashion accessory.

She’s in the mountains today having a birthday weekend away with her mom, my step-mom, Cullene. I borrowed the photo below from her Facebook page. Cullene took it last year when they were snowed in and it illustrates what I mean about Jennie’s ability to pull off a hat and look good doing it.

Happy Birthday, Jennie. If there’s a party hat involved today, send me a picture so I can post it.

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

Full As A Tick And Other Thoughts About Food

Christmas 1960 - Elizabeth Harper - Looking Full As A Tick

It’s early 9:15 in the morning here and I still feel full from all the food I’ve eaten over the last few days. John and I may have had a quiet Christmas with just the two of us, but lord did we eat!

More than a time or two the words ‘ I’m full as tick, ‘ may have crossed the lips of one of us and you won’t need to wonder which if you remember I’ve got southern roots. Our different geographic histories were also clearly illustrated by the foods that filled our plates.

John made all of his traditional English side dishes and I made the ones that have graced my family’s southern dinner table for as long as I can remember so that in the end it looked as if we had both made a complete Christmas dinner with only a shared turkey and gravy between us.

While I’m talking turkey, I have to say that John’s turkey this year was amazing! On big holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, turkey tends to be more as an accessory item to me, something I’m supposed include but don’t want too much of as there are more exciting choices to be had. This year the turkey was perfect in taste and texture and I stuffed down more of it than usual.

Speaking of stuffing, John made his in the bird and I did a cornbread dressing in a pan like my family does in Georgia. I used cornmeal carried over on my last flight since I haven’t been able to find any in Cornwall.

Have a look at our dinner plates on Christmas day, they may look like they have the same food, but if you look closely you can see the difference. John has more of the roasted root veggies along with his stuffing and the English version of a ‘pig in a blanket.’ Here it’s a sausage wrapped in bacon while in my family it would be a cocktail weenie wrapped in a biscuit.

John's Christmas Dinner

I had one chance to grab a quick shot of John’s plate as he had his knife and fork in hand and was waiting impatiently to begin. Multiple shots were not a possibility so this one will have to do. Notice all the plain ‘healthier’ veggies … there’s only a small dibble of my contributions seen at about 9 and 10 o’clock on the plate. He did compliment me on my broccoli bake (we’d call it a casserole) but that means something less special here.

My Christmas Dinner

My plate has a mix of both of our dishes. A good southern girl is raised to be polite and eat a of bit of what’s offered, but I focused mainly on things I made like my sweet potato casserole which is always heavenly and the previously mentioned broccoli which I successfully modified slightly by substituting regular bread crumbs with cornbread crumbs instead.

The pink stuff as John likes to call it, is what we refer to as a congealed salad and it’s made from a recipe Cullene has had for many years. I love this cranberry, cream cheese and jello concoction, and no holiday meal is complete for me without it. John likens it to something here called Blancmange which sounds as if he’s saying Blamonge.

The end result was the same for both of us with empty plates and overfull bellies. In a time where many people don’t have enough, I was acutely aware of how fortunate we are to have so much.

The taste of special dishes served only once or twice a year acts as a link for me and probably many of you too reminding us of past holiday meals shared with family and friends and perhaps, it’s the feelings triggered by memory along with a mix of sweetness and spice that makes us overindulge at times.

Here’s hoping your heart was a full as your tummy and that your meal was shared with someone you love.

' Cheers ' from John Winchurch At Christmas

Sharing Secrets, Support, & 500 Posts

Christmas Day 1986 - Cullene, Gene, & Elizabeth Harper

Twenty-five years ago today, I was newly married and in my last year at the University of Georgia. I was also newly pregnant in this Christmas photograph taken with my dad and step-mom, but they didn’t know it yet. Barely twelve days into the pregnancy, there were no tests available back then that were sensitive enough to confirm what I already knew.

I hadn’t planned on adding a baby to my goals for the new year and even though it was very early, I was already worrying about how I was going to balance being a mom with the career goals I had for myself.

For years when I looked at this photo, I focused on the briefcase I was holding and the memory of the feelings I had at the time. My excitement over their gift was tempered by my fear of the future. We were uninsured for pregnancy and were already living pretty frugally and I just couldn’t see how we were going to manage it.

I may have been smiling in this picture, but the secret growing inside me dominated my thoughts that Christmas and I worried that Cullene would sense that something was different about me.

That tiny bean of a baby became my daughter Miranda and it is largely for her that I began this blog in June 2008. From the time she was born I worried as many mothers do that something might happen to me and she would never know how much I loved her or who I was. That eased a great deal as she grew up, but when I choose to marry John and move to another country some of those feelings resurfaced.

I thought writing about my life here might be a way for her to see what was happening with me in England. I also hoped it might help to maintain and strengthen our relationship even though I was so far away.

‘Gifts of the Journey’ evolved very quickly into something more as I bravely wrote and made public those first bog posts. I found myself sharing many things I would have normally kept private. Thoughts and stories that while not as revealing as some might think, were huge leaps of faith for me as I posted things about myself that I worried might be too much.

Today marks my 500th post and it seems right to use a Christmas photograph that once made me think of things I was afraid to say.

When I look at it now I can see what I didn’t then. I was so fearful about the future that I missed my father’s hand on my shoulder and my hand touching Cullene. I missed how embraced and supported I really was, grounded by Cullene’s careful, nurturing nature, and braced by my dad’s belief in me.

Age and introspection have a way of clarifying things and I can easily recognise the benefits I receive from those of you who read my posts and are kind enough to support me through your comments. I may not always comment … I’m slow with email too, but I always, always, read and appreciate your thoughts and the time you take to share them.

Your interest in my words creates a lovely ripple effect in the pond of my emotional life and I am grateful for your continued presence and friendship.

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate this day and thank you all for the gifts you share with me.

xo