Fortune Telling for Good Girls: a Tribute to My Recently Deceased Grandmother

20190209_013039My maternal grandmother, Meta McCarthy–born between the 1st and 2nd World Wars, dead as of yesterday–had a favourite passage in the Old Testament. She said if a girl found the verse in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs with the same number as the day of the month when she was born, the Bible would say something nice about her—a gyno-zodiac, a little Bibliomancy I learned from my good Christian Grammie.

The magic doesn’t start until verse ten, so my two sisters and two cousins born too soon in their birth months don’t get a fortune, which is awfully unfair. But the rest of us can play.

“Who can find a virtuous woman?” our King James translation begins.

My fortune is in verse 24: “She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.” Sounds like code words for having to do the laundry AND go to work. True enough.

My mother, verse ten tells me, has a price far above rubies. Accurate.

Grammie’s other daughter, my auntie, has a candle that “goeth not out by night” which I am sorry to hear.

My middle sister “bringeth her food from afar” which makes no sense because her kids can come home from school for lunch, and my baby sister’s verse is about spindles and distaffs. More ornate iron-age messages about laundry.

Grammie’s verse is 28: “Her children arise up, and call her blessed.” Prophecy fulfilled, many times before and again now.

I knew my grandmother well, before she disappeared into Alzheimer’s disease when my children were babies.

She wouldn’t resist swimming at cold Atlantic beaches even if it meant going in fully clothed. Her favourite swimming move was the side stroke.

She taught us how to respectfully track a house cat around the yard, how to gather seeds from the hollyhocks and nasturtiums at the end of the season, how to knit, but not how to avoid getting busted by conservation officers for hauling away 5 gallon buckets of beach sand for the grandkids’ sandbox.

She was a pioneer meme-maker, overlaying our baby pictures with goofy captions. Her sense of humor was mostly fart jokes and that story about the drunk cousin who thought he’d made it outside and peed on the Christmas tree when she was a kid.

All summer, she drove us into “barrens” and woods to pick berries as though we wouldn’t survive the winter without them, and then brought them home to put up in reused pickle jars sealed with paraffin wax.

She used old-fashion Scottish words for things sometimes—especially us lads and lasses–and spoke in a drawn out sing-song cadence, complete with an inhaled “yeah-YEAH-yeah.” Her laugh was a cackle that I hear in my own.

Grammie chose a spiritual path for me decades before I was born. I’ve kept to it all this time. In its service, she took me with her on visits to the old, sick and lonely. When we went to see the lady with the coffee table made out of a Ouija board, the only comment Grammie made about it was a pleasant, “Well, will ya look at that.”

She took me to her 90-year-old parents’ house to spend entire days cleaning it, telling me to just graciously accept it as a compliment when Great-Grammie called me Dawn, after one of her other daughters.

When I got married at age 21 while living from one student loan disbursement to the next, she cheered me on anyway, giving me the wedding gift of enough money to buy my broke young husband the gold ring he still wears.

I don’t know what it would take to make a loved one’s death a welcome event. If anything could make it so, the almost-decade of profound Alzheimer’s dementia that was the conclusion of Grammie’s life before she died at age 97 might be it. It’s true, this is probably the least traumatic death of a family member I’ve ever experienced. But it is not nothing. And I arise up and call down her blessing.

Sistering is Published Today, or, Enough With the Eerie Coincidences Already

Summer 2013, my first novel is published. It’s a family saga about death and dying. The week it’s released, a close family member is diagnosed with a life-changing, life-expectancy altering illness.

marfire

Oliver, BC fire, 2015

Summer 2015–today, to be exact–my second novel is published. It’s another family story–a dark-hearted comedy instead of a light-hearted tragedy. It’s about sisters and fire and love and stuff. So, naturally, right in time for publication week, the mountain town where my sister Mary lives catches fire.

Ya can’t make this stuff up.

Upon waking on the morning of the unveiling of a five year project my future and my identity as an artist are inextricably linked to, my first thought wasn’t “book.” It was “Mary.”

The last images she left on Facebook last night included the one above. But while we slept, the lightning stopped, the rain started, the firefighters fought. This morning, my sister and her family (plus a second sister who just happened to be visiting this week, posting fire-photos on Instagram that ended up on the Global News website) have all reported in safely from their undamaged home.

I am relieved, finally ready to celebrate, and resolved that my next novel will be a tableau of fluffy bunnies nibbling wildflowers in peaceful meadows.

Oh yeah, and if you’d like to read my “wonderfully bizarre and surprisingly recognizable” book click the “Finding the Book” tab above.

Picture Book, Part I

It’s been observed in reviews of my work that the imagery I use isn’t the typical sort of literary imagery, rooted in visual experience–things that can be seen. Instead, it’s based on other senses (especially smell), simple minute experiences, and cultural allusions. I was surprised to read this about myself but I have to agree with it.

Maybe I was surprised because, no matter how I wind up expressing myself in the end, I do have albums of pictures in my head that inspire my writing. I’ve kept track of some of them and I’ve been posting them every few days as a countdown to the release of my second novel this August 15. A friend called them “clues” and I suppose they do serve to create a bit of mystery. They also satisfy my little kids, who are very diplomatic about their disappointment that my books don’t come with pictures.

Whatever the pictures do, there are still fifteen days before Sistering is released and in the meantime, here’s a recap of what I’ve posted in the past 15 days–my picture book.

Back Stairs, by Heather Horton

Back Stairs, by Heather Horton

dolls

Vintage Paper Dolls

The Dionne Quintuplets (and the Premier of Ontario)

The Dionne Quintuplets (and the Premier of Ontario)

doorknob

Sunlight through an old glass doorknob

headstonecare

Light gravestone maintenance

Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist

Big Ole' Yellow Ring

Big Ole’ Yellow Ring

The Cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Fournier

The Toast Spectrum

The Toast Spectrum

A Book Cover for “Sistering”

The cover for my upcoming novel, "Sistering," Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

The cover for my upcoming novel, “Sistering,” Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

I’m not usually fussy about design. There is photographic proof of it. When my in-laws-to-be generously organized decorations for my wedding reception while I was consumed with final exams at a university hundreds of kilometers away, they went for the crepe paper aesthetic—streamers and accordion bells. My in-laws are lovely but the crepe paper could only be horrible. I managed not ruin the day or our relationship over it (don’t worry, the person who did the shopping is dead and won’t be reading this). On my wedding day, I stood in crepe paper carnage, held onto the beautiful husband these nice people had made for me, and smiled for the pictures.

Those easygoing design sensibilities of mine become brittle when it comes to my own book covers. Stakes are high with book covers—not as high as at a wedding ceremony but definitely higher than at the crepe-paper reception afterwards. Book covers can tip the scales for readers choosing from a market full of good books. Covers usually convey something about plot—especially in genre fiction—but more importantly, they communicate tone and theme. They hint at the state of mind and heart readers can expect to inhabit. They make vague but real promises. They’re meant to elicit emotional connections. We’re supposed to have feelings about book covers—especially when we’ve authored the stories between them. For a second outing in an author’s career, getting a new cover is a little like getting a new face. And I loved my old face.

Like my first novel, the tone of the second novel is (wait for it) unusual. The structure and storyline are quite different from my first book but I hope my signature oddness (whatever it is, I’m too close to sense much of it) has endured. However, strangeness makes the book hard to characterize with a single illustration. My new book is grave but funny enough that a spooky cover wouldn’t be appropriate. The main characters are women but it’s got nothing like a chick-lit vibe so a cover full of flowers or lipsticks or purses doesn’t make any sense. It’s got elements of a warm, family story but images of sunlit kitchen windowsills would be bad fits too.

I set up my first ever Pinterest board and asked my sisters (blood sister and sisters-in-law, after twenty years with my in-laws, unless I’m looking for a kidney donor, it’s all the same) for cover suggestions and for their opinions on my ideas. But I asked them to do it blindfolded, knowing little more about the book than its title. I’m unreasonable that way.

A few days before the latest Linda Leith Publishing catalogue was finalized, Linda was kind enough to send me two designs being considered for my book cover. Nothing in our official agreement obligates my publisher to ask me anything about design. As is typical in the industry, the publisher buys the rights to produce the book however they see fit. This cover preview was a courtesy and one not every publisher extends. I am grateful for it. And that gratitude made me feel like a terrible person when I admitted I didn’t feel right about either of the designs. The kinds of images we were using—stairways—were the right kind. The concept was good and it was one I hadn’t been able to come up with myself. But I was being fussy about colour schemes and other fiddly details.

IMG_8009

Quit trying to cute it up, Cat

With the deadline for the catalogue looming, we all kept working. In desperation, I even recruited my sister Sara, a photographer, to take photos of the stairwell in her house in case we couldn’t find anything that worked. Her kitten didn’t make it easy, frolicking into the shot over and over again. “Hey, it’s not that kind of book,” I kept telling it. On my way home, I stopped at my sister Amy’s house to take photos of her stairs, as a backup plan for the backup plan.

In further desperation, I reached further into my wealth of sisters. While Sara and I were trying to light her stairwell, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, was picking through the Internet for me. Steph is a writer too—urban fantasy and romance with commercial appeal. She does most of her publishing independently and her best book covers are the ones she designs herself. She has a few favourite resources and on one of those, she unearthed the image of stairs our designer transformed into the book cover.

I love it. The blue-green tones are moody and a bit haunted without being gloomy or melodramatic. The architecture is pretty and visually interesting but not too fanciful or domestic. The title’s font—one of the LLP standbys that give the company’s books their unified look—blends well with the image. And best of all for my poor sophomore nerves, this cover has a comforting sisterly resemblance to my first novel’s cover—the novel that was well-received and not just a fluke, right?

When I posted the finished cover on social media, someone cool and smart said, “I’m picturing the Brady Bunch sisters lined up on those stairs. Except they’re all goth.” I didn’t know until I read it that this was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Laugh Track at the Beauty School

This is not a picture of my four sisters and me; neither is my next novel.

I am one of five sisters. I was born first and in exchange for having the best memories of our parents when they were young and cool, I missed out on adventures my sisters had together after I swore off women for a life with my husband and sons. Different combinations of my sisters have traveled to Disneyland, New York City, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, the Northwest Territories, and the old gravel pit in Prince George all without me.

This year, for the first time, I made it to one of their “girls’ trips.” I met the three of my sisters who aren’t currently breastfeeding (see, someone’s always left out – it’s not personal) in Calgary to spend a weekend together.

I am terrible at ordering and it was over a bowl of thick green sauce at dinner that I taught the girls a new word: sistering. It’s like mothering only just between us. And then I warned them about my second novel. It’s about a group of five sisters.

No, it’s not about us.

If it’s not a tribute to our family why stretch the cast over five main characters? Well, because it’s not a stretch. There were five Spice Girls, five Go-Gos, five Miss Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, five Dionne quintuplets. My mind isn’t the only place where a group of five girls is the only size that makes sense.

It was impossible to write the book-sisters without invoking bits of my real sisters. I used some of our quirks and experiences as inspiration, like any writer would have done. To add to the tangle, our family is large. On my side alone there are seven siblings, seven spouses, one ex-spouse, and twenty-two nieces and nephews. It’s hard to create characters and situations that don’t overlap in some way with people I know very well simply because I know so many people so very well. When we’re primed to look, even general coincidences can seem like deliberate rip-offs. For instance, one of the sisters is the book is a nurse, just like Amy. One is divorced, like Sara. One is married to a man who’s adopted, like Mary’s husband. These elements aren’t uncommon inside or outside literature. Moreover, my book’s story wouldn’t work without them. And the story definitely wouldn’t work without the intimate understanding of sisterhood we sisters have given each other.

None of this is the same thing as writing a story about my sisters.

Still, I submitted to the girls teasing me about the book for the rest of the weekend. They let me have it, with that sharp sweetness of theirs and lots of laughter.

The next day Amy had planned girlie activities for us. We spent the morning shopping. That was easy. The afternoon was more difficult. The other girls wanted to go to a spa together. The only place that could book all four of us at the same time was not exactly a spa but a beauty school. I don’t want to use its real name so let’s just call it – oh, I don’t know – Carvel Mollege.

I’d had a facial only once before. It seemed like witchcraft – a superstitious ritual in smearing stuff on my face and wiping it off, a cycle of application and removal. The key to a successful facial is to end it immediately after finishing a thorough removal.

I was about to learn this.

If I’d been a more experienced exploiter of the pink ghetto that is esthetics, I would have realized how strangely my facial was unfolding and made some kind of protest. As it was I laid under a towel that smelled like someone else while a college girl let facial goops drip into my hairline, while she failed to rinse the cocktail of creams and toners and tonics off my skin.

At some arbitrarily determined point she said we were done. My skin felt tight and tacky as I stood up and looked for a mirror. There was only one in the room, mounted too high for me to see much of my face in it. All I could see was a dark, oily perimeter where my hair had soaked up the skin treatments.

Not a good sign.

The supervising instructor was waved out of a classroom to inspect my student’s work. “How do you feel?” she asked me.

“Pretty sticky.”

“From the moisturizer,” she finished for me.

I went downstairs, fingering the gummy surface of my face. In the lobby, my three little sisters were sitting in a love seat meant for two. They looked great. But when they saw me, they looked concerned – and amused. That’s when I knew for sure something wasn’t right. While the receptionist ran my card through the machine, I flexed my sticky face until it cracked. I stood in the lobby and peeled a sheet of – something – off my face.

Across the room, my sisters were cackling. “Why’d it have to be Jenny?”

Between my fingers I held a transparent mask of most of my face. It reminded me of a bored habit I had in grade four, pouring white glue into my hand and letting it dry before trying to peel it off in one piece. This glue mask was a good one. Every hair of my left eyebrow was perfectly visible.

I rolled the film into a ball between my fingers. “I’m not paying for this.”

My sisters kept laughing.

“I understand they’re just students,” I told the receptionist. “But look at my sisters: they’re not down here peeling their faces off.”

No one argued about refunding my money. Maybe they should have. My sisters and I had spun the barrel in a game of college student esthetician roulette and on our fourth shot, my shot, the game fired its inevitable concluding round.

We got in my minivan and drove away, off to a dinner where I would order another plate of food I wouldn’t like. Mary told me how radiant I looked. Amy lent me some makeup. And we never stopped laughing. That’s my sisters: the laugh track of my life, calming me down, cheering me up, convincing me this drama is much more fun than any amount of reason says it should be.

When my new book appears next year (please read it) don’t skip the dedication page. But just in case, let me reveal now how it will read:

For Amy, Sara, Mary, and Emily

All of whom inspired, none of whom is depicted in this book

Here Baby, There Mama: Don’t Politic My Hair

Let me tell you about the angriest I’ve ever been with my husband. Our not-quite-two-year-old son needed his long, wispy, angel hair cut. He hated haircuts and would carry on like a calf getting branded. It was always awful. My husband told me he’d take care of one particular haircut by himself. He took the baby into the bathroom and buzzed his head with electric clippers.

I was furious.

Yes, the baby’s hair grew back. And no one – not my oh-so-scolded husband, not anyone – has ever buzzed it again. The baby is fifteen years old now. His hair is still light blond but it’s also thick, silky, and he wears it long. I love it. Everyone loves it.

That’s the angriest I’ve ever been at my husband. I’m very lucky. I have an excellent husband. I also have an excellent mother. Guess what makes me angriest about the way she raised me. Once again, it’s haircuts. I’m not one to try to blame my mother for everything. She was and is wonderful to me and my six siblings. But she is a demon in a hair salon.jennyshort

Her first six children were born within seven and a half years. No, she’s not crazy. She’s just talented at pregnancy and babies. My mum is never happier than when she’s raising a baby. I don’t understand it — the same way I don’t understand people who are happiest when they’re cooking or playing soccer or doing math.

With a family like that, I guess Mum needed some short-cuts – literally. Five of us are girls — though it was hard to tell from looking at us when we were kids and our mother was choosing our haircuts. Mum had this idea that short hair on girls was “stylish” and modern – that and it didn’t need any time consuming combing or binding with elastics.

amyshort

Some people look fine in short hair. These people are not in my immediate gene pool. We all looked horrible. We knew it even though our mother raved about how pert and bold we were and how boring and backward our girl-friends were with their gorgeously normal shoulder-length bobs. But we were respectful, filial girls and I didn’t rise up and put an end to my mother’s terrible haircuts until I was in the tenth grade. That was when I grew my hair long – crazy long – and never went back. My sisters have thrown off their chains and grown out their hair too.

We all have the hair we want now. We’re educated, independent women exercising control over our own bodies and using a whole lot of high-end conditioner every morning. That’s the happily ever after, right?

Unfortunately, personal preference isn’t the only thing being read into hair length lately. Some click-baiting doofus wrotesarashort an article in response to the recent Hollywood revival of the pixie cut that made my childhood so awkward. He trolls on about how women cut their hair short to perturb and alienate men. The article has been answered by far more thoughtful pieces claiming long hair can be a patriarchal weapon meant to signal reproductive receptivity and with it, submission to oppressive forms of traditional gender roles.

Actually, for most people from my ethnic group anyways, long hair is just the natural state of all hair, for men and women. It’s now been unnaturally politicized by both sides of the gender divide. One of my brothers-in-law snapped and told my sister she had to cut her hair because she looked like the wife of a fundamentalist cult leader. I guess that wasn’t the impression he wanted his colleagues to have of their successful family business. My sister keeps her hair long anyway and sometimes twists it into a tight, top ‘o the head, power-bun that is authoritarian and formidable and totally awesome.

maryshortI admit I’m still insecure enough to worry whether anyone mistakes my long hair as a sign there’s something oppressive in my relationships or worldview – something amiss with my feminism. There isn’t. I’ve written more in defense of feminism than many people will ever read in their lifetimes.  I have nothing to be insecure about.  Part of enjoying my personal autonomy is invoking my right not to cut my hair if that’s what makes me happiest.

All that anger from the beginning of this story – with my husband and my mum – it’s petty. I’ve let it go and moved on. Even in the teeth of the crises, I never had much to complain about.  Unless it’s a token of religious observance, everything that’s said about another person’s hair length seems just as petty to me. And in realms of pettiness, what’s important aren’t the choices we make but the fact that we are free to make those choices.emshort

Sometimes, as Freud is rumored to have said, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, a haircut is just a haircut – no social agenda, no revolution, no patriarchal violence – just pretty protein sprouting out of a scalp. When it comes to the way I wear my hair, all I’m trying to say is that I love it long – on my sons, on me, on my sisters, even on my mother herself.

Me, My Mum, and My Sisters Today