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 | 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.

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. Read More…

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.

Posted by: MaraPurl | January 3, 2014

January Handsel

hand-heart-hand in skyHandsel: a gift given at the beginning of something, especially a new year.

Though it’s hard not to keep thinking to myself “this time last year, Mom was here,” what I try to do when these thoughts recurr is shift from grief to celebration, from loss to gratitude, from past to present. This is a new year, a perfect opportunity for new beginnings. Perhaps I can let the universe help me move forward, instead of tackling the forward momentum all on my own.

What better way to be brought into the present and its bright future than by children? I am blessed with step-children and their young ones, precious new humans for whom I am “Mamaw”, the beloved name I called my grandmother, and a traditional name both in my family and in my husband’s, derived from French ancestors.

Today as I write stories with our ten-year-old, I slip into that magical world of imagination that I inhabit by profession. But the wonder in her eyes as a new idea comes to her, the crystal-clear joy that bubbles up as the right words find their way onto my computer screen, the way she holds the soft stuffed kitty I keep in my office for her, all these unseal the spring of my own sense of wonder, and for a few hours, all things are indeed new again.

My head knows this is the right thing to do: spend time with her, think of imaginative pursuits that engage and challenge her, keep the television turned off for the duration, incorporate every idea she has into our story so as not to dampen her spirits.

But no matter how intellectual our writing efforts, this is no head-project. This is an unleashing of pure Mother-love that, though I can no longer receive, I can give. And here is the handsel for the new year: loss truly is gain when we listen with our hearts.

The Milford-Haven Novels and stories resume publication later this year. Find all of Mara’s news at wwww.MaraPurl.com.

Posted by: MaraPurl | May 10, 2013

Auntie-Mothering Heart to Heart

Enjoy my special Mother’s Day promotion! For a limited time, the e-editions of What the Heart Knows and Where the Heart Lives, are each available for only $.99! Visit Bellekeepbooks.com or your favorite bookseller to find direct links to all e-reader downloads!

Lucius-Mara-2012The first time I saw a picture of my darling nephew, he was making the thumbs-up sign in an ultrasound image. Close to the time of his delivery, my sister asked, “If he comes in the middle of the night, should I call you?” I answered, “Every other woman does!” This was literally true, since my husband’s an obstetrician. We laughed, and then dashed to the hospital at the appointed hour.

Even as a two-year-old, Lucius had uncanny coordination. My husband and I took him for an outing to a nearby park and he ran down a gentle hill. When we saw him trip, we ran to pick him up, but watched, astonished, as he used those strong little legs to right himself before we had to. In a way, it’s no surprise that he turned my sister into a soccer-Mom and is about to embark on a professional soccer camp. He’ll be graduating from high school next month, and we’ll be bursting our buttons when he takes his diploma.

If I had to use one word to describe the presence of this marvelous boy in all our lives, the word would be “magical.” When he was small, sometimes I’d see a flash of blond dashing past and for a moment I’d be a child again myself, playing with my yellow-haired sister. I’d watch him follow my husband up the trail to “Uncle Larry’s Cave” and for a moment catch a glimpse of what my father must’ve looked like as a boy. And because he’s here, I’ll always have the magical experience of sharing lineage and legacy with the next generation.

The primary magic is my sister, who seems to dance on air while swimming underwater. She’s a gifted actress with a stunningly successful career, her latest triumphs including her recurring roles in Homeland and The Office. But she accomplishes this between homework assignments and soccer practices. She’s a breathtaking chanteuse with a fabulous new CD Midnight Caravan, and she sings all over the country, somehow scheduling her performances but also finding time to take her son on an adventure trip to China, then managing to decorate Christmas trees and cook up various family feasts.

Being an aunt is a little bit like being a magical being. I appear and disappear, turn up with gifts and help out with celebrations. I truly felt the magic when I gave him his graduation present: a visit to a bank to set up his first accounts. If I’m a good aunt, it’s because I learned how from my beloved Aunt Madelon. She’s so much like her sister, my mother. And yet somehow she’s also entirely different. With sons of her own, she has her primary role as mother to her own family. But for me and my sister, she is always the magical being who looks and sounds so uncannily familiar, and brings to us pure, sparkling love. I hope I can be that for my nephew. I’m not sure who I’d be if Lucius weren’t here, but I know I’d be less than I am.

When I think of women I want to honor this mother’s day, my sister is high on the list, because she’s pulled off the greatest magic-trick of all: she has raised a wonderful son. He’s really using his head these days, figuring out the first chapter of the bigger life that’s about to commence. But in the rare moments when I can sit down with him as Auntie Mara, it’s pure love, heart-to-heart.

For more information on the evolving world of The Milford Haven Novels, visit my website www.MaraPurl.com where you can subscribe to my newsletter, follow me on social media, enjoy photos and videos, discover more special offers and more.

Posted by: MaraPurl | May 9, 2013

Step-Mothering is All Heart

Enjoy my special Mother’s Day promotion! For a limited time, the e-editions of What the Heart Knows and Where the Heart Lives, are each available for only $.99! Visit Bellekeep Books or your favorite bookseller to find direct links to all e-reader downloads!

Amelia-Mara-cropOne of my favorite roles in life is that of step-mother. Any more than one can plan or train for motherhood, one can’t schedule the unexpected eventually of becoming a step-parent. The job comes with its own prickly difficulties, but also with a series of gifts that continue to leave me, by turns, breathless and grateful.

My step-son was on the brink of manhood when we met, the same age, in fact, as my nephew is now. Matt and his several-years-divorced dad were living the bachelor life, mutually protective and similarly skeptical. I took my time with this handsome, strapping young man, allowing him to keep his reservations intact while I interviewed him about what he wanted in his life. A few months after his father and I married, he suddenly began to drop by our house for dinner, feeling at home enough to share his hopes and plans. It wasn’t long before he met a beautiful woman, married and started a family of his own. But that brief chapter before he did, taught me the value of giving someone the space to find themselves and the importance of empowering a young man by trusting him to his own process. Some of what I learned emerges in the father-son storyline in my Milford-Haven novels. Interestingly, I was already writing about Joseph Calvin and his son Zackery before I met my husband and his son. Perhaps that was one way the Universe was preparing me.

Things couldn’t have been more different between my step-daughter and me. Our affinity was so instantaneous, there seemed at first to be no transition between “before” and “after.” We’re both actresses, sharing a particular love for Shakespeare and Ibsen, Celtic tales and Star Trek. Both natural leaders, we also both are advocates for women’s safety and well-being. In 2002 I was given a Woman of the Year Award by the Los Angeles County Commission for Women. In 2013, she has been nominated by Rocky Mountain PBS for their Be More Award as founder of Impact Personal Safety Colorado, a personal safety training program. When people meet us for the first time, they even assume we’re mother and daughter because of uncanny resemblances.

But before we could share the rare and beautiful woman-to-woman synchronicity we now enjoy, we had to go through a period of upsets and failures, misunderstandings and dashed hopes. From my lofty initial position atop a pedestal, there was no where to go but down. And as reality set in for Amelia—the reality that there was a new woman in her father’s life—for a while, fate seemed to have dealt her a losing hand. Compound this with the usual teen-years growing pains, and felt she was inhaling a toxic mix of vapors.

I’ve learned so much from my beautiful, talented and devoted step-daughter. First, I learned to reassure her she would always have a place in her father’s heart, and that we’d never compete for his love. We occupy different chambers in that sacred vault, and the more we let the love flow, the healthier are all our relationships. Second, I learned to set boundaries, clarifying what would be acceptable language and behavior. Though we only had to have that conversation once many years ago, I see now how it strengthened our bond, and how it helped to prepare her for her current role as the amazing mother of two precious, small girls. Third, I learned to let go of what she could not be to me, so that I could accept what she is to me. It was another lesson in giving someone the space to be who they authentically are. And this is a lesson I can’t learn too often.

Both my dear step-children have made me a step-grandmother, though, magically, the “step” seems to disappear with the generation jump. Interestingly, I had a beloved step-grandmother who was always just “Grandma Dorothy” to me. Now I get to be “Mamaw”, a special name that appears in both mine and my husband’s families.

Will there be a storyline in the Milford-Haven Novels about step-parenting? Oh, yes, it’s already underway. With it will come doubts and tribulations, but also well-deserved victories of love over fear. What I’ve really learned from being a step-parent is that progress comes step by step. While the head is trying to figure out strategies and make plans, the heart is growing more patient with each disappointment, stronger with each act of forgiveness. Were it not for my role as step-mother, surely I wouldn’t know . . . what the heart knows.

For more information on the evolving world of The Milford Haven Novels, visit my website www.MaraPurl.com where you can subscribe to my newsletter, follow me on social media, enjoy photos and videos, discover more special offers and more.

Posted by: MaraPurl | May 8, 2013

God-Mothering from the Heart

Enjoy my special Mother’s Day promotion! For a limited time, the e-editions of What the Heart Knows and Where the Heart Lives, are each available for only $.99! Visit BellekeepBooks.com or your favorite bookseller to find direct links to all e-reader downloads!

Mara-Sami-graduation-cropNothing could have been a greater honor than my friend’s request that I be her baby’s God-mother. We didn’t know exactly what that might mean, as this special relationship would occur without religious affiliation. But since Erin and I refer to one another as spiritual sisters, it made perfect sense that I’d be involved in the spiritual life of her daughter.

Samantha was a stunner from day one, wrapping us around her tiny fingers, breaking our hearts with pouty faces, cracking the room with sunshine when she smiled. I remember how huge she seemed, substantial in my arms as I rocked her, and how petite she appeared three years later in pink tights and a tutu, shy to dance for me. Erin and I were co-writing a book in Sami’s earliest years, and to start her reading-life, I’d given her an early-version Nancy Drew story. One day she marched into the office clutching the little tome to her chest. “I love this book!” she proclaimed. “I’ve loved it all my life!” (Needless to say, I proceeded to give her the whole set.) When her school established a special visiting day for favorite grown-ups other than parents to visit, Sami chose me. When I began traveling a lot, she painted me an airplane surrounded by a rainbow to keep me safe, which I still carry. Erin and I hosted her very first tea party at my house — fancy dresses, bone china, and all the trimmings. We managed to keep straight faces when she dove into the scones and emerged with a dollop of clotted cream on her nose. One year we dressed as cheetahs and tigers for Halloween, and that photo is still framed on my shelf. The very best Oscar party I ever attended was the year Erin and her husband and I watched the show on television at their home: during each commercial, Sami gave us her interpretation of the films under consideration in dance and recitation. If grade school and Junior High seemed to have sped by, highschool passed like a flash of lightning, and soon we were watching her process through Disney Hall in her elegant blue cap-and-gown, dazzling in both beauty and accomplishments.

Along with being a successful actress, business woman and civic leader, Erin is an imaginative, devoted mother, both to Sami and her older brother. I love being a sounding board when big choices are afoot, or an assistant when major events are being planned. Of course, through the years it was Sami’s parents who did the heavy lifting: discipline and homework, wardrobes and tuitions, friendships and pets. I seemed mostly to float above these earthbound duties, offering special moments and the occasional words of wisdom from my God-mother cloud. And yet this precious young woman will forever remain on my radar screen, and I check her position and altitude as I pilot my own plane through the skies. Dear as they were, those early years were really prelude to the life-long friendship we’re just beginning to enjoy.

Samantha is now an actress already listed on IMDB and a writer with her own blog Tinselhound.tumblr.com, created for the appreciation and review of up-and-coming indie artists. “It’s my goal to have their voices and melodies heard,” she explained. While she supports other artists, she’s also working toward balancing her own life — the artist with the business woman, the brains with the beauty, the thinker with the feeler. Her own words say it best: “I’m focusing on finding a way to have the heart of a starving artist, the mindset of a responsible and contributing member of society, and the soul of a caring and outgoing friend and family member.” With this vivid statement of purpose, she’ll succeed at all this, and in some ways already has. I’d say she and I are in different chapters of the same pursuit: balancing head and heart.

When a child is present in our lives, the question of nature or nurture always comes up. Samantha has taught me the answer. We have to use our heads — every bit of our ingenuity and intelligence — to notice what they need and do our utmost to nurture. But it’s with our hearts that we support their essential nature, loving the essence of who they are, and taking a stand to protect their individuality even when it might be at odds with our own beliefs. What I’ve learned from my God-daughter is how to love unconditionally. No matter what choices she makes in her life — even if they’re choices my head doesn’t understand — I’ll always be able to love her with my whole heart.

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