Holiday Reflections

Saint Benidict's Anglican Church (2), High River Alberta, Jan. 04, 2017 - bruce wtizel photo

Reasons to spend holiday time staying with family in another province:

Grandkids change so fast. The opportunity to reconnect with where they are in their lives is a precious one. We took Emma and Brit on a snowy outing to the High River Cemetery. More about why in a later blog. Emma was so excited to run between the gravestones and brush off the powdery snow so she could read the inscriptions. She is at that wonderful stage when the ability to read has clicked and she can’t wait to decipher the written word anywhere she finds it. The day was quite cold and when Brit headed back to the car, Emma looked disappointed. She told me, “I don’t want to leave.” I told her we would come back in the summer and spend as much time as she liked. She said, “Can I wear a dress?” I felt that would be perfectly fine.

High River Cemetery

A couple of snow angels visited the High River Cemetery.

A couple of snow angels

Kristen - Bruce Witzel photo

 

 

 

Grown kids still need their moms. Well, they do! Especially when mom can bite her tongue now and then. Listening matters more than always heaving the proverbial two-bits into every conversation.

 

 

 

The opportunity to do things one wouldn’t do at home. For example, watch ten episodes of The Crown on Netflix – I loved it!

The Crown - Goggle Image

Experience a white Christmas. For someone who grew up on the coast of British Columbia and hasn’t strayed far from coastal waves, this was new. As was watching Emma and Brit skate on an outdoor lake and multiple sledding trips down what passes for a hill in High River.

White Christmas - High River. Albe

Emma sledding - Bruce Witzel photo     Brit sledding - Bruce Witzel photo

Brit - winter skate - Bruce Witzel photo

Winter skate - Bruce Witzel photo

Understand what -30 with wind-chill feels like. Britney told us that her school doesn’t let students play outside at recess if it is colder than -20 with a windshield. I guess announcements over the PA system are hard to decipher whether it be at a school or in an airport.

Tsunami warning - Goggle ImagesBe terrified over one’s first experience at a wave-pool. When the waves hit me, I was standing in the worst place possible – near a wall and in the outflow from one of the water slides. Add to my terror the fact that Kristen told me to stay close to Britney. I seriously felt as though I was on the beach as a tsunami rolled in with no hope of keeping my head above the water let alone staying close to anything. Suffice to say, as Brit bounced towards me with a grin and helped me get my footing, I realized I was to stay close to a five-year-old for my safety not hers.

Baking with grandkids. Making and decorating sugar cookies is my Grandma baking specialty.

Emma & Fran decorating  Christmas cookies

Playing cards and games. We discovered Phase Ten this year and enjoyed it. Pass the Ace continues to be a favourite. As usual, I stayed on the receiving end of loss after loss at crib. Good to know all is as it should be with me and the gaming universe. One day, Emma, observing yet another of my losses, patted me on the back and said, “Don’t worry Grandma. I’m on your side because you’re the thunder-dog.” And so I was.

Candy purchases at the Bulk Barn. Hot Tamales by the pound, anyone? This is the sort of good time you had to be there to enjoy!

Getting familiar with a new, family-oriented community. I am helped to put the day-to-day events of kids and grandkids in context with such information. And we did such a good job at this that we ended up in the local High River paper. Can’t complain about that.

New Year's Eve in High River Times

Reasons why it is wonderful to come home:

No matter how comfy the bed I land in, nothing can replace the tried and true of my own bed and pillows.

The opportunity to eat in tune with personal preferences – fresh baked bread, homemade soups and a spicy black bean dip made with balsamic vinegar that is to die for. Unfortunately, Bruce is not a fan of three things – balsamic vinegar, cilantro and lentils. All of which, I love. But I had read in my Bean Cookbook that balsamic vinegar is a bean’s BFF, so I had to throw caution to the wind. The consequence I am willing to live with is that I must consume all the spicy black bean dip on my own.

The off-chance that I may finally return full-time to writing the fourth book of the Crater Lake Series – yippee!

Significant blocks of quiet that allow me the time to enjoy the memories of a great family holiday. Life is good!

Kristen & Matt - Bruce Witzel photo

Eight Years Old Today

Emma's Birthday

My granddaughter. Emma, turns eight today. How the time flies. There are days when I can’t remember where I put my coffee but I remember the day she was born like it was yesterday.

November 21st, 2008 – I got the call from my daughter, Kristen, at about two in the morning. Screaming down the phone lines, at least two weeks early, she told me she was thinking of going to the hospital. “The baby is coming, Mom.” 

I was living in Victoria at the time, at the university, teaching. I had a class to teach later that afternoon. I flew out of bed and into action. Emails went out to a substitute instructor and I was in a cab on the way to the bus depot before 5:00 am with many calls back and forth in the those ensuing three hours.

I learned that they had sent Kristen home on that first trip to the hospital. I remember holding the phone away from my ear as her outraged voice rose. She was livid.

I was finished the two-hour ferry trip and back onboard my bus headed for the downtown Vancouver Bus Depot when I got another call. With gasping and groaning amidst the words, Kristen said, “We are on the way back to the hospital. Where are you?” That call ended before I could answer because she had to barf out the window of the car.

I arrived at the depot and managed to find a cab driver who was willing to drive me out to The Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. He took one look at my face when the words – My daughter’s having a baby. I have to get to the Royal Columbine” – poured out of my mouth and he smiled. Get in, he told me. I was in the labouring room soon after Kristen got processed and sent there herself.

Okay, flashback to my own labouring experiences. With my first, labour was a three-day ordeal that ended in an operating room with me having a caesarean delivery. Not the most pleasant of memories to draw upon. My next delivery was a scheduled caesarean. Through Kristen’s entire pregnancy, I worried about a long, difficult labour ending with any number of complications.

I am happy to report that Emma’s birth was nothing like anything I imagined. My daughter is a rock star! I arrived in the room at 10:00 am – Emma was born by 2:00 pm. The last hour and a half was such intense work that the time flew by.

But there was those few terrifying moments, right at the end, that seemed an eternity. Emma’s head had crowned, I was watching her being born. The doctor suddenly asked me to move aside. A flurry of orders poured out of her mouth. The room filled with people. Newborn Emma was in the doctor’s arms and moving quickly to a table nearby surrounded by other masked doctors and nurses. The cord had been around Emma’s neck and she wasn’t breathing. I stood very still and saw this brand-new life surrounded by busy, capable hands. I saw Kristen sit up on the delivery table and I heard the anguish in her voice as she said, “Mom, Mom … what’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong.”

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That moment stretched out forever and then Emma cried and she was in Kristen’s arms. The world tilted back to a proper axis and all was so wonderfully, wonderfully well.

The next few hours were incredibly joyous. Emma moved from the arms of her exhausted but overwhelmingly relieved parents to those of her ridiculously proud grandparents. I remember thinking that I had never in my life been present for such an amazing event. I was so completely overwhelmed with the thought that my baby was now a mother.

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I am so grateful that when that phone call came at 2:00 in the morning on November, 21st, 2008, I acted decisively. I got to see my granddaughter’s birth. And I am so thankful for the relationship I have with my adult daughter – a relationship that made being by her side as she gave birth to our beautiful Emma so right and perfect. Though, in the picture below, Emma looks less than thrilled with the entire process.

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And today, that tiny baby is eight-years-old. Little did we know that being grandparents would turn our lives and our priorities so totally upside down. I regret nothing! Every moment spent with this special little girl who is Emma has been worth it.

00471HSAS146 Emma Keeley008

Report Card Time

 

Brit - Guenette photo

I’ve been thinking a lot about report cards and the whole assessment dimension of sending our kids and grandkids off to school. I came across these great quotes.

Friendship … it’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you haven’t learning anything. (Muhammad Ali)

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learned in school. (Albert Einstein)

What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning. (Chuck Grassley)

00773HSAS458 Britney Keeley005

Our beautiful granddaughter, Britney – just look at that Mona Lisa smile! – got her first kindergarten report card yesterday. Five-years-old and already in the assessment mill of school. Heavy sigh! All her kindergarten academics are strong but on the scale of C = consistent, O = occasionally and S = seldom, she is C for talking out in circle time and rushing through her fine motor skill work so she can get busy with the next activity.

As someone who has never taken educational assessment all that seriously, I was tempted to laugh. I remember my son’s surprised face when one year he came home from school and told me, in dramatic teen fashion, how his dad was going to kill him because of a failing grade in math. I shrugged and said, “Hardly. Your dad and I know how smart you are. It’s just a grade.”

To know Britney, is to know she is a force to contend with. Even as a baby, she was a hard child to move and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. She has a low centre of gravity. She would make a great protester. When the police drag her to the paddy wagon, she won’t make it easy. It’s who she is. She has all those second child characteristics – one of which is the constant feeling that she is missing out on something and must hurry along. No wonder she rushes through fine motor skill activities!

Brit doing math - Guenette photo

But I didn’t laugh. A child’s first kindergarten report card is a big deal – to the parents and the child. I listened to my daughter’s concern and the disappointment in her voice tugged at my heart. We all want our kids to be top of the class with all their C’s, O’s and S’s in the right spots.

The best thing a parent can do is put things in perspective and this continues between grown children and their parents. I listened, then said, “Reminds me of someone else’s report cards.” My daughter paused and then laughed. Yes, I meant her. We looked at her kindergarten report card a few years ago and one comment stood out. “Less chatter and more paying attention would certainly help her progress.”

Brit and Kristen

This parenting thing – never easy, for sure.

A Granddaughter’s First Library Card

Brit's first library card - Guenette photo

A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life. (Henry Ward Beecher)

When I was growing up, a trip to the library was the high point of my week. Dropped off in front of the Civic Center where the library was located, my heart would start to thump as I moved quickly up the stairs to the door. As I stepped into the quiet building, I stared around me for a moment. Taking a deep breath, I savoured the smell of books. Then I would plunge into the racks to fill my arms with anything that took my fancy.

The other day my four-year-old granddaughter took a special trip to her local library. She signed up for her first library card and checked out two books. Brit proudly showed me the card and explained how she had written her own name on the front. She held up her two books and told me in a serious voice that she had to bring them back in two weeks.

In this fast-paced world of iPads, apps and e-readers, I often wonder if the public library has outlived its usefulness. The look on Britney’s face as she waved her newly acquired library card in the air tells me we are in no danger of losing such a valuable resource.

Brit's library books - Guenette photo

Snake Cake, Anyone?

Brit's 4th birthday - Bruce Witzel photo

Every great story begins with a snake … (Nicholas Cage)

On this quiet Sunday afternoon, as the precious few hours of fall sunshine slips away, I’ve been searching through photos from the summer and smiling as I go. Back in those lazy, crazy days of August our small cabin was bursting at the seams with visitors and it was soon to be granddaughter Britney’s fourth birthday. I was prepared with cake mixes in the cupboard and loads of icing sugar, food colouring and sprinkles.

Two days before the big event, I asked her what kind of birthday cake she would like. I had bookmarked on Pinterest a fairly easy looking butterfly cupcake creation that I thought might be a possibility.

Like many conversations we have with children, I was ready to throw my suggestion on the table before Brit had even a moment to gather her thoughts. She didn’t give me the chance. She levelled her gorgeous blue eyes at me and said, “I have a snake cake, Gama.”

My own eyes widened in surprise. “A snake cake? Really,” I responded. “I was sort of thinking about a nice butterfly.”

Her blonde curls danced as she emphatically shook her head. “No, Gama. Snake cake.”

Being ever one to go with the flow, I said, “Okay, then, snake cake. What colour?”

Once again her response was immediate, as if this idea had been fully formed for some time. “Geen, Gama. I have a geen snake cake.”

Britney’s inability to say the letter ‘R’ often results in some darn cute sentences. Like the time she said, “Gampa Buce like geen, so I like geen, too.” Or when she asked me for geen gapes, Gama.

Brit's snake cake - Bruce Witzel photo

What the heck, who needs Pinterest? We made that green snake cake complete with shaped snake head, chocolate chip eyes and a bright red construction paper tongue. A unique cake for a very special four-year old who already understands the importance of going her own way.

Brit's photo booth - Bruce Witzel photo

Granddaughters Britney (age 4) and Emma (age 6).

A Special Tribute to My Mom–June Guenette

Maelstrom art with border

The following piece appears at the end of my soon-to-be released novel, Maelstrom. Enjoy.

This novel began its journey to you, the reader, when I was a child. My father worked nightshift and my mother was writing a book. We kids would fall asleep to the clack, clack, clack of the typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of a line and the unforgettable sound of the carriage return. When I got older, I would stay up late and my mother would share bits and pieces of the story with me – highly censored, I’m sure. My brief introduction to the characters left an indelible impression – Sheriff Bert Calder, the sadistically cruel man who held the town of Haddon under his thumb; Myhetta, the handsome, knife-wielding adopted son of Rafael Destino; Laura, the woman who seemed to exist always in her basically white kitchen.

The years went by and I assumed my mother had given up on her book. Nothing could have been further from the truth. When I was in my twenties, I visited her and she proudly showed me a large box filled to the brim with type-covered, fluted, white paper placemats – a complete draft of Maelstrom. She was working at a café and had purchased those placemats for a good price. My mouth dropped open, my eyes grew large and I demanded that she let me read it. But she shook her head – it was too rough and raw. It needed work. From time to time, I heard that she had written yet another draft of the first chapter but more often than not, she seemed content to move onto other work. She penned a column for a local paper and honed her craft in the genre of short story writing. She joined a writers’ group and contributed to an anthology. She had a short story accepted for publication in a magazine.

When my mother died in 1997, she willed reams of her writing to my son. He was only a teenager at the time but he took the boxes she left him. Overwhelmed with sorting the rest of my mother’s possessions, I never even peeked inside those boxes. My son carted his inheritance from place to place until he winged his way across the vast country of Canada. At that point, whatever he couldn’t get on a plane, he left with his father. The boxes from his grandmother were then moved from here to there as part of a thing parents do for their kids – store their stuff.

Two years ago, my son brought me a red folder that had turned up in some of his things – pages from a book his grandma must have been working on. He had glanced through it and wondered if I would be interested, now that I was writing books of my own. I was stunned. I hadn’t seen those typed placemats for decades. I read with my heart in my throat. The margins were full of my mother’s handwritten notes. I could almost see her dark eyes sparkling with intensity as she glanced over my shoulder.

The red folder contained eighty pages of Maelstrom. But where was the rest of the manuscript? My son assumed that it must still be in storage at his dad’s somewhere. Later, the news came to me that boxes would be looked through with an eye to finding the missing pages.

I convinced myself that the degree to which I desired those pages to be found was in direct proportion to the likelihood that they never would be. I held myself firmly, repeating T. S. Eliot’s words – hope without hope.

I decided to transcribe the portion of the manuscript I had. No sooner did I begin typing than I started to rewrite. I couldn’t stop my imagination from springboarding off my mother’s words. By the time I was done, I knew that I could outline a beginning and ending for the novel.

Then came the magical day when my daughter sent me a text with a photo of a tottering pile of several thick binders bulging with pages. The rest of the manuscript had surfaced. I stared and stared at that photo, not quite believing my eyes. Those binders contained over two thousand pages. But I was never to find the all-important beginning. The manuscript started at page thirty. I have no idea what happened to that elusive first chapter that my mother had rewritten so many times.

So began a long process of reading. By the time I had finished, I was holding her version and the version I would have written side-by-side in my head. I started outlining, blocking out sections I would use and those I would not. I put sticky notes here and there in colour-coded, reckless abandon. My handwritten comments down margins and across the tops and bottoms of pages vied for space with my mother’s.

I made major alterations to the story she had set out to tell and that resulted in even more changes as the book progressed. The majority of those two thousand pages were left on the cutting room floor. Some characters were toned down, others were fleshed out with backstory wholly of my creation, a few were combined to streamline the narrative and one even underwent a gender change. I mined my way through those pages again and again for the gems – the turns of phrase unique to my mom’s way of writing dialogue, the colourful descriptions and plays on words. And I never came away empty-handed.

As the months of writing flew by, I struggled to understand whose book this was becoming. It was certainly not the book my mother had intended though it echoed with her ideas and characters. On the other hand, it was not something I could have come up with on my own.

After fifteen drafts and countless hours of work, I have come to the conclusion that the premise for the story belongs to my mother; the book you have just read is mine.

I’m not sure I can adequately describe what this experience of ghostwriting my mother’s story into my own and bringing it to a reading public has meant to me. There were times when I was so emotional, I sobbed over the keyboard and had to stop working. I never felt as close to my mother or as frustrated with her as I did when working on this novel. She made me laugh and I could almost feel her hand on my shoulder as I typed. Then she would exasperate me and I’d throw my head back and moan. I thought if I turned quickly, I would catch her shrugging her thin shoulders and hear her say, “It made sense to me at the time.”

It gives me great pleasure to present my interpretation of the novel my mother began so many years ago and to bring her characters to life with my own unique spin. It feel as if a circle is closing and, though I’m not sure if my mother would wholly embrace this version of her story, I am confident she would be proud of me for making the effort.

Pencil sketch - Casa Destino - June Guenette (2)

(A conceptual, pencil sketch of Casa Destino by June Guenette)

Countdown to Maelstrom release is FIVE days Smile

How to Recognize Your Fan Base

Emma in Save-On with Chasing Down the Night - Guenette photo

I read somewhere that a solid base of a thousand fans is the tipping point for an indie author. That number of readers who are committed to buying the author’s next book, talking up an author’s work and recommending said author to friends and family will push sales and name recognition to a level where things start to snowball.

But how does one evaluate this fan base? It isn’t about sales because people often download books and never read them. It can’t be determined from the number of followers on various social media platforms because much of this type of engagement is people looking for reciprocal action. No judgement, here – just reality.

Self-publishing sign - Google imageIn my experience, fans are counted through engagement. My fans take the time to let me know they love my work. This post is a tribute to those people. They really seem to love the Crater Lake characters and they keep on asking for more. I’m not at the one thousand mark yet. Winning people over and generating true engagement is something that builds, slowly but surely, over time. This is what makes self-publishing a marathon and not a sprint.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking down the sidewalk of a nearby town. A store door burst open and a woman came running out. She stopped me by saying, “I know you.” I smiled and stuck out my hand. She went on, “I’ve read all your books.” Then she pulled me into a tight hug as she said, “Thank you so much for writing those books.” Stepping back, I could only stare at her in amazement. My first brush with being recognized solely on the basis of my writing was a surprising thrill.

As I said, fans keep asking for more. A case in point is a recent comment on this blog supporting Malestrom, my work-in-progress (a non-Crater Lake book) but ending with a plea for more from Crater Lake.

3-D Box Set - Crater Lake Series

Trilogy number one? Time will tell. Ideas are definitely percolating for book number four.

My daughter had an interesting conversation with her stepsister the other day. Amber had just finished reading Chasing Down the Night and she asked, “Has your mom told you if Justin and Lisa-Marie ever get together?”

Kristen replied, “Even if she did, are you sure you would want to know?”

Matt, Kristen’s husband, laughed and piped in with, “I heard she’s going to kill Justin in the next book.” Amber jumped up in alarm. (No spoiler alerts here – that joking son-in-law heard no such thing from me!) I do cherish the emotional attachment readers have with my characters.

I can’t even describe the fun I had watching my niece, Chelsea, read Chasing Down the Night. There was only one rule – every time she laughed or gasped, she had to say why. It felt like I was attending a weeklong book club. When she got to the end, she gave a heavy sigh and said, “It’s like a summer holiday coming to an end. You wait and wait for it then it’s over before you want it to be and you have to wait a whole year for another one.”

Silver's Book Review capture

Colleen Chesebro, who blogs over at Sliver Threads recently wrote a review for the box set of the first three novels. Her wrap up is well-worth bragging about. Please check it out by following the above link to her blog.

She topped off her thoughtful review and blog feature with this response to my thanks.

“Francis, I have read many books, but few touch me as much as these three did. I simply loved the characters and their journeys. I do want to know how they survive the winters on Crater Lake. I wish you continued success and look forward to your future books. I was honored to read the Crater Lake Series. Thank you.”

I know my fans because they let me know how they feel about my work. More than anything else, that type of sharing makes writing a thrilling and worthwhile endeavour.

Brit at the beach - Guenette photo

Brit making you an offer you can’t refuse – read my grandma’s books. You won’t regret it!