Posted by: MaraPurl | February 14, 2018

Writer at Work, Otters at Play

My latest book is When Otters Play, the next novella in the Milford-Haven saga. In honor of my “heart” series, I offer a special promotion each Valentine’s day. This year is particularly special because I’ve joined other Women’s Fiction authors to bring you a fabulous selection of books on sale for 99cents February 14th through February 20th. Click here to explore your next reads! http://www.tammylgrace.com/promotions/ From my heart to yours.

The word PLAY loomed large in my childhood, as it should in the life of any child. Children may not yet know how to navigate the world though language, comparative analysis or diplomacy, but at play they are experts.

I remember so clearly making castles of sand, or even of thin air, peopling them with fantastic characters, and inviting friends to join me in enacting elaborate storylines. Looking back, at first glance the dramatic role-playing seems cute, predictable, with some usefulness thrown in. How adorable that was, learning how to get along with others by taking turns playing the evil queen.

But then I looked deeper, and began to realize what child-psychologists and observant parents have always known: there’s a purpose to all this play, a step-by-step building of personality and self-esteem, of balancing shyness and privacy with standing up for oneself while creating rapport and friendship. Some of these moments may shine down the years, and some friendships may last a lifetime. Sadly, some experiences may also create terrible scars on a soul that a person then tries either to overcome—or to exact revenge—decades later.

So play is a word both bigger and deeper than it seems. And it’s in this sense that it became part of the title of my latest book, When Otters Play. http://marapurl.com/books/when-otters-play/

The protagonist of my Milford-Haven saga is the artist Miranda Jones, who paints landscape and wildlife. She has the same passion for her work as I do for mine, and both of us are committed to doing extensive research before we begin to take words to paper or paint to canvas. Though the core serial-saga unfolds in my novels, there is a set of stand-alone novellas I privately refer to as the “Critter Chronicles” of which this is the third. (The first two are When Hummers Dream http://marapurl.com/books/when-hummers-dream/ and When Whales Watch http://marapurl.com/books/when-whales-watch/ , in case you want to read them.)

In each, Miranda investigates a particular animal in the wild to prepare for completing some a painting or mural. I choose creatures from California’s gorgeous Central Coast where my series is set, and where Miranda loves to explore. One of the most iconic inhabitants of the region is the Southern Sea Otter, who truly is a coastal-critter, never wandering very far from shore, and living almost entirely within sight of humans—and who therefore themselves have humans in their sights daily.

Tourists and residents alike see them, but what do we see? We see cute creatures evidently at play. They play with their food—banging scallop shells to crack them open, for example. They play with their mates—rising up out of the water to collide, or rolling together in the branches of their native kelp beds. They play with their young, and their young are constantly at play, exploring their world as precious bundles of glistening fur, wide-eyed and curious, adorably awkward, mischievous and fascinating. Perhaps part of their appeal is that they have some almost-human qualities: sweet, symmetrical faces, and articulated paws, the closest thing to hands possessed by any creature in the sea.

But just as is the case with we humans, the sea otters have an overwhelming and demanding purpose to their play: to survive. Unlike all other sea mammals, the sea otter has no blubber to keep it warm, so it must constantly groom, as any oil or debris trapped in its pelt reduces the capacity to provide that shield of warmth. To keep up with their constant expenditure of energy, they must eat almost constantly. So when they’re not eating, they’re foraging. Diving to the bottom, they gather shellfish, among other delicacies, and tuck them into the folds of skin below their arms which form handy pockets.

History shows we almost lost the Southern Sea Otter entirely. With pelts more richly dense than any other on the planet, the species fell prey to Russian fur hunters whose own need to survive freezing winters led them on chases all the way along the coastlines of Alaska, Canada and the U.S. until they could find not one more otter to slay. This is chronicled in a marvelous book by Roger Seiler, Master of Alaska about which I blogged last summer. http://marapurl.com/meet-my-guest-author-roger-seiler/

As my protagonist discovers, in 1938 the environmentalist Margaret Owings discovered a small group of otters living in the mouth of Bixby Creek in Big Sur. It is thought that today’s population of southern sea otters all come from that small group, protected by Friends of the Sea Otter, there now exists a solid, if not yet robust population.

But into what context did these inventive creatures reappear? When I first began reading up on the current state of the sea otter, to my surprise, I found all kinds of conflicting reports. Some articles talked about how the otters were damaging fisheries and should be removed from the area, while some claimed the otters were actually saving the coastline. I didn’t see how both these arguments could hold water, as it were.

Then I read about an attempt by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to establish a colony of otters on San Nicholas Island—off the coast of Santa Barbara—in the hopes that if there were a devastating oil spill along the coast, the new population would continue to thrive and sea otters wouldn’t be wiped out completely. Because this new population was closer to lucrative fishing grounds in the Santa Barbara area, USFWS, responding to pressure from commercial fishermen, established a “No Otter Zone” from which the otters would be removed if found there.

Was it possible otters would happily settle in their new home and abandon the habits of centuries? And whom did this project benefit? Some said the oil companies, with a string of valuable offshore rigs nearby, wanted them moved for their own protection in the event of a spill. Some said the military, with a key base on the area, wanted them moved to prevent obstruction of vessels. It became clear that the weeks I’d set aside for research might not be sufficient to the task before I could begin writing. Little did I know at the time that the research would extend for three years, involve scores of interviews, and give me the chance to work both with the director of the sea otter rescue program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as well as with the Department of Fish and wildlife who monitor the wild population.

And here’s something more I discovered about the otters’ “play” and how it fits like a perfect puzzle piece in the local ecology. A particular favorite in their diet is urchin. And here’s one of nature’s brilliant full-circle designs. Kelp forests form the home for sea otters and many other species along the coastlines. Urchins attach themselves to the holdfasts—the root system—of the kelp stipes, or branches. Unless the urchin are kept in check, they can destroy an entire kelp forest more quickly than one might think possible. Enter the sea otter, who plucks the urchin away from holdfasts for a tasty snack, thus saving its own and its fellow coastal dwellers’ home.

So here was this cute, inventive, self-sufficient creature who was an “index species”—that is, one whose presence was a key to the ecological well-being of its own region. I was liking these furry, sweet-faced critters even more than I thought I would.

There is, however, more than just cuteness and play where sea otters are concerned. They’re serious about capturing their food, and underwater footage shows how efficiently they can use their claws to dig out their prey. And when it comes to protecting their young, they can be every bit as vicious as any mammal in the wild. This side of their nature is made evident in my story (spoiler alert) so don’t be taken in by the adorable faces on the cover and read my novella to your child. This is not a children’s book, but a tale for adult readers.

So, yes, the word “play” is as deceptively simple and as richly complex for otters as it is for humans. You might say otters, with their obvious intelligence and cleverness, really know how to use their heads. But what will endear them to you when you read my story is how they reveal their hearts. When you visit Milford-Haven, I hope you’ll enjoy exploring our fellow coastal inhabitants, and find out how much is at stake . . . When Otters Play.

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Posted by: MaraPurl | January 27, 2018

Book Signings at Sea

Publishing at Sea: I was recently a faculty member at this marvelous conference for authors. Those of us who have published works—whether faculty or conference attendees—were invited to sign our books at two separate signing events on the third-largest cruise ship in the world. What an opportunity! What an honor! And what fun to connect with so many new readers!

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Sea is, indeed, the third-largest cruise ship on the oceans: 1,186 feet in length, rising 236 feet above the waterline, and weighing 225,282 tons, an engineering marvel apparently effortlessly afloat. On the sixteenth deck—that’s right, the sixteenth—you can sit in sheltered splendor inside a solarium, gazing out at nothing but ocean. On the eighth deck, you can sip tea or wine in one of the enclaves edging Central Park—a massive deck replete with trees. On the third deck you can sit in comfortable classrooms and conference rooms attending meetings or sessions. And on the Main Promenade, the ship’s Cruise Manager worked with our Publishing at Sea Founder Judith Briles to arrange for us to array our books on tables and greet the 6,000 passengers who strolled by.

Imagine being featured inside an elegant, well-appointed mall, with passengers hearing announcements about authors signing their books. They add us to their schedules, or happen by as they consider where to shop after lunch. Our events were something like that, though better, since we had a captive audience. What we found was that people were curious, inquisitive, and eager to find just the right book for themselves, or to have gifts to offer when they returned home from their cruise.

All the authors in Publishing at Sea follow a practice not only of courtesy toward one another, but we also have an awareness of the value of synergy. If I talk about my colleague’s book, he may make a sale. If I hear a reader mentioning a topic of interest, I might know where to direct him or her. Readers notice this behavior, and appreciate it. Who would want to buy a book from a self-absorbed author who doesn’t care about others?

I’ve done book signings in so many bookstores and in so many locations over the years, some well-planned and well-attended . . . some not. Since I love bookstores, I never think of these events as wasted time. But being part of a truly fabulous, inclusive author signing on an elegant cruise ship somehow beats sitting alone at the back of an empty store. If you’re thinking of joining us for Publishing at Sea next year, here’s one more reason to say yes. Well-planned signings are wonder challenges for the head. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow authors and reaching across tables to connect with readers . . . well, that’s a fulfillment of the heart.

Posted by: MaraPurl | January 26, 2018

European Legacy in the Caribbean – Cozumel

Publishing at Sea: I was recently a faculty member at this marvelous conference for authors. We enjoyed excursions on our three non-teaching days. As our magnificent ship left port in Florida and headed for the sparkling waters of the Caribbean, I was struck by the fact that our ports of call would be three islands, each with a history of colonization by a European country. Though each had established sovereignty at least a century or two earlier, still, woven into the fabric of these island cultures were the threads left behind by their colonizers.

Our third visit was to Cozumel, once a colony of Spain, now part of Mexico, off the eastern shore of its Yucatan Peninsula. Once we glimpsed its azure waters, it was easy to understand why it’s one of the world’s most famous destination for snorkeling and scuba diving. We’d hoped to snorkel, having managed to fit our gear into our luggage. But when we discovered we wouldn’t have time for that lengthy of an excursion, we decided to stay in port where we found all kinds of treasures.

Shortly before our cruise began, we’d started listening to the audio book of James Michener’s Caribbean—a fascinating book which, true to form, begins with the pre-history of the region. I know his books are carefully researched—I actually worked for him as one of several researchers while I was a college student. But I did some of my own research about Cozumel, too, discovering that the Maya are believed to have settled the island by the early part of the 1st millennium AD. According to their religion, the island was dedicated to the Moon Goddess, but eventually had to battle the warring Caribs who destroyed temples and practiced human sacrifice on the original inhabitants. The island does have Mayan ruins, which we wish we’d had time to visit.

The Maya were still there when the Spanish arrived in 1518, greeting the visitors more peaceably than people on the mainland, and resupplying their ships even after Cortes destroyed some Mayan idols and replaced them with statues of the Virgin Mary. Sadly, most of the Maya were killed by small pox, brought to the island by a later Spanish expedition. Those left on the island were later evacuated to the mainland to avoid frequent raids by pirates.

A compelling landscape of jungle, soft, white sand beaches, and the spectacular waters, now surrounded by the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, beckon to visitors. But we found the charming portside shops equally compelling in a different way, offering the gorgeous craftsmanship of silversmiths, as well as jewelry of all kinds from tribal to polished and refined—all of it offered by expert bargainers who love nothing more than a good negotiation over price.

Since I write about a small, coastal town that draws tourists both with its picturesque beauty, and it’s local arts and crafts, I always find it fascinating to find parallels in other locations. So Cozumel deserves a closer look. At least we scratched the surface of that beautiful island off the Yucatan, and we look forward to returning to those sparkling waters for further adventures.

Posted by: MaraPurl | January 24, 2018

European Legacy in the Caribbean – Jamaica

Publishing at Sea: I was recently a faculty member at this marvelous conference for authors. We enjoyed excursions on our three non-teaching days. As our magnificent ship left port in Florida and headed for the sparkling waters of the Caribbean, I was struck by the fact that our ports of call would be three islands, each with a history of colonization by a European country. Though each had established sovereignty at least a century or two earlier, still, woven into the fabric of these island cultures were the threads left behind by their colonizers.

The second port-of-call on our voyage was to Jamaica, once a British colony, that still has elements of the cool, collected English culture woven into the bright, vibrant fabric blended of indigenous and African peoples. One still drives on the left; one may still take tea in the afternoon; language has a touch of formality; bearing is upright; and the island is enticing in its beauty and grace, while at the same time being a complexity of profits and losses, of abundance and of want.

The original inhabitants of Jamaica, like those of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) are believed to be the Arawaks, also called Tainos. Migrating northward from South America 2,500 years ago, they named the island Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water.” Peaceful by nature, they were adept at agriculture, developing bounty by growing cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, various other fruits and vegetables, plus cotton and tobacco.

There follows as colorful a history as can be imagined—and has been, in numerous books and films. Christopher Columbus arrived in 1494. In 1509 a new group of Spaniards arrived to establish a colony. In 1655, the English attacked Jamaica and the Spanish surrendered. By 1673 the English had installed the pirate/ privateer Henry Morgan as its Lieutenant Governor. And by 1739, 430 thriving sugar plantations had been established—built upon a labor force of enslaved Africans. Frequent slave rebellions gradually eroded the false stability of the island, with their full freedom granted in 1836. Jamaica’s history remained tumultuous following the freeing of the slaves, but there was always a drive toward autonomy and in 1962 Jamaica gained political independence from England and its Constitution took effect.

Our ship pulled into Falmouth, alongside a Disney cruise ship, which looked enormous, until we looked back toward the harbor from land, and saw it wasn’t as large as our own. I imagined, for a moment, how many ships had docked here over the centuries. For passengers aboard our cruise, marvelous excursions were available to take advantage of sugary beaches and water sports, which many people enjoyed.

My husband and I, and a few other friends, however, chose to spend our day differently. The ship offered a “Pay It Forward” option that would allow us to spend a day first at a homeless shelter in the country, then at a soup kitchen in the inner city. This was exactly our “cup o’ tea” and we boarded a mini-bus that drove us past the vast estates with their lush vegetation and ocean views that used to be the plantations. These eventually gave way to hotel-row—huge, walled properties offering protected beaches and all manner of amenities. At last we arrived at the outskirts of Montego Bay, where we spent the morning.

We were greeted by Junice Norman, a force of nature. Articulate and passionate, she welcomed us and explained the services offered their homeless guests while enlisting our aid in harvesting eggs from their chicken coop, and planting new rows in their gardens, where my husband mastered the technique of planting with a machete. Neither guests nor staff are indolent, and all the tasks at this shelter are designed to train, or re-train, temporary residents, giving them practical skills with which to re-enter society.

As a writer, I thought about what words I might use to describe these surroundings: modest, basic, limited. Yet with the conviction that infused the musical intonations of our host, so much more became discernible: generosity, industry, progress, hope.

At the lunch hour, we were transported to the inner city to the organization’s other facility: a soup kitchen that serves hot meals in the heart of town, where those in need take seats at long tables, or wait just outside its doors to receive a tray. Among the scores of people who arrived, as many were bringing food as were requesting it, and a spirit of caring overbalanced the sense of want. The organization is called Open Heart Charitable Mission. https://www.facebook.com/Open-Heart-Charitable-Mission-1598957550409304/

There’s a special place in heaven—and Earth—for those who dedicate themselves to managing this special place, and places like it. What minuscule assistance we were able to offer during our excursion day seems paltry in the face of hardships born by so many. Those who run the shelters and services use their heads to manage budgets, ask for funding, repurpose every element they can, and work miracles. But what they really do is see beyond present circumstances into the new possibilities they can create with and for those in their care, an endeavor which is all heart.

Discover more about Mara, her books and events, at MaraPurl.com. Mara’s cruising photo by Ashlee Bratton. Join us on a future cruise at Publishing At Sea.

Posted by: MaraPurl | January 23, 2018

European Legacy in the Caribbean – Haiti

Publishing at Sea: I was recently a faculty member at this marvelous conference for authors. We enjoyed excursions on our three non-teaching days. As our magnificent ship left port in Florida and headed for the sparkling waters of the Caribbean, I was struck by the fact that our ports of call would be three islands, each with a history of colonization by a European country. Though each had established sovereignty at least a century or two earlier, still, woven into the fabric of these island cultures were the threads left behind by their colonizers.

The first visit was to Haiti, which shares an island with the Dominican Republic. The island of Hispanola, originally colonized by the Spanish, was later divided into two nations, with the western side becoming French in 1697.

Before colonization, the ancient tribes—the warring Caribs and the more peaceful Taino—inhabited the island, but succumbed either to disease or to brutal labor practices at the hands of their colonizers. As the Europeans began to develop huge agricultural enterprises, they replaced the native laborers with African slaves, who arrived by the tens of thousands to make possible booming sugar and coffee exports. Despite thousands of deaths among this new labor force, by 1789, slaves outnumbered the free population by four-to-one.

Haiti is the only nation to have won its independence, rather than having had it granted. The brave Haitians, led by former slave Toussaint Louverture—an educated man who’d studied the campaigns of Julius Caesar—strategized well, pitching the battle for independence during years the French government was engaged in their own Revolution and in the Napoleonic Wars. Later in its history, Haiti went on to become a founding member of the United Nations.

Cruise ships don’t pull into Port-Au-Prince, which is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. Magnitude 7.0, the quake affected three million people, causing the death of from 100,000 to about 160,000. The government of Haiti estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged, with existing poverty and poor housing conditions having increased the death toll from the disaster. Help from other nations, including the U.S., have been helping the Haitians rebuild.

Meanwhile, the cruise companies dock at Labadie (the French spelling) or Labadee (English) where a tourist-aimed village shines as brightly as the tropical sun. Kiosks line a market street offering crafts and fabrics, jewelry of beads and shells, obligatory T-shirts and hats.

The people are striking—elegant and proud, a hint of formality infusing their posture and speech. The melifluous tones of Haitian Creole are carried on the gentle breezes, and a childhood song starts to play in my memory: Angelico, Angelico, allez cai Maman . . . My parents bought a childrens’ record collection that I loved, filled with songs from around the world. I memorized them all, and am amazed, now, that all the lyrics come drifting toward me as if carried on that same breeze. Po pas donne me disagrement.

The lovely voice on the old vinyl sang the song in English the second time through the melody. Go home to Mama, cher, go home to Mama and say never come back for a year and a day.
It had always struck me that the English translation went for a nonsense rhyme, when the original told the story more pointedly: Go home, Angelico, go home to your mother and don’t give an argument (disagreement.)

The French language, part of my own heritage, was spoken in snatches at home as I grew up, and became a study of several years not only at school, but during a summer my family and I spent doing an immersion program in the south of France. So it’s easy for me to slip into French, and I enjoyed speaking it during our day in Labadie, as all Haitians study French in school as well and speak with a beautiful lilting accent.

But the native language spoken there tells the story of the cultural clash and inherent dysfunction of the colonization paradigm: one race as masters the other as slaves. Haitian Creole—which is not mutually intelligible with French—has always been contentious. From the Haitian perspectgive, French was seen as a sign of colonialism; from the European perspective, Creole was maligned as a poor person’s French. Both Haitian Creole and Haitian French are beautiful, and many people speak English as well.

The derivation of Creole continues the story. People ripped from their homes and sold into servitude had myriad techniques for survival, and one of their most important was creating a unique way of communicating. Mastering their masters’ language, they also created a unique, complex blend of eighteenth century French, Portugese, Spanish, English, Taino and West African languages. Haitian Creole is now spoken by 9.6–12 million people worldwide.

During our cruise excursion, my husband and I opted for a tour of the Heritage Village, which began with a short boat ride to a sheltered cove. Tall, elegant Haitian men handed us ashore and we were led to a meadow overhung with palms and furnished with outdoor benches. A stocky, charismatic leader stepped forth and began to speak an international version of English, detailing what we’d be seeing next—sugar cane processing by hand, the precious liquid being wrenched, squeezed and pressed from the stalks, with tiny sample cups offered to the visitors.

Next we were led to a grove of artisans whose colorfully painted and stained wood carvings were fashioned as bowls and boxes, figurines and jewelry. I asked about a beautiful little box, and the bargaining began, a gleeful process handled as masterfully as in any world marketplace.

Then the show began: brightly costumed men and women, dancing and singing to the drum-music played by a small group of musicians who’d probably mastered syncopation about the time they learned to breathe.

The dances they presented were full of symbols, echoing from their Vodoun origins, but edited for the tourist market, rendering the show part exhibition, part concert. The natural talent and self-expression of these beautiful people infused the grove where they performed, making me feel a momentary kindred spirit with them as a fellow performer. Soon we were escorted back to our skiff, and we chugged over the sparkling water back to our awaiting ship. My head knew we had contributed in a minor way to Haiti’s economy, and enjoyed a glimpse of history. My heart reaches out to these lovely people, wishing them well and hoping they create a brighter future.

Posted by: MaraPurl | June 12, 2017

Paternity Test

Thanks for joining me on the Mother’s-Day-to-Father’s-Day Thunderclap Campaign, “You Otter Follow Your Heart” which runs for just 4 more days! To thank you for joining, you’ll receive a FREE Advance Copy of my brand new story When Otters Play. In honor of Father’s Day this month, this post shares moments about my late father.

“Husband your resources,” my dad said. I was standing on a commercial pier in San Pedro speaking on the one and only pay phone. “And have a large time!” How concerned he sounded, and how determined to support this crazy trip of mine that would start within the hour. I was about to embark on a Greenpeace Voyage to save whales as one of twenty-six crew members. We’d be traveling 6,000 miles in the North Pacific with more bravado than experience, our hearts aflame to do right by the cetaceans that were still being slaughtered by huge fleets of commercial whalers from Russia. I loved my dad’s advice. I did work carefully with the rest of the crew to “husband” the resources—like fresh water—that would have to last six weeks. And I did have a “large” time on that world-class adventure.

raymondpurl250x349I got home safely—we all did. But looking back, I can hardly imagine being as supportive, brave and level-headed about a child of mine going so far beyond the boundaries of communication and safety. Then again, as a member of the Greatest Generation, my father had made it through the Great Depression in childhood, life-interrupted by WWII, served as a member of General MacArthur’s staff in Japan following the war, navigated his way through a stunning international business career, and still managed to direct or star in 200 plays as a graduate of Yale Drama School.

But I wonder whether any of these world-stage challenges were as demanding as the one that occurred on his own personal stage: fatherhood. Dad’s roots were in the theatre. His father, Billy Purl, was a well-known Vaudevillian; his mother, Beatrice Seville, an established actress and founding member of Actor’s Equity who spent years on the road. Traveling by train, she tread the boards in city after city, her young son sleeping in the upper tray of her travel trunk, imparting to my dad a life-long love of trains, and of theatre. He married my mother when she was not yet of legal age, with the blessings of her family. They had a number of years as a couple, and by the time he and my mother returned from Japan, they each had pages of regional theatrical credits themselves, and were ready to get serious about their careers. Mom, a talent and a beauty, landed a major film role. Dad, move-star-handsome, was about to take the industry by storm, drama-degree in hand. In their head shots—now framed and adorning my family-photo wall—they resembled Vivien Leigh and Tyrone Power. On the way to stardom, something happened: children.

From what I can tell, they leapt into this next chapter of life with feverish joy, upending all their plans in favor of creating the thing my dad later treasured above all things: The Four Purls. That’s how he referred to us, his eyes beginning to pool, whenever we found ourselves together. Often, our gatherings were backstage when one of us was performing, as my sister and I followed in the family footsteps. Sometimes our gatherings involved dinner and dancing. Of course, he never got to sit down. The father of two daughters always had one of three dance partners clamoring for her turn. But before we could enjoy those wonderful moments of mutual support and celebration, there were the childhood years for the two little girls who interrupted our parents’ lives, yet again.

Pere—that’s what I called him—taught me how to ride my bike, a hilarious series of near-disasters as I wobbled my way down the lane, Pere running alongside alternating between grabbing for my handlebar to keep me from falling away, and leaping out of the way to prevent my crashing into him. The overview I recall is thanks to this being preserved on Super-8 film, as were many of our childhood chapters. What I actually remember about those first bicycle forays was that my father was there for me, cheering me on, keeping me safe while at the same time gently pushing me forward into my independence. A few years later, my sister and I would spend our first hour after school exploring our Tokyo neighborhood on our bikes. And still later, I would tackle fifty-mile bike trails in California and Colorado. So the bike-skill became a physical practicality. But as a metaphor, it became so much more.

The key to riding a bike is, of course, balance. And at this, my father excelled. He balanced career and family; he balanced his business career with his passion for theatre, perhaps performing as much as he would have, had he stayed a theatre pro. He balanced his own political and societal philosophies with those of his community, never losing a friendship in ninety-nine years of a full life. He balanced his personal goals with those of his wife in a marriage lasting over seventy years. And he balanced who he was as a man-of-the-world with who he was in his favorite role of all: Pere.

We tested him, as all children test their fathers. There were times we had to agree to disagree. We had a parting of the ways politically, yet we always maintained our mutual respect, as our views were each thoughtfully considered. When I left my journalism career to return to acting and writing dramas and novels, he thought I was making a serious mistake and was in danger of ruining my life. We had a couple of years when I felt bereft of his approval. Yet pushing away from him strengthened me, and as my work began to click, I earned his respect at a new level. We admired one another’s acting work: he directed me in a favorite play, and he performed in my BBC radio drama, both stellar experiences. And then, one day he said, “You know, your writing is damn fine.” Not even the thirty book awards I’ve since earned could ever mean as much as those simple words.

“The longer you live, the better my life will be,” I said to him one day. He took me at my word and made it through to 100, minus a few days. His last year was surely his most difficult. It’d never occurred to him that his wife’s would precede his own passing, so it was the one thing he’d never planned for. He made a valiant effort to hold on, but began to lose his moorings. We cared for him at home, taking turns through an exhausting schedule, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way. To fulfill some speaking commitments, I had to be out of town for a couple of weeks. Cancelled flights led to a slight change of plans that meant I’d be home for a few hours. His house was only a few minutes from mine, but I’d risk being late to the airport if I stopped to see him. Still, I wanted to. Would I scare him by showing up unexpectedly? Disappoint him when I had to leave again just minutes later? Risking all that, I let myself in through the back door and found him slowly making his way across the kitchen.

“Hi, Pere!” I said. He turned around, beaming. He was surprised, was in fact tracking my schedule with perfect clarity. And he was delighted, even when I said we had only twenty minutes. I made us coffee and we sat in the kitchen, sharing our news. Of all the hundreds of precious moments together, this became one of our favorites.

He was always a tower of strength to his girls. We looked up to him, counted on him, expected—no, demanded—he be everything a father could possibly be. And he lived up to all that. During his final years, he became vulnerable in a way he never could have earlier in life. It was one of his final gifts to us—revealing his fears, accepting our help. He let us see that love really is reciprocal. I skinned my knee badly when I was five, and he carried me, screaming, to the sink where he washed and bandaged the wound, soothed my pain, made me feel brave. I helped him walk when he was ninety-nine, reassured him his journey made sense, made a difference, and had value greater than the gold of kings. When it came to the real paternity test, he passed with flying colors.

To read more, get special deals, subscribe to my newsletter, find out where I’ll be speaking or performing, and find out all the lastest on the Milford-Haven Novels & Stories saga, join me at MaraPurl.com.

Posted by: MaraPurl | May 29, 2017

If It’s Not One Thing It’s Your Mother

Thanks for joining me on the Mother’s-Day-to-Father’s-Day Thunderclap Campaign, “You Otter Follow Your Heart”! To thank you for joining, you’ll receive a FREE Advance Copy of my brand new story When Otters Play. In honor of Mother’s Day this month, this post shares moments about my late mother.

marshie-mara175x239“Do something with that hair!” It’s a refrain my mother said often enough that I can still hear her saying it. Indeed, the phrase will live on, as it’s featured in the mother-daughter storyline in the next novella of my Milford-Haven saga, When Otters Play.

It isn’t so much the text of the phrase that never fails to strike a nerve, but the sub-text. It implies everything from incompetence to disobedience, and carries a heavy weight of judgment. No matter how much time and effort I might have spent grooming, it never seemed to be good enough for mom, because this was often her only comment as I headed out the door for an event: prom or graduation, party or photo shoot, job interview or theatre performance.

It never failed to hurt my feelings. And to some extent, I ingested her attitude and made it my own. Until I began to see through this issue clearly years later, I accepted wholesale that either I just had bad hair, or would never know what to do with it. I was therefore surprised when I looked back at photos to see that my hair actually looked fine. So what was this dissonance all about?

I could have chosen to believe I had a mean-spirited mother who’d rather hurt than help her daughter. Yet, when I scratched the surface of the complex relationship with my mother, I never failed to discover her heart of gold. Her only motive in saying anything critical was to help me, improve my life, remove an obstacle, deliver me to my best opportunities.

I wish she’d been able to communicate her support more . . . supportively. But as our relationship matured, I came to know both myself and my mother better. She was a vibrant, accomplished woman who faced more obstacles than I can truly grasp, sailing through the Great Depression, World War II, the kind of gender bias that was so prevalent as to be invisible, a brilliant career, the loss of a brilliant career, a thrilling marriage, a family she loved, and enough self-doubt to fill a classic set of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes.

Every time she saw me headed out into the big bad world—a world she once knew better than I—she knew she could neither stop nor protect me. So what she could do was arm me with the best possible weapons: a good education, polished manners, a proper wardrobe, and . . . good hair. These tools had never failed her when all else did. Doors might have been slammed in her face, but sometimes they opened again later because of her grace under fire, or her sheer determination. And no one could ever fault her appearance under any circumstances. A poor photograph of her does not exist.

Twenty years ago, when I married my husband, I moved part-time to the city where Mom and Dad had retired. Since the previous twenty years had been spent on opposite sides of the globe (I grew up in Tokyo, and they stilled there for many years), this move of mine created a level of jubilation that never really subsided. She always thought of ways to spend time with me: impromptu lunches, elaborate dinner parties where she could show me off to her friends, cozy evenings as a foursome with my father and husband included. From my side, I suggested projects we might do together. We spent several months, for example, during our “spare” time, curating her extensive collection of Japanese kimono, then creating a series of gallery events to sell them. Not only was this fun and satisfying, it validated her taste, her studies of textiles and history, and her ability to bring a project to completion.

We’d had as full, frantic and fun a holiday as any family could imagine. Her sister, my beloved aunt, stayed with my parents for the month. Other family members and friends came to stay at our houses, both of which were decorated sumptuously for Christmas featuring eclectic mementos of our years in Asia: angels sitting atop shelves, trees, and tables; Japanese screens as backdrops for poinsettias; and Buddha statues wearing red ribbons. My sister sang at a holiday concert. I signed books at a gorgeous Christmas event. We cooked, we sang carols, we ate, and, as always, we read A Christmas Carol aloud, with my dad, an accomplished actor/director, playing Scrooge.

After the holidays, Mom was exhausted and my husband and I whisked my parents away to the mountains for a few days of what we call “the great nothing.” Somewhat restored when we returned home, she still felt something was wrong. Days later she was diagnosed with an advanced illness, and opted immediately not to have treatment. Suddenly, the clock was ticking: six months. I stopped writing. I started caring for her.

Along with my sister, who came to town when she could, I set up a schedule of tasks, visits and yes, parties. We planned a series of International Salons for our parents. They’d taken us all over the world. Now, we would bring the world to them. All of them staged in their lovely home, the first was an English Tea with Piano Concert. Next was a Russian feast with violin concert. By the time we held the Argentine Tango Milonga, she’d lost a lot of strength. But, having been a dancer, she rallied and we had her gliding around her living room—emptied of furniture and transformed into a music bistro—in a reverie that fulfilled an important item on her bucket list.

The last show was held on her ninetieth birthday. Though too frail to walk by then, she’d chosen her wardrobe and when we dressed her she looked gorgeous as ever. Carried to her van by a handsome group of EMTs from the local fire department, she arrived at the performance we’d planned for her. I produced and my sister performed a one-woman show at a school for the arts the family has always supported. When the students sang “Mama” to her at the end of the performance, it brought the packed house down.

It was four days later when she passed on peacefully in her home. We were all there, and we watched in awe as her spirit took flight. We held a memorial in the beautiful garden she’d designed. I’d chosen butterflies as the theme, and as I struggled through my remarks, friends said a butterfly swirled around my skirt. I have often heard her voice since then—not in a traditionally audible way, but still, unmistakably. Sometimes as I head out the door for a performance or a book event, I hear her say, “Do something with that hair.” But now that I know what she means, it only makes me smile.

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Posted by: MaraPurl | July 5, 2015

Ancestors Gathered in the Mountains

Goff family

Traveling from Head to Heart – Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, 2015, my husband and I took a driving trip to honor my late parents, and to connect with family in the south-eastern part of the country. Our adventures expanded into a clearer sense of The Past—our personal memories, our ancestors’ stories, and our country’s history. Enjoy!

Each of us seems to have some places in this world that have special resonances. For me, these places always seem to be by the ocean, or in the mountains. In fact, I feel most connected where mountains and oceans are close together, which partially explains why my Milford-Haven Novels are set along California’s Central Coast. I often muse upon how these resonances began, and our recent travels through West Virginia provide some major clues.

There, the mountains are different from those we see in the west. Frost heaves have quarried boulders, glaciers have carved rocks, and rivers have sifted particles that scour like fine sandpaper, abrading the jagged upthrusts into shoulders rounded with age and gentled by weather.

Those rounded shoulders remind me of my great-grandmothers’, draped in black silks and adorned with lace collars. I remember her coiffed white hair and the sparkle of jewels at her ears. And though I was only a tot, I recall her final days, sitting in an upper room at my grandparents’ house, propped up against crisp bed linens, talking to those of us in the room, but also talking to people we couldn’t see, already making her transition.

But there was another version of Great-grandma Goff that I’d just encountered. While staying with my aunt and cousin a few days earlier, we’d opened a box sealed since the day our great-grandmother had packed it. Alongside the three massive family Bibles, we’d found a collection of formal photographic portraits, and there she was in her glory: young Alice with her glossy, upswept hair—the same color as mine—eyes flashing, waist cinched, seated in front of her dashing husband who stood behind with a hand on her shoulder. They were all there—the siblings and the spouses, two generations of grands and greats whom I’d only known briefly in their dotage, or heard about in stories.

For my husband and me, the prospect of getting to Harrisville was somewhat daunting. Though only about 1,000 feet above sea level, it’s situated at the far end of hairpin turns requiring four hours of winding into the Blue Ridge range. But his mountain driving skills carried us right to the door of the Ritchie County seat, where we found archived deeds mapping the real estate transactions of my maternal great-grandfather and his sons.

Then, while Larry parked our car, I wandered down a hill. I didn’t so much wander as respond to the unmistakable pull—as if a long-forgotten magnet had been activated—toward a porch that peeked from behind a steep slope. I stood transfixed in front of a two-story, wooden house while an internal movie began to play.

In my memories, honeysuckle twined itself densely through the framework along one wall of the wrap-around porch, sweetening the air. In the cool of the cellar, I reached high to grasp one of the scores of jars of applesauce my grandmother had made. My little legs pumped hard to make the rope swing go higher. I sat on my granddaddy’s lap and asked for the hundredth time to listen to his “tick-tock”—his gold pocket watch. The aroma of biscuits wafted out from the kitchen.

When I was about three years old, I spent some months here, staying with Granddaddy and Mamaw, as we called my grandmother, the nickname derived from the French spoken by ancestors. (The same nickname is used in my husband’s Kentucky cousins.) Each floor of what seemed like an enormous house delighted me with its treasures. Upstairs, I loved to explore Mamaw’s Cashmere Bouquet-scented dressing table. On the main floor, I “helped” in the kitchen or played glossy records on the beautiful turntable. In the cellar, I watched laundry being pressed through a hand-roller and heeded warnings not to get my hand caught. And when my first cousin visited too, we raced through the orchard or played with kittens in the barn.

Suddenly jerked back to the present by a round of barks from dogs chained on the porch, I watched as the current lady of the house pushed open her screen door to ask if she could help me. I apologized, and explained that this used to be my grandparents’ house. She stared at me unconvinced. She knew everyone in town, and no stranger could make such a claim. But when I mentioned my grandparents’ name, her face lit up. “Well then, we’re kin!” she exclaimed, beginning a litany of sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, while pointing at houses up one hill and down the next. I wasn’t invited in, but thanked her for her time.

In the courthouse, we’d found a helpful archivist who’d been able to look up which cemetery held the remains of my grandparents, and we drove there next. Having ignored the warning that we’d never find the headstones without help, we parked and somehow walked directly to the family plot. And there they all were: Granddaddy and Mamaw, Great-Grandma and Great-Granddaddy, Great-Aunt and Great-Uncle.

In the quiet afternoon breezes, standing on the grasses of their final resting place, it was as though those photo tintypes we’d found came alive so vividly—their faces and smiles, their scents and movements. And then, as if I’d put my ear to a long disused railroad track, I could hear their voices singing down the rail—a trill of laughter, a call to dinner, a sing-song of warning, a snatch of story.

Where had they been all this time? My head had forgotten what they gave to me, and how much it meant. But, apparently, my heart always remembered.

Posted by: MaraPurl | May 11, 2015

Cousins Reunion

Traveling from Head to Heart – Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, 2015, my husband and I took a driving trip to honor my late parents, and to connect with family in the south-eastern part of the country. Our adventures expanded into a clearer sense of The Past—our personal memories, our ancestors’ stories, and our country’s history. Enjoy!

Our journey began with a “cousin reunion” my husband arranged with all the grand-children of his paternal grandparents. We stayed with one of his first cousins, a delightful, colorful woman who, within the mellifluent tones of one sentence, brings alive my husband’s Kentucky roots—as well as those of my character Sally O’Mally. One discussion involved the merits and properties of buttermilk. “Well it’s sour, you know,” she said, pronouncing the word as “say-er.”

The reunion included nine cousins and some of their significant others, who drove or flew from various parts of the country and was held at the lovely home of another first cousin and her husband. Counters had been polished clean in preparation for the arrival of food. Though most of it might have been “store boughten”, the menu was just what the old-timers would have slaved over hot stoves to prepare, and soon platters of fried chicken, bowls of green beans, baskets of biscuits, and numerous other favorites covered every square inch. We sat at tables in the ample kitchen, the den, and the huge screen-in porch, which overlooked an astonishingly green array of lawn and trees. When our sunny day gave way to a deluge, we delighted in the scents and sounds of fresh rain and kept eating—and telling stories, many of which were inspired by the hundreds of archival family photos my husband has been scanning and cataloging.

The stories are what made the day both indelible and significant. It all comes down to POV—Point Of View—that all-important factor in the writing of fiction, and in the telling of stories. The only story I’d heard about the Grandma these cousins had in common was her tyranny. She’d been known to yell across from her farm to her son’s, demanding that her daughter-in-law drop everything and come do her bidding. But at the reunion, I heard a new story. Someone in the family had married a n’er-do-well who preferred skiddaling off with his drinking buddies rather than caring for his infant son. Grandma put a stop to that, corralling two of her sons—an Army Private and a Marine Sergeant—for assistance, and swooping down to rescue the hollering baby boy, who then lived with his mom and grandma for four years, until a wonderful new daddy joined the family.

This same grandma was said to be a flashy dresser on occasion, and one of the cousins had saved some of her jewelry. Out of its case came a sparkling black-and-amber cut-glass-bead necklace with matching bracelet and earrings. To my surprise, these were given to me. Now that I knew more about this passionate, larger-than-life woman, I was thrilled to accept these treasures, which I’ll pass along to my step-daughter—though I might wear them first, say on New Year’s Eve.

Foibles and embarrassments, mistakes and forgiveness, recipes and holidays—all were mentioned as the long afternoon wore on into early evening. There was occasional sadness and there was laughter, lots of good-natured laughter. The rain stopped and the skies cleared to a lovely sunset, as the cousins helped themselves to one more piece of pie.

I came away with the impression that most of the greats and grands of the family were quite heroic in their way, surviving the Great Depression, serving in the Great War, and coming home to tend their farms and care for their families. Next time, we want our kids to be there with us, lest these stories be lost in the mists of time. These parental and grand-parental folks used their heads to the very best of their abilities. But mostly, they lived from the heart.

Posted by: MaraPurl | July 15, 2014

Dresses from Mom

Woman in red dress on pierMy mother was a “Dresser,” as anyone who knew her will tell you. Her wardrobe was legendary, and during the past year, my sister and I have found great joy in giving some her collection to friends who will wear and appreciate these pieces, from the Hong Kong-made raw silk suits to the sparkling, beaded tops, from the kimono collection to the luscious knits. Though she enjoyed her clothes, and wore absolutely everything she owned, what she might have loved even more was sharing clothes with my sister and me—sometimes from her own closet, but often from her shopping expeditions. Always generous, she seemed to have had my sister and me in mind throughout her entire adult life, and since she was a shopper par excellence, we made out like royalty.

Before we were born, she had a Great Adventure in China. Mao and his Communist regime would soon be taking the helm of that great country, but she made it to Shanghai in its heyday, living there for several months with a French family with whom she remained close the rest of their days. Exploring the magnificent silks in a back ally one day, she thought, “What if I have a daughter?” She bought a bolt of white satin, patterned with an intaglio of delicate florals and swirls. Wrapping it in black tissue paper to prevent it from yellowing, she tucked it away. Soon thereafter, she joined my father in Tokyo, where he was serving in the Army as part of General MacArthur’s Occupation Forces. Once again, she found the part of the city filled with tiny fabric shops. “What if I have another daughter?” she wondered. She bought a second bolt of fabric, this one of famous pre-war silk, white-on-white satin patterned with an elegant Japanese design. Some decades later, when we were planning a wedding, she brought out the two bolts of fabric. I loved one, my sister loved the other, and our wedding dresses were sewn of this magical material.

For her final birthday, we planned a unique performance. Mom designed a dress for me to wear, and had her wonderful seamstress make it. A dazzling green organza confection, it made me feel as if I was wearing jade sliced as thin as clouds—and then she gave me her jade jewels to go with it. I knew this would be the last dress she’d ever give me. I wore it as passionately as a five-year-old wearing her first princess dress to a performance of The Nutcracker. It hangs in my closet now, and I hope I’ll have the spirit and the occasion to wear it again someday.

It’s a year later, now, and I have to find The Dress to wear for a big anniversary my husband and I will be celebrating with family and friends. I knew that sometime in recent months I’d seen a dress Mom would have loved in some catalog or other, but in all the recent organizing and reorganizing and home repairs, I couldn’t quite imagine where it would be. Then, today, when I wasn’t looking, I found it. Had Mom seen this particular number—vivid and feminine, sculpted but also flowing—she’d have bought it for me in a heartbeat. Though our taste didn’t always agree, in this case, we’d have been—literally—on the same page. I sat at my computer and went to the catalog’s website immediately to order it. “That item is no longer available,” said the onscreen message.

Usually that wouldn’t matter much, but this time it felt wrong. Just . . . wrong. So, though it was irrational, I called the company. I asked if they had any way of tracking down a discontinued item, or if they had an outlet. “But Mam,” the rep said, “that item is in stock.” Oh! Really? I placed the order, still wondering how this apparently magical thing had happened.

I got my answer a moment later. “What is the code on the back of your catalog?” the woman asked. It was then I noticed for the first time that this catalog had not been sent to me. In the address box was someone else’s name: my mother’s. I don’t recall taking that catalog from her house, nor do I recall her giving it to me. I receive this company’s mailings myself, so there would have been no logical reason I’d have her copy. Yet, clearly, this wasn’t about the “head”, this was all about the “heart.” I like to think this is one more gift from Mom’s heart to mine.

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