Hemingway’s Cousin Adelaide

My 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Adelaide Truesdell, was Ernest Hemingway’s first cousin. With a little Googling, I learned that she was 60 years old when she was my teacher – four years younger than I am today. I remember her as slight, gray, fey, and gentle. My 10th grade English teacher had once heaved a glass paperweight at a disagreeable student. My 11th grade English teacher was especially fond of the boys in my class. I certainly remember those two and I even remember some of what they taught me about English grammar and literature. But Mrs. Truesdell stands out for me because of a few words in the margin of an essay I wrote for her class. She wrote, “You write with charm. Write more.”

And so I have.

Here is the essay that earned Ernest’s cousin’s praise.

Woodrow Wilson High School, Section 124-4. November 4, 1965

“Autumn is my season of serenity. In Spring, I feel restless; wanderlust grips me. Winter and Summer eke out unreckoned angers. Crisp air and brightly hued leaves tumbling end-over-end fill me with a deep awareness of the grandeur of God.

I have a perfect seat for viewing the unlimited splendors of Autumn. The window of my homeroom opens onto a corner of the campus with trees, streets, cars, buildings, and people — all subject to the winds, leaves, and briskness of Fall. The streets and buildings remain stolid in the face of beauty. Never still, the trees vibrate, the branches whip about, and the leaves fall to earth.

Throughout the last weeks of onrushing Autumn, I have seen the gradual changes of the shifting seasons. The trees, once green, became a symphony of reds, oranges, and yellows.

The people change, too. They wear coats or sweaters and walk more quickly, as if they were afraid of the season and must hurry out of its reach.

The sky looks colder. Even when the sun shines, there is a darkness. A darkness that invades the being of the world.

The season of death is approaching.

In this time prefacing the inevitable slowness of winter, the world seems to want to increase its tempo. As if to make up for the time soon to be lost, all processes speed up. The living process is quicker, the aging is quicker, but the dying process is the quickest of all.”

Kids’ Stories

About a year ago I started writing stories for kids about the lives of two small-town, midwestern families. Each story is tied to a holiday, with the first one describing a period around Labor Day.

I’ve finished Labor Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, but I’m snagged on Christmas. I’ve written myself into a hole, I think, and I’m not yet willing to back up and start over. I have the major plot points for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July.

My characters include two 12-year-old first cousins, Kate and Billy, and their parents and Kate’s brother. The extended families include the kids’ grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other cousins. Folks from town, the church, and the school show up, too.

I’m interested in hearing what people think of the stories so far, and so I’m adding “Labor Day” as a page to this blog. You can find it here.

Ghost Stories

Last night we hosted a mystery dinner party that featured ghost stories told by our guests. We had spooky, eerie stories from Massachusetts, New Orleans, Brazil, New Mexico, and Transylvania. As always at these parties, I am delighted and amazed at the ingenuity of my friends as they prepare their costumes and characters to fit the scant outlines I provide.

I decided to tell a story of my own last night. I’ve expanded it a bit and included it here under the title “Ann’s Sequins.”

I hope you enjoy it.

How I Met Hubert

I’ve mentioned that I develop mystery dinner parties for our friends. In the play “Catnapped!” each character had to tell a story about something that happened to her in her 20s. This is the the story told by the ditzy Lady Agatha during the dinner party.

My dear friend Ginny Blossom and I had finished our studies at Lady Dragomere’s Academy and were preparing for our debut into society. Mama had taken me up to London to begin assembling my wardrobe for the many, many social events of the season. We had just left a fitting at Mr. Worth’s salon, and were on our way to the Ritz for tea. Because it was just two blocks from the salon to the hotel, we decided to walk. OH, FATEFUL DECISION!

Mama was talking, as was her habit, constantly. Papa said she was the only person he ever met who could talk on the inhale. She was searching through her reticule for something, speaking all the while, and not watching where she was walking. We had stepped off the sidewalk and were crossing the avenue, and I will confess I was distracted by the memory of the beautiful gown I had just tried on, and FROM NOWHERE!  A HORSELESS CARRIAGE! In a heartbeat, I attempted to turn back, pulling Mama with me. BUT IT WAS TOO LATE!  THE MACHINE WAS UPON US!

Just as I was sure we would be crushed, I felt two strong (oh, so manly!) arms grasp me and Mama and lift us bodily from the CERTAINTY OF IMMINENT DEATH! When I regained my breath, and ascertained that Mama was safe … which I was assured she was by the steady flow of words issuing from her … I turned to thank our benefactor. MY DEAR! What a handsome man he was. Tall, strong, elegant. And with an intensity of expression that I later came to learn bespoke a certain cruelty.

He said, “My God, Girl, what were you thinking, stepping out in front of the Lagonda like that? Don’t you know that is one of the most powerful motorcars in the world? Are you and your mother both daft?”

I knew right then that this was the man I was fated to marry. No one had ever spoken to me in that way before, and I found it quite thrilling. Of course, I couldn’t let him know that.

I said, “How dare you speak to us in that impertinent manner! We were merely walking from Mr. Worth’s salon to the Ritz for tea when this horrid device bore down upon us. I’m sure we would have been quite fine without your ministrations. Certainly, the operator of the motorcar, as you call it, would have been able to rein it in.”

He said, “Idiot Child! Motorcars don’t have reins, and if I hadn’t been quick off the mark, you and your chatty mum would be lying beneath its wheels. You should be thanking me, not criticizing my manners. However, speaking of manners, allow me to introduce myself: Hubert Charmondelay-Featherstonehaugh at your service.”

With that, he bowed sharply and shallowly, more of a little dip than was quite proper, but I nevertheless appreciated the effort at propriety.

Next he said, “Please allow me to see you ladies safely to the Ritz.” I protested that we had already taken up enough of his time; no, he assured me, he was on his way to his club and would, in any event, be passing the Ritz.

He crooked first his left arm for Mama, and when she had taken it, bent his right arm toward me. I slipped my arm through his and we began strolling and conversing. Mama had finally wound down and was listening to Hubert and me with interest and a speculative glint in her eye. Hubert, she thought, might save Papa the cost of a very expensive debut season.

And so it came to be. By March, Hubert and I were engaged; and when I might have been attending the Prince’s Ball, I was instead dancing at my own wedding as Lady Agatha Charmondelay-Featherstonehaugh.

Mystery Parties

Sheila and I are getting ready to host another mystery dinner party. This one is set in the present day, in the Amazon River basin in Brazil. The crime this time – they are always non-violent – is butterfly poaching. Our excellent friends will be portraying American and Brazilian travel guides, a movie star, the star’s publicity director, a publishing tycoon and her secretary, and the World’s Oldest Living Lesbian Couple.

I started writing these dinner party plays in 2010. My original inspiration was a phrase that came to me during the twilight time of fading wakefulness: “Dee Hurley-Burtt Catches deVerm.” I knew I had to do something with that and in the morning I scratched out a plot and some characters for Catnapped!, the tale of the theft of Lady Agatha Charmondelay-FeatherstoneHaugh’s cat, Princess Sticky Wicket, during a country house party at Lady Agatha’s estate in Wapping-on-Bottom, Sussex, in 1932. I gave the characters stage directions, sketchy scripts, and back-stories and they took it from there.

That first evening was a great success, with much laughter and wit. I wrote more plays and we gave more parties. Over the past couple of years, our friends have identified a manuscript thief in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains in 1954; captured the spy in a Hoboken, NJ aircraft factory in 1943; figured out who was the embezzler at a corporate retreat on the moon in 2112; sorted through the red herrings to learn who really owned the railroad-right-of-way in a California gold mining camp in 1852; and deduced who was the communist spy and who was the CIA agent while shipwrecked in the Dry Tortugas in 1952. Embedded in each evening is an activity for the cast beyond solving the mystery – or, in the case of the villain – avoiding detection: they recite or sing, tell stories, or play charades and other games. For the upcoming play, Mariposa!, they will each tell a ghost story.

If you have any suggestions for future plots and locales, I’d love to hear them. If you are interested in putting on one of the plays with your friends, let me know that, too.