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Jane Hoover

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Early On: Before Writing

Early On: Before Writing

In order for you, for me, to understand how I came to be the woman who stayed with the man she married, though she awoke startled and fearful most nights, I must begin long before the time of his stroke and the years that followed.  I wish I could unfold my early years and his, record events we remember that might speak to the adult couple we became, but by the time I thought to ask him about his boyhood, though he remembered it well, he had no language to describe events, characters, feelings and what he was making of his own experiences.

I was the first child my parents bundled tightly and held close, though over the next ten years they would welcome two other daughters to their family.  The memories that remain of my childhood are easy, scattered and with only few mild traumas. In those years, normalcy and being loved and well-cared for predominated.  I have no sense of lack, other than lack of difficulty and drama.  There was food and play-time, church activities and chores. All sibling rivalries dissolved in the face of the instruction not to let the sunset on your anger. We grew up in the county, close to a small town that has grown little, and near a large town that is a mega southern city today.

School was in walking distance of our house and all the children we knew went to this school. Most of our play was quiet, we were girls.  Croquet on the front lawn, building castles in the neighbors sand box, creating a paper doll community from the Sears catalogue on rainy days, and teaching dance moves in our own garage to our friends were the highlights.  For exercise and to keep the knees scarred we clamped our metal skates onto our black and white oxford shoes, hung the skate key around our necks and were off. The small hill that rose for two blocks up from our house delivered a fast roll without causing exhaustion with each re-climb.  At other times we jumped on bikes and pedaled toward the new construction four blocks west.  I still wonder that we were allowed to go so freely.  If mom worried about this I never knew and usually I knew of her concerns.  The swimming pool in the summer was fearful to her; she had never learned to swim, yet she let us learn to love the water.  She was worried about my sister who loved the boys and loved to pick fights, so I was to watch out for her, keep her safe.  

Our house was new when we moved in.  The grass, trees, and shrubs grew as smoothly as we did during those years.  On Sunday mornings we dressed for church and rode in our forty-nine maroon Plymouth the mile and a half into Decatur.  I loved the ride, watched from the backseat as mom slipped off a long white glove so she could read the Sunday school lesson aloud to Dad as he drove.  She never finished it before the car slid to a stop in its parking space.  But it was enough for her to give herself a check mark on the six-point card everyone was asked to mark right after the opening prayer.

If we girls had lessons to read I no longer remember it.  What I do recall is that by the end of the second grade I was playing the piano for our small church group.  It was awful, both my playing and my stomach.  I don’t know how I ever said yes to something that scared me so much, that made my limbs hurt, my heart race and my hands tremble, yet week after week some adult would claim no one else could play and I would move myself to the bench.  Though I was only eight and not musical, I imagined I was required to share my talent however feeble it was.  When I was nine and we moved to a larger church (there had been a disagreement in the congregation about what the minister was preacher and my folks didn’t like any disturbing talk) I was relieved of piano duty.  Mostly I was free to relax and listen.  I wish I could say I never had to play for others to sing hymns at church, but there were occasions when I was the only one or the only one who would own up to the fact that she played.  And though I took lessons and practiced until I entered high school, I never achieved what the teacher intended, or what I wanted.  How to deliver the right rhythm baffled me and memorizing or striking the right notes was sporadic.  I did play well enough to enjoy playing for myself if no one was in the house and especially love to bang it out when I was upset with a situation.

What I loved about those early years were trips to grandparents, visits with cousins and times at the mountain lake in North Carolina.  I didn’t mind school except when I was called on to speak.  To sit quietly doing the work was pleasurable.  Recess and lunch times were less enjoyable.  I was too short, awkward and bit chubby so sports activity was as problematic as piano playing.  Running made me too hot and cold wet weather made me shiver.  I was chosen last for teams when classmates were directed to select.  Today everyone I meet tells this same story.  I think that if you weren’t chosen first, you imagined you were always last.  Recently the movie Talladega Nights reminded me of this phenomenon when the dad constantly tells the son “If you aint first, you’re last.”  In the movie the boy becomes a winning race car driver but in real life, well most of us became executives or school teachers or psychologists. Most of the people that tell me they were chosen last have had amazingly successfully lives.  Where are those who were chosen first?  Lunch was difficult for another reason. I was not supposed to eat the things I liked best, so dread accompanied my steps toward the cafeteria and the day’s decisions.  Either way I lost.  

Today I engage in a lot of internal dialogue.  I claim it is because Ron has so little language, but the truth is I have carried on silent conversations in my head for as long as I can remember – telling myself what to do, what not to do, how, why, when or where, even discussing where I might like to live now that we are so old.  I have discussed what distance to live from our girls and whether I am considering their comfort or mine.

My first memory is that of my mom slipping herself into the bed beside me late at night.  I was three and my younger sister was asleep in her crib in the room across the hallway where Aunt Lizzy slept.  All the other bedrooms were upstairs.  We lived in my father’s home in Asheville, North Carolina, while he was in the Pacific on a destroyer.  I didn’t know what an ocean or a ship was then.  What I knew was my mom would come to bed after everyone finished singing the sad songs and all the voices and footsteps had made their way behind some closed door.  Her silent sobbing shook the mattress slightly and with my eyes closed I rolled close and reached with my too small arm to ease something.  

She says she is sure I was asleep, would have never let her child be touched by her fear and sadness.  Yet we were both touched, separated and untied by all of that emotion.   One Sunday, when an adult, I began weeping as the congregation sang.  Puzzled by the deep feelings, I watched the words as their voices continued.  I saw the phrase, “Sailors tossing on the deep blue sea,” knew it was from that song so long ago. The old longing for those we love to be nearer, be with us, be safe, sounded all around me as I remembered my family singing and praying for their three sons, one my father, who sailed into the navy service during that war.  Later the men all returned and the families moved away following jobs and hope for the future of their children.  The old song was not sung there again, but grandmother’s prayers layered the air throughout our childhood.  We knew she read her scriptures and prayed for us each day – at least we knew on days that we remembered her telling how she held us close to herself by doing this.  We prayed too but never with the same regularity, the same sure belief.  

Writing Life: A Memoir

Writing Life: A Memoir

Window: Beyond the View

My husband Ron and I had just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and the news of our second pregnancy, when we learned that Ron’s aortic valve was failing.  The doctors said it was critical that we schedule surgery to replace it. It was 1973, and medical teams were having some success with open-heart surgery techniques and artificial heart valves.  The procedure was successful; the heart was returning to normal; everyone was hopeful.  But before recovery was complete, three months after the surgery, Ron suffered a massive stroke.

In the first two months after the stroke, the professionals rendered their evaluations, distinguished only by degrees of hopelessness.   Several doctors assured me that Ron would not live and told me to quit working so hard to find rehabilitation programs.  Others determined that though Ron might be able to speak or copy a word or two, he would never be able to talk with us as he had before, he would never be able to use his right arm or walk without a brace. The most optimistic encouraged us to pursue speech and physical therapy and see what he might do.

One afternoon during the third month in the hospital, Dr. Bruce, Ron’s cardiologist, walked with me down the long corridor.  Softly he said, “Medically there is nothing else we can do.”  I was silent.  The doctor’s eyes, like Ron’s eyes, now held pain, bewilderment, yet kindness.  Seeing the doctor’s desire to do what he could not do caused me to focus and strengthen my resolve: I would have Ron live, work, enjoy his life, raise his girls and, I hoped, talk again.  Failing did not interest me.

A speech therapist began her work with us while we were still in the hospital.  She taught me how to use word cards and pictures to evoke language.  “Point to the window and ask him to name what you are pointing at,” she instructed.  “Anything in the room — get him to name everything.”   When I saw that she expected this to work, I was encouraged.  Ron had not spoken since the stroke, not my name or any other word.  As she talked with me, Ron’s gaze followed us; frequently he flashed a cheery smile.

Even with a therapist, cards, and encouragement, we found that speaking any word, let alone a particular one, was impossible for him. Gradually I learned to resist my urge to hurry.  We settled into an awkward routine of pointing and naming.  After a few weeks, when prompted, he said, “window.” I was pointing at the door.  We smiled and giggled at mistakes, both uncertain of ourselves.  It would be five months before he spoke my name.  The word would be unfamiliar and alarming in its staccato delivery. No longer did I recognize myself in the sound of his voice, for stroke took away the words and the inflections, and distorted the emotional content he wanted to convey.

After all our efforts produced only marginal language for Ron, fear, anger and silent sadness took up residence within us.  We were like flat tires without sufficient air to support a smooth ride.  Flopping and jerking, we moved along.  Our girls grew into women and married.  There is so much between then and now and I will tell more of it.   

Today we continue to bump into each other in our efforts to communicate.  Last April, I responded to Ron’s urgent call, “Jane!”  Startled, I rushed to him, only to find him standing at our lake-view window.  I slipped in beside him on his “good” side.  He whispered, “Ducks, ducks,” his face bright, as he gestured toward the geese flocked beneath our bird feeder.  It had been thirty-two years since the stroke, but he was the one pointing – pointing beyond the window.  A quiet joy stirred the air, as we watched the spring goslings. He straightened, stood taller.

Because our need for language, story and thought didn’t lessen over all the years since the event of stroke and the reality of aphasia, we each turned inward.  Today he reads and works jigsaw puzzles, I write.  Sometimes he reads what I write, nodding his understanding, I beam at his constructions.  Other times we treat ourselves to movies and popcorn. Accommodating physical paralysis was challenging, but Ron drives his car and does whatever he needs with his good hand. Living without language is more complex and crafts a kind of emptiness that even I find difficult to articulate.  However, I am gentler today, and we are both less angry.  Silence is often sanctuary.  Our life is not easy, nor is it hard.  It is as it is.

Early On: Before Writing

In order for you, for me, to understand how I came to be the woman who stayed with the man she married, though she awoke startled and fearful most nights, I must begin long before the time of his stroke and the years that followed.  I wish I could unfold my early years and his, record events we remember that might speak to the adult couple we became, but by the time I thought to ask him about his boyhood, though he remembered it well, he had no language to describe events, characters, feelings and what he was making of his own experiences.

I was the first child my parents bundled tightly and held close, though over the next ten years they would welcome two other daughters to their family.  The memories that remain of my childhood are easy, scattered and with only few mild traumas. In those years, normalcy and being loved and well-cared for predominated.  I have no sense of lack, other than lack of difficulty and drama.  There was food and play-time, church activities and chores. All sibling rivalries dissolved in the face of the instruction not to let the sunset on your anger. We grew up in the county, close to a small town that has grown little, and near a large town that is a mega southern city today.

School was in walking distance of our house and all the children we knew went to this school. Most of our play was quiet, we were girls.  Croquet on the front lawn, building castles in the neighbors sand box, creating a paper doll community from the Sears catalogue on rainy days, and teaching dance moves in our own garage to our friends were the highlights.  For exercise and to keep the knees scarred we clamped our metal skates onto our black and white oxford shoes, hung the skate key around our necks and were off. The small hill that rose for two blocks up from our house delivered a fast roll without causing exhaustion with each re-climb.  At other times we jumped on bikes and pedaled toward the new construction four blocks west.  I still wonder that we were allowed to go so freely.  If mom worried about this I never knew and usually I knew of her concerns.  The swimming pool in the summer was fearful to her; she had never learned to swim, yet she let us learn to love the water.  She was worried about my sister who loved the boys and loved to pick fights, so I was to watch out for her, keep her safe.  

Our house was new when we moved in.  The grass, trees, and shrubs grew as smoothly as we did during those years.  On Sunday mornings we dressed for church and rode in our forty-nine maroon Plymouth the mile and a half into Decatur.  I loved the ride, watched from the backseat as mom slipped off a long white glove so she could read the Sunday school lesson aloud to Dad as he drove.  She never finished it before the car slid to a stop in its parking space.  But it was enough for her to give herself a check mark on the six-point card everyone was asked to mark right after the opening prayer.

If we girls had lessons to read I no longer remember it.  What I do recall is that by the end of the second grade I was playing the piano for our small church group.  It was awful, both my playing and my stomach.  I don’t know how I ever said yes to something that scared me so much, that made my limbs hurt, my heart race and my hands tremble, yet week after week some adult would claim no one else could play and I would move myself to the bench.  Though I was only eight and not musical, I imagined I was required to share my talent however feeble it was.  When I was nine and we moved to a larger church (there had been a disagreement in the congregation about what the minister was preacher and my folks didn’t like any disturbing talk) I was relieved of piano duty.  Mostly I was free to relax and listen.  I wish I could say I never had to play for others to sing hymns at church, but there were occasions when I was the only one or the only one who would own up to the fact that she played.  And though I took lessons and practiced until I entered high school, I never achieved what the teacher intended, or what I wanted.  How to deliver the right rhythm baffled me and memorizing or striking the right notes was sporadic.  I did play well enough to enjoy playing for myself if no one was in the house and especially love to bang it out when I was upset with a situation.

What I loved about those early years were trips to grandparents, visits with cousins and times at the mountain lake in North Carolina.  I didn’t mind school except when I was called on to speak.  To sit quietly doing the work was pleasurable.  Recess and lunch times were less enjoyable.  I was too short, awkward and bit chubby so sports activity was as problematic as piano playing.  Running made me too hot and cold wet weather made me shiver.  I was chosen last for teams when classmates were directed to select.  Today everyone I meet tells this same story.  I think that if you weren’t chosen first, you imagined you were always last.  Recently the movie Talladega Nights reminded me of this phenomenon when the dad constantly tells the son “If you aint first, you’re last.”  In the movie the boy becomes a winning race car driver but in real life, well most of us became executives or school teachers or psychologists. Most of the people that tell me they were chosen last have had amazingly successfully lives.  Where are those who were chosen first?  Lunch was difficult for another reason. I was not supposed to eat the things I liked best, so dread accompanied my steps toward the cafeteria and the day’s decisions.  Either way I lost.  

Today I engage in a lot of internal dialogue.  I claim it is because Ron has so little language, but the truth is I have carried on silent conversations in my head for as long as I can remember – telling myself what to do, what not to do, how, why, when or where, even discussing where I might like to live now that we are so old.  I have discussed what distance to live from our girls and whether I am considering their comfort or mine.

My first memory is that of my mom slipping herself into the bed beside me late at night.  I was three and my younger sister was asleep in her crib in the room across the hallway where Aunt Lizzy slept.  All the other bedrooms were upstairs.  We lived in my father’s home in Asheville, North Carolina, while he was in the Pacific on a destroyer.  I didn’t know what an ocean or a ship was then.  What I knew was my mom would come to bed after everyone finished singing the sad songs and all the voices and footsteps had made their way behind some closed door.  Her silent sobbing shook the mattress slightly and with my eyes closed I rolled close and reached with my too small arm to ease something.  

She says she is sure I was asleep, would have never let her child be touched by her fear and sadness.  Yet we were both touched, separated and untied by all of that emotion.   One Sunday, when an adult, I began weeping as the congregation sang.  Puzzled by the deep feelings, I watched the words as their voices continued.  I saw the phrase, “Sailors tossing on the deep blue sea,” knew it was from that song so long ago. The old longing for those we love to be nearer, be with us, be safe, sounded all around me as I remembered my family singing and praying for their three sons, one my father, who sailed into the navy service during that war.  Later the men all returned and the families moved away following jobs and hope for the future of their children.  The old song was not sung there again, but grandmother’s prayers layered the air throughout our childhood.  We knew she read her scriptures and prayed for us each day – at least we knew on days that we remembered her telling how she held us close to herself by doing this.  We prayed too but never with the same regularity, the same sure belief.  

Fragments: Gathering Places

My Dad’s favorite place was my Mom’s least. The call for him was crisp mountain air, family folklore and fish swimming free beneath the waters of the lake that had flooded some of his childhood valleys.  The nighttime noise of crickets and creatures never became music to her.  The meager living quarters smelling of mildew, deep with dust and only cold spring water for cleaning issued no invitation she wanted to accept.  Yet, while Dad packed and stowed the boating gear, attached the trailer tongue to the ball hook on the rear of our vehicle, Mom packed all of us, the food, loaded the car and slide into her seat beside him.

If I were to transport myself back in time and space, over the three hundred miles between here and there, I could enter a wonderland tucked beneath the thick-high growth of forest bordering that mountain lake.  I could listen to bird songs, the steady notes of katydids, the rustling as squirrels chasing each other over limbs and crunchy leaves, accompanying three girls at play. Soft moss, deep shadows, bees buzzing, the drone of a distant motor boat sliding over grey-green waves, all remind me of the magical sanctuary that place and time granted us.

In 1953, when I was eleven, my sister Carol nine, and Patsy two, Mom and Dad purchased some twenty acres of land stretching from North Carolina State Highway 75 northwest toward the cool waters of Lake Chatuge, eight miles south of his boyhood hometown of Hayesville, North Carolina.  

Over that summer, Dad and his brothers and their friends constructed a three-room cabin fifty feet from the road and 1,200 feet from the lake.  The yellow bulldozer cut a narrow path, removing only the trees necessary to afford cars passage, to flatten a footprint for the slab and to open a line-of-sight to the water and mountain peaks.  Eventually a battered-blue mailbox was erected to mark the driveway entrance.  

Once you opened the screen door, twisted the skeleton key and pushed the heavy door inward, you found yourself in the front room, bunk beds on the right and a small kitchen on the left, with a metal center table. Dad scavenged equipment for the kitchen and bathroom from junkyards between our home in Decatur, Georgia, and this hideaway.  Relatives and friends brought discarded furnishings, their offerings made to secure nights in the cabin.  I watched as studs suggested walls and wiring pulled through holes drilled in those studs energized outlets and switches. The mystery behind sheetrock vanished.   The smooth concrete floor was grand for tap-dancing, and the tin roof encouraged cozy dreams on rainy nights.

Water was garnered from a spring one hundred feet east across the highway, thanks to a cousin who seemed pleased to grant a pipe-in easement. The water flow into the cabin was powered only by the gravity of the slight drop in elevation.  In the junk yard where Dad found the mint green bathtub one day, Mom found boiling pots for heating bath water.  We three girls claimed we needed no bath, as skiing and swimming had removed any dirt.  Mom never insisted; glad to be relieved of one tedious task.  The crickets resting in the tub chirped their assent.  

Dad loved being in his mountains and delighted in arising before daylight to fish.  His eyes sparked whenever anything needed to be built or fixed, and often steered the boat all afternoon, pulling us would-be-skiers until we were tired.

Mother liked to ride in a boat occasionally, but she never swam in the lake, and hated fishing, even more so after being ticketed one day.  “You were baiting that hook and throwing the line in?” the game warden quizzed when she claimed she wasn’t fishing.  “Yes, but I was only helping this little one; I don’t even like fishing.  Can’t you see this child isn’t big enough to handle hooks? “He didn’t see.  She refused to take the ticket he wrote and pointed across the lake to where Dad was fishing from his boat in the next cove.  “You give that ticket to my husband,” she said, and he did.

During the years Dad needed funds for our college he sold his property to his father, but before Cecil could buy it back, Granddaddy had sold it to his eldest son Eugene.  Today, the driveway boasts a road sign named “Eugene Penland Road”.   Later Eugene divided the property and deeded a portion to each of his six siblings, including Dad.

With Dad’s help, Elvita built a two-story brick house, where as adults, we stayed, since the cabin had grown smelly with mildew and disuse.  Talmadge and Robin located trailers large enough to hold their families on their sites, Philip built a house and installed a trailer, Buford built small boat storage and came rarely, and Eugene kept the front point piece and the original cabin, maintaining it for any overflow of family and friends. Because we were invited guests at each of the others’ homes, Dad never built on his property.  That piece holds forth in the center, undisturbed leaf fall and trees sheltering all the creatures that stake their claim each season.  

Though Mom never enjoyed the work of preparing for the lake trips and enduring the hardships in the cabin, she loved dad and his people.  Visiting with dad’s sisters, brothers and all their children always made her smile and relax. They enjoyed her.  In the afternoons each one not out in a boat would pull a chair into a shaded spot, making a circle, waiting for the fishermen to return, delaying cooking in hopes of fish, murmuring, laughing, taking a turn at joining their story to the one that had gone before.  

Over the years, the family gathered for reunions that always included frying the day’s catch, skiing in the boat’s wakes, and singing around the nightly bonfire Talmadge built at the lake’s edge.  From that vantage point we could see Great Uncle Witt’s early settlement white doubled-chimney two-story farmhouse across the waters dammed in the 1940’s by the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide power.  And somewhere halfway between that old house and us the remains of the town of Elf rest on the lake floor, beyond the reach of our warm fire’s light, the soft rhythms of our voices.  Our Grandparents, Iola and James, after marrying each other in 1884, lived there, served as postmasters, and began the family we now claim as ours.  

Today if I want to quiet myself, withdraw from some stressful project or thought, I know where to go.  I close my eyes, retreat to the deep woods of my father’s heart, somewhere out beyond the rear of that red-stained clapboard cabin. I sit in the rich land of family and belonging knowing that we are not alone. We don’t become who we are without the imagining of those who came before and those who walk with us, and our own imagining of those who will make their way after our passing.

I cannot remember this place without remembering a mother and a father who cared so much for each other that they were open to sharing each others dreams and were always united by their attention to what the other loved and what was best for their girls. Our parents smiled as they watched us girls grow, gain new skills, claim a larger family and explore this natural world two and half hours from their city.  We three girls grew, not too tall, for Mom and Dad were short, but strong, open to wonder and kindness.  They both knew they had showed us how to love what you loved. Mom still says, “Glad you girls got a man, I’m sorry you couldn’t get one as good as I had.”  We smile with her.

When the extended family gathered in the forest this past summer, we found Mom the matriarch of the clan and ourselves among the older aunts and cousins.  Talmadge and Robin toweled off their children’s grandchildren as each arrived wet from playing in the lake.  Since my own grandchildren had not made the trip this year, I reached to help little ones unbuckle life vests and stow fishing poles.  After blessing the assembled food and eating we circled our chairs to watch the traditional fireworks display before scattering to our distant city homes.  

Fragments: Tools of the Day

In the last ten years of his life, my dad stocked his basement with tools that best supported him in retirement.  For construction projects he reached for angles, levels and miter boxes.  For fishing trips, he lifted rods and tackles from hooks on his peg-board display.  On golf days, he pushed out the black leather bag with the fuzzy red covers protecting the big woods.  Although all of this equipment was ordered, cleaned, and used often, his best loved tools were the ones covered with dirt.  

During his career years as an attorney and a father there had been no time for other dreams. But with those tasks completed, he studied at the junior college and gained a designation of master gardener.  At last he called himself a farmer. Unlike the farmers of his youth, he grew only what he liked to eat or what he knew we liked.  He sold nothing.  When more produce ripened than we could devour, he delivered baskets of tomatoes, squash or cucumbers to his friends. Regretfully for them, they never tasted what we loved best, the green beans and okra.

When I was six, I remember overhearing his conversation with a neighbor who was chiding him for allowing all the children to play on his thick green lawn, “I’m not growing grass, Peggy and I are growing girls,” he replied. Standing barefoot beside him, I stretched to my full height letting the sweet blades of freshly mown grass caress my soles.  At fifty, I would bite into a ripe tomato letting the juice make a mess as I flipped the lightly coated okra that was sizzling in my pan.  His attention to what he was growing was always about us.

The tools he used in the early growing season of our lives were invisible, tucked behind skin, buried in his bones – kindness, storytelling, intention, and a gentle wisdom. He sat beside us as we worked on school projects, untangled golden chain necklaces one link at a time and held bicycle seats until we peddled along without his support.  In the later season, when we three girls matured and were raising our own children, he and mom opened their home to any and all of them.  But there were times when none of us were at their house.  At those times dad selected shovels and hoses, plants and seeds and headed outside to help the vegetables make the most of their time.  

After breakfast on summer mornings we might hear him call, “Peggy, let’s go.”  Out the backdoor and through the bit of woods that concealed the garden from anyone’s view, they walked, clasping tools and holding hands.  

Fragments: Lasting Words

I awoke on that spring morning unaware that this day would be different from others.  The routine shower and dressing, awakening the girls, encouraging them to get ready for school, gave no hint. Rhonda was turning ten in another month and Holly, sixteen, at the end of August.  I hugged Rhonda goodbye as friends arrived to collect her for the group-walk to Rehoboth; I stuck a note on Holly’s steering wheel, wishing her well with Shamrock’s cheerleading tryouts.  Then I waved from the kitchen as Ron backed his Olds out, on his way to work at Briarcliff Oaks.  Only after all of them were off did I scan the house, turning off lights or appliances.

When walked to my Honda, I saw its back door wide open. Oh no, I thought, peering in.  Surprised by a rescheduled soccer game the night before, I had never gone back to my car to collect work documents or my camera equipment.  Instead we had piled into Ron’s vehicle and headed for a night of serious competition and yelling for Rhonda’s team.  Now the back seat was empty.

What had been in my briefcase? I began a mental inventory.  I had brought investment items home to make a new spreadsheet identified by maturity dates.  It was almost 9 am.  I called the police and then began dialing the six banks on my list.  No one could cash a certificate, or at least I hoped not.  Alerting the authorities might slow my pulse rate and let me breathe easier.

When my dad stepped into the kitchen to ask if all was well, I was still on the phone.  I mouthed to him that all was fine, just had some stuff taken from my car.  “OK,” he said. Seeing I was my usual independent-woman self, he retreated to his car.  It was then that I remembered this was golf day.  He must have passed my house and seen the police cars and patrolmen combing the surrounding area.  Eventually, Sergeant Larson knocked.  “We found your camera behind the neighbor’s house and the brief case tucked behind the fence shrubbery across the street.”  

Once at work, I settled into the normal challenges and friendly exchanges.  But at 11 am I received a call from our church minister telling me the hospital had not been able to find our phone numbers, but Dad’s friends had told them what church he attended.  “Jane, we know you live closest to your mom. Your dad has had a heart attack and is at the Rockdale County Emergency Room.  We thought you might want to be with your mom when you tell her. We’ll call your sisters for you.”  

“Yes, thank you,” I muttered and grabbed my purse, stepped into Ron’s office to tell him where I was going and headed for my Mom’s.  I called her on the way and told her dad had gotten sick playing golf and I was on my way to pick her up so we could go to the hospital.  When the receptionist directed us toward a conference room, I pulled Mom closer, wishing my sisters were there.  Dad’s three buddies stood up, and Mom let each one hug her, just as Carol and Patsy arrived, slowing their steps they reached together for mom.

We were too late.  The doctors assured us Dad’s death was instantaneous, even though the owner of a house on the sixth hole had rushed to do CPR.  Later Rudy, Bob and Joe would retell the story of how Cecil had driven a great tee shot toward the seventh hole.  “The day was so clear and blue, we all just stood marveling at the shot and sky; and then we heard him fall, before his ball landed.”  The awe in their voices, the respect, and sadness held something that suggested a life well lived, well known, and now beautifully completed.

There was so much left unsaid and yet not.  Dad had had a heart attack seventeen years before when he was fifty and I don’t think there was a day we failed to hear him say to mom, “Peggy, I love you so much.”  The remark was always spontaneous, never owed.  

Since his death twenty-two years ago, my mom, sisters and I have shared stories and hugs.  We draw from his well of loving Mother and us, smile in gratitude for a father always showing up to say “Do you need my help?”

As my hand guides my pen across the page, the image of his strong hands guiding the car toward the beach, the mountains, or the day’s school event comes into focus.  Boys broke our hearts, the chemistry teacher wasn’t fair, friends let us down, we won our twirling competitions, and we lost our books and our tempers, failed tests or aced them. Regardless of the situation, Dad and Mom stayed close to each of us.  Dad offered alternative approaches, other ways of thinking, pointing us towards a way through or around, and then drawing us in for one more hug, one more question. “Any other way I can help? I’ll get your Mom.”  

A Bit Later: Workplace Woman

I grew up in Decatur, Georgia, in the 1950s, the oldest of three girls.  My grandmother, Iola Phillips Penland, who had been legally blind since birth, then sixty-nine, was driven the 200 miles from Asheville, North Carolina, by her daughter, to listen and celebrate the day I graduated from college.  I was her first female grandchild and the second woman in our family to gain this level of education.

By the time I entered college most accepted women for whatever program of study they chose.  And in the spring of 1964 three other women graduated with me from Emory University with business degrees and majors in accounting.  Although we were a minority and would be so in the workplace, I felt only slightly odd.  Never separated in public school, male classmates took no special notice of our presence. Once I asked a supervisor if it was more difficult working with me.  “No, I found myself thinking of my daughter the first week you were here,” he said.  “She is studying to be an architect.”

In the sixties the public sector led the way in opening career positions to both men and women of all races. Private companies that remained resistant were required to hire at least one or two women to meet a quota or their own new policy, so securing a professional position became doable for women.  The accounting firms sought only those women who were tall, pretty and posted a four-point grade average and then assigned them to the tax division.  I had neither the height nor grades and no interest in working with tax issues.  

After one failed interview with the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tax and Fire Arms, I called my dad and asked for his help.  I thought asking for help was a poor way to start. But I learned later that men called this networking and did it mostly over a golf or lunch at the Rotary or Kiwanis, where women were not yet included.

After the interview arranged by my dad, I was hired by the U.S. Defense Department as an auditor, performing audit work that counted toward eligibility for the prestigious Certified Public Accountant designation.  The day I received the letter and accepted their job offer, I didn’t know I would be the first and only woman holding such a position in the southeast region for a time, but I was.  The work challenged me, and the men who supervised me as well as peers my age made no distinction because of my gender.   Only a few people in the companies I went to audit were startled to see a woman auditor.  After their initial surprise during my introduction, they relaxed hoping a woman might not have the same skills of discovery.  I often grew taller in their eyes by the time we engaged in the exit interview, when findings or no findings were disclosed.  When I resigned to start a family five years later, there was one other woman in each of the two offices I had served.

Eight years later when I directed a non-profit corporation, I encountered women who wanted me to have a story of how hard it had been and how I had had to fight my way to my place, but I had no such story.  My colleagues had helped me and I them.  Over the thirty years of my career, the workplace changed, growing more diverse and more interesting.  My own work energized me and gave me a sense of doing something worth doing.  

In addition to my parents, who always assumed college was our goal, and an aunt and grandmother who drove the distance to witness my achievement, many people made my education and work-life possible. As I write, I smile, remembering my part too.  I grew up in Decatur, Georgia, in the 1950s, the oldest of three girls.  My grandmother, Iola Phillips Penland, who had been legally blind since birth, then sixty-nine, was driven the 200 miles from Asheville, North Carolina, by her daughter, to listen and celebrate the day I graduated from college.  I was her first female grandchild and the second woman in our family to gain this level of education.

By the time I entered college most accepted women for whatever program of study they chose.  And in the spring of 1964 three other women graduated with me from Emory University with business degrees and majors in accounting.  Although we were a minority and would be so in the workplace, I felt only slightly odd.  Never separated in public school, male classmates took no special notice of our presence. Once I asked a supervisor if it was more difficult working with me.  “No, I found myself thinking of my daughter the first week you were here,” he said.  “She is studying to be an architect.”

In the sixties the public sector led the way in opening career positions to both men and women of all races. Private companies that remained resistant were required to hire at least one or two women to meet a quota or their own new policy, so securing a professional position became doable for women.  The accounting firms sought only those women who were tall, pretty and posted a four-point grade average and then assigned them to the tax division.  I had neither the height nor grades and no interest in working with tax issues.  

After one failed interview with the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tax and Fire Arms, I called my dad and asked for his help.  I thought asking for help was a poor way to start. But I learned later that men called this networking and did it mostly over a golf or lunch at the Rotary or Kiwanis, where women were not yet included.

After the interview arranged by my dad, I was hired by the U.S. Defense Department as an auditor, performing audit work that counted toward eligibility for the prestigious Certified Public Accountant designation.  The day I received the letter and accepted their job offer, I didn’t know I would be the first and only woman holding such a position in the southeast region for a time, but I was.  The work challenged me, and the men who supervised me as well as peers my age made no distinction because of my gender.   Only a few people in the companies I went to audit were startled to see a woman auditor.  After their initial surprise during my introduction, they relaxed hoping a woman might not have the same skills of discovery.  I often grew taller in their eyes by the time we engaged in the exit interview, when findings or no findings were disclosed.  When I resigned to start a family five years later, there was one other woman in each of the two offices I had served.

Eight years later when I directed a non-profit corporation, I encountered women who wanted me to have a story of how hard it had been and how I had had to fight my way to my place, but I had no such story.  My colleagues had helped me and I them.  Over the thirty years of my career, the workplace changed, growing more diverse and more interesting.  My own work energized me and gave me a sense of doing something worth doing.  

In addition to my parents, who always assumed college was our goal, and an aunt and grandmother who drove the distance to witness my achievement, many people made my education and work-life possible. As I write, I smile, remembering my part too.  

Writing Life: A secure line

When I was in the fourth grade, I decided that I could not write.  It was not that I could not form the letters or put words in some reasonable order.  It was that I had no ideas, no thoughts, no images, and no stories.  I was asked to select a picture from the thirty or so posted on the walls encircling our room and write.  Nothing came; I froze.  When the teacher walked up behind me and asked, “What’s wrong; why aren’t writing?” I dissolved into tears. The silent sobs made no sound as my throat tightened.  I didn’t want to write, could not speak.  

The world’s demand that I have something to say and my body’s requirement to remain silent became a battle which I would lose and win across the years.  Speaking aloud or on paper was like walking across a field previously mined by an unknown foe.  Despite other’s assurance that what I said was clear and appropriate, I feared that I wasn’t saying it right – putting in too much, leaving out something essential, talking too softly or too loudly. Regardless of my fears whenever I spoke, I managed to look calm and certain.  

In school, Math felt safe and eventually I became an accountant.  The man I married was also an accountant, but unlike me, loved talking and had lots of stories.  No one was ever a stranger to him and no occasion too serious to insert humor.

After seven years of marriage, my husband Ron suffered a stroke as a result of a heart value replacement.  He was partially paralyzed and mostly silent due to the accompanying aphasia. I was thrust into the language foreground that I had married to avoid.  He possessed his thoughts, his desires, but was unable to convey more than basic needs.  Joking and laughter quietly disappeared from our world.  As I attempted to become both interpreter and communicator, we each retreated to someplace behind our eyes.  

Four months after Ron’s stroke, when our daughter Holly was six, our second daughter, Rhonda was born.  By then the doctors had determined that Ron would be unable to return to his auditing career or any other job.  

 “He can only copy,” the doctor had said, his voice trying to translate to me the uselessness of my effort and hope.   I was no longer listening to him, for I knew something he didn’t.  I knew that copying was the main skill one needed to do bookkeeping.  There were other things I didn’t know yet, like how long learning new skills would take, but my vision for Ron encouraged me that day.

Soon after I learned that I must support our small family, I received a call from Mr. Harling, a member of our church.  “Would you be interested in working with me, doing the financial work for Clairmont Oaks?”  

First Baptist Church of Decatur had formed a board to build and operated an elderly housing project and had asked Mr. Harling, a member of the church and a retired executive to administer the program.  A woman board member had told him I had been a government auditor, and because we were members of that church too, he knew about Ron’s stroke. Imagining that my old skills and new needs made an ideal candidate for an assistant, he called me.

I thought his phone call was an answer to a prayer I had not yet been willing to pray.  My dream of remaining at home with my children evaporated.  I waited, did not hang up, listened as he said more about what the job required.

After a long silence, I finally responded, “I will do the financial work if you can allow Ron to come with me and allow space for two desks in my office. Ron’s only 34 and I can’t imagine him sitting at home with the TV.  Maybe he can learn to do the bank deposits.”  Mr. Harling agreed to my requests. I was relieved to have a behind-the-scenes job, near home, doing work with the elderly.  Having Ron join me at work felt like a good beginning for what we needed now.  

On the three days Ron was scheduled for speech therapy, he boarded the city bus at 10 a.m.  After three years the therapist suggested that he stop as they were seeing little progress.  She did offer a new system of music therapy and agreed to work another year.  However this technique also failed to help him.  Ron was so glad to stop that I realized I must have insisted for too long that he continue. Though Ron could be angry with me for a quick moment, because he was so cheerful and cooperative and had so little language to put forth an argument, I found it difficult to tell how hard things were for him.

On weekends during the first five years after Ron’s stroke, our two girls helped him deliver his newspaper route in the retirement home.  Well Holly helped and Rhonda rode on the bottom shelf of the two-tier grocery style cart my Dad had found for Ron to use.  When we opened Clairmont Oaks, I called the Atlanta Journal to secure the paper route for Ron.  Then I persuaded Ron to say yes to my idea, “You can learn to track customers, collect their money, bank it and make some money for yourself.”  He nodded yes. Since Ron could not drive to a pick-up point because of his handicap, I called the Journal’s marketing division and told them we needed them to deliver the papers to our building’s front door. Our residents wrote checks and brought them to a box we installed in the lobby, so payment was easy for them and collections were never a problem for him. I set up a spreadsheet for his record keeping and opened a separate bank account, then turned this venture over to Ron. Whether he made money or lost some, Ron stayed busy, learning, walking and making friends. After a few months Ron pointed to the bottom line on his spreadsheet so I could see his profit.  Today I can tell you that he bought his daughters and his wife presents whenever he wanted to.  He bought his Mom and his sisters their favorite National Geographic Calendars each Christmas. He bought himself Cheery Blend pipe tobacco and some magazines, Sports Illustrated being one his favorite mentionable ones.  

Thanks to the Sears Special Driving Division, Ron regained his freedom.  After four years of doing everything together, Ron began saying “Car, car, me, drive it.” I called Sears and they took Ron for a driving lesson.  When they returned two hours later the trainer said, “Mrs. Hoover he drives fine. We showed him techniques for one-handed steering, and how to use his paralysis-weakened leg and foot on the pedals.”  

“I want to pay for one more session, please.”  I was far too anxious to trust him or them yet.  After the second day, they returned and convinced me by saying, “He is likely a better, safer driver than you.”  I laughed and so it has been from that day till this.  Of the two of us, Ron is the better driver. It is likely due to the fact that I have to do all the talking.

In lager business operations computer systems, though they required massive air-conditioned space to house the bulky equipment, were fast becoming the norm, while smaller companies like ours continued to produce accounting detail manually.  I learned to design spreadsheet systems that Ron learned to use.  Following the specific forms he copied from original documents into the collection books and gave us all the records needed to complete monthly financial statements.  He eventually learned to calculate the complicated payroll distributions each month. I typed the checks from his documents and the secretary typed the statements each month.  When he needed to talk with a resident or vendor about an error, he pointed to the pages to show me the problem and once I figured out what he knew, I called or made a visit to clarify.

He was proud of his accuracy doing the many monthly bank reconciliations, but if there was anything amiss, the language barrier gave us trouble. “Jane, come here. This one, this one,” he would say pointing.  Rarely could I comprehend without starting from the beginning, an act that always made him mad as if I didn’t believe him.  This anger made me afraid, not for myself, but afraid that he would realize his limitation in some way that would drop him into a depression we might never climb out of.  

Guessing what Ron wanted to say had begun as an interesting challenge.  But over the years as Ron became more discouraged with my inability to understand his one word offering, he allowed me fewer and fewer guesses.  Gradually he said, “Just forget it!” after only one guess. It is hard to say now which of us was more irritated and angry about our communication barriers.  Our earlier measure of patience with each other dwindled.  Somehow Ron maintained his gracious nature in interactions with everyone including me, except with we were alone.  My own anxiety and his great losses repeatedly blunted our emotional connections to one another.  We each needed more and more protection from our own reactions, needed to pump less adrenaline when startled.  We needed to stop imagining it would get easier with time.

Ron and I needed space, our own offices.  I convinced Mr. Harling that we needed another retirement home to accommodate our three-year waiting list, and assured him I would secure the funding and coordinate the design and construction.  This time Mr. Harling said yes to me.  When we opened Briarcliff Oaks in November 1980, Ron gave up the paper route.  We moved into this new building six miles away with its two hundred new residents, ten new staff members, and a private office for each of us.  Many things saved our marriage over the years and this move was one of them.

When Mr. Harling died, five months after we opened our second retirement home, Briarcliff Oaks, I proposed that the Board of Directors designate me the director of the corporation.  After a couple of months they agreed.  In this new role I was unable to avoid speaking and writing and soon the old fears grew strong again.  My desire to maintain our family’s lifestyle, to save for college and retirement years motivated and helped me find ways to bury these troubling emotions.  The excitement that came with the power of being in charge also helped.  

By the time we left that work world twenty-four years later, Ron was entering the data with his left hand into a computer, punching the button and printing the financial reports for our two high-rise communities with their 425 apartment homes.  Because he continually demanded I fire the secretaries, who would not type his reports the moment he finished them, teaching him to use the computer had become essential.  Although it took him an entire year to gain this skill, neither of us ever regretted that effort.  I never had to terminate his employment or one of my secretaries.  

Though I was a strong and good leader for this corporation, for its mission and employees and residents, I was constantly fighting my own inner demand for more solitude and silence, some play.  During the first three years, Ron had much patience with me and with himself, but as time passed, the patience dissipated and he grew more and more angry.  It was only after seven years and with the help of a therapist that I realized his anger was not at the event of stroke, but with me.  No matter how I imagined we had succeeded with the difficult, he saw us as failures.  Though this made no sense to me, I had to see it as his reality.  My freezing at times of confrontation, then retreating to my room or office continued to deplete my energies.  That he denied his anger even when acting it out, only confounded me.  I was certain he would soon see how amazing we both were.  But by the time Rhonda became fifteen and the anger continued to persist, I gave up imagining it would diminish.

Our girls and their friends brought laughter, noise and many friends into the house each week.  Both Holly and later Rhonda played soccer, each of them competing on teams for some eighteen years.  Ron and I unfolded our aluminum chairs at the sidelines of soccer fields across the county and cheered for their teams with all voice we had, sometimes to victory and sometimes not.  Holly studied piano and music and found that everyone wanted her to play and sing, later dance.   Rhonda chose tennis and cross-country and enjoying competition and speed, distinguishing herself and making others laugh.  Both girls made friends that remain in their lives today.  

Holly and Rhonda made their way through all the years to become captivating and delightful young women. Holly graduated second in her Industrial Engineering class from Georgia Tech a year after marrying Jim Scott and the two of them headed for their first three years in Germany, expenses paid by the U.S. Army.  Rhonda pursued her dream to become a pharmacist at the University of Georgia and satisfied her desire to travel by going to visit Jim and Holly in Europe.  Manipulator that I was, I offered to pay for the Germany trip if Rhonda would forego her senior class cruise.  I never felt guilty and she has not said I took her rite of passage away. There were many other trips back and forth to Germany for her and for us over the years. Ron and I enjoyed watching as our girls gained their independence and found visions for their own lives.

Toward what would be the end of my years working with non-profit corporations and elderly housing programs, I finally succeeding in securing funds to accomplish my long time dream of adding an elevator, laundries, gathering rooms, an auditorium and land for additional parking to our thirteen-story facility.  Just as we completed the design for this, HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) added a requirement to remove asbestos and the DeKalb County added a requirement to upgrade our sprinkler systems.  Finding the funding to accomplish all this was both harrowing and exhilarating.  Though it sounds smooth as I write now, there was nothing easy about securing seven million dollars.  Not only was I writing elaborate proposals, I needed to make speeches to possible contributors, entice them to share my dream, support this mission.  I invested time and money in hiring an Emory professor to coach me – teach me how to write what I needed to say and then deliver it.  Though I never relaxed or felt confident about writing or talking, I did it and we finally were able to proceed.  

Eventually, due to the variety of funding sources and the time constraints of the regulatory requirements, all of the projects were forced into one construction event.  During the two year renovation period each of the three hundred residents and their belongings was moved one by one into an empty apartment and then returned six-weeks later to their own newly restored unit.  Staff, residents, board members and contractors all maneuvered through this time with grace, courage and luck.

We watched as thirteen-story cranes lifted generators to the roof, and giant earth movers dug holes for ninety-eight foot piling forms.  We listened as jack-hammers demolished the stairway and watched as crews pulled piping, unrolled wiring, scraped, mudded and re-painted ceilings and walls.  None of us entered the floor on which the asbestos removal process proceeded where the workmen, suited up like space characters, fitted each window with a temporary exit tunnel. In the afternoon before five each day the workers loaded the tunnel with debris that slid safely out and down and into sealed dumpsters at the bottom of the chute.  Especially designated hazardous material trucks hauled the containers away and returned before morning with an empty one.

I loved working on this project; making everything happen, praising my staff and watching them find one more way to make our residents enjoy the activity that should have only been a big headache.  However my attention to all of this served to make Ron feel more agitated and even less included. He continued his work at our other facility and though I talked about my fears and concerns for the complexity of all I was managing, because he needed so much of my attention, he was unable to empathize or encourage me.  

In nightmares I saw the building collapse as we removed the sheer wall in order to build a new stairwell and elevator tower.  Though I had the assurance of the architects and the contractor that this would not happen, the safety of residents who lived inside was my responsibility. In the end the building stood tall and strong, but my strength weakened under the weight of potential financial shortfalls, complex scheduling and Ron’s growing depressive rage.  

At one point I sought advice from a spiritual advisor named Lucy.  “Help me. There is no one to help me,” I wailed during my session.

She said, “Jane, you are going to write!”  I assured her that that was not going to happen.  Seeing the panic in my voice and feeling the retreat my mind made, she added, “Oh there is nothing for you to do; this writing will just fall out of your head onto the paper.”  

“This is not what I need; I need help.  I haven’t asked anyone for help before, surely you can say something else?” I pleaded.

“No. You are going to write.”   She turned off the tape recorder, blew out the candles and bid me farewell.

I scoffed, certain she was wrong, yet scanned brochures and news calendars for writing events.  Only two weeks later, there it was in the Evening-at-Emory program: Proprioceptive Writing®, a focus on listening, not writing.  I registered and went.  

The night of the first class I discovered a way to listen to my own thought flow, be present to myself, and not feel frightened.  I relaxed, breathing easier; I discovered that someone wanted to listen to me.  To my surprise that person was me.  As I walked to my car after writing that night, I heard myself say, “I am going to give this to the world – I am going to teach writing.”  It was audacious and ludicrous.  I was an accountant and a business woman, but I was laughing out loud.

The laughter cinched it.  I had not laughed from myself for years.  I had laughed and smiled for others, to put them at ease, to assure them I was fine, to entertain them, to get what I wanted done and on and on.  But I had tickled myself this night and so startled myself that I couldn’t forget the moment or my declaration.  

During the two-years of construction, I traveled to Maine to train with the creators of Proprioceptive Writing.  I learned to use the reflective question, what do you mean by, to focus and clarify my thinking.  I began leading a small group of women in my home.  I was writing to develop or discover a new relationship to my life.  Writing was helping me.  I listened to everyone with a different intention to hear them.  Staff and friends commented on my own calm presence.  When my daughters were home, I often overheard them asking each other what they meant by what they said, then giggling, looking around to be sure I had noticed their teasing about my new interest.  Ron, his social skills not impaired, enjoyed greeting the women as they arrived at our door each week.

At work in his office whenever I failed to understand Ron’s one word communiqué, he slammed the thick ledger books on his desk.  I fumed or said some mean unkindness back.  It was as if we were some strong thick rope that was fraying out after having held through so many batterings.  Whether to untie or find a rope repair shop seemed a good question.

And so when we completed my Dream Project on time and just under the $7,000,000 budget, I knew what we must do.  Though pleased with our new facilities and elated with my success and that of my staff, I knew that my own work with elderly housing had come to an end. I was thankful for everything, but this gratitude could not reconnect what was breaking apart.

I reasoned that by separating from work, Ron and I could eliminate much of his frustration that came from my enthusiasm and attention toward all those others.  We could lessen my increasing exhaustion with trying to discover what he wanted me to know about some financial or record problem.  Having only a list of single nouns to describe what and where a bank statement was out of balance, or how the department of labor report for the month was incorrect became less and less possible as we lost patience with ourselves and each other.  Maybe, if we retired, we would be more able to tackle the great difficulty of communicating each day.  Maybe we could yet find a way to be more satisfied with each another. Because the girls were finished with college, because Ron and I enjoyed nature, reading, puzzles and writing, and because we did not love shopping and buying things, we imagined we could live with much less money. As we finished the renovation project on time and under budget, I began to prepare the company for our departure.  Searching for replacements for the two of us would take time.

Finally the construction project was received the new carpet, laundry equipment, elevator lobby and auditorium furniture.  The resident activity committees planned celebration parties and we all hugged and smiled, grateful for patience, good spirits, a strong construction team, and the end of a long process.

After another seven month we moved out of the city to the small town of Greensboro, Georgia, on Lake Oconee.  With lake water lapping along the front lawn,  one hundred acres of pasture guarding the rear of our property, and my two sisters’ houses barely visible on the hill top above us, we waited for depression to lift and for anger to recede.  In the mornings I walked, watched the sunrise, and said a word to the beaver clan swimming by or the blue heron tracking for a fish, mimicked the mooing and then listened as the mocking birds sang from their perch on pine or telephone line.  Ron waited, I think, for me to change.  Over that first year what I know is that much of the anxiety and anger leaked out of us.  We were still sad and lonely for the companionship that language facilitates, but we were making some kind of peace with emotional distance and verbal silences.

Eventually I began to write again and wanted to find others who would join me in the process.  I placed an article in the weekly newspaper inviting people to come and write together.  When the local arts alliance saw my advertisement, they suggested that my group become the literary arm of the alliance and I began my volunteer position as facilitator for the group.  We added a writing studio onto the house, and after two years I had twenty people coming weekly to my home studio.  Their words and thoughts filled some of the emptiness in my silence; my enthusiasm for their writing encouraged them. (see “Strands: writing group” for more detail story)

Ron watched me begin something new, and he began picking up aluminum cans along the roadways.  He spent one day a week, using his good left arm to swing down the can crusher again and again out in his tool shed.  When he had four leaf-size bags filled (about every three months), he drove to the local dump where they paid him a recycle fee – usually about forty dollars.  As the writers learned of Ron’s new venture, they changed their habit.  In addition to bringing written pieces to the group, they brought their empty cans.  Soon we found ourselves writing about the environment, about Ron and about each other.  Eventually Ron gave up working his puzzle in the den and joined the writing group to listen to the reading.

When I started the writing groups I was afraid that Ron would revert to anger as he saw my interest and love of something grow again.  I feared I would resent his attitude. But thanks to all of them, to the removal or work issues, to our determination, and maybe to spirits beyond ourselves, neither of us became agitated over any writing activity.  

At times Ron and I were startled by misunderstandings and the difficulties of physical and mental impairments, as well as our own aging aches and pains.  But we reminded ourselves to soak in the blue-green peace of sky and grass, we rocked in the big hammock stretched beneath the giant pine, and listened to the bird’s noisy chatter.  In-between the silences laughter often slipped into the space between us.

My writing groups became a new kind of work for me.  Although my own voice often tightened when reading aloud, the knot in my throat grew smaller.  Though I continued to love solitude and some degree of silence, I wanted to have my say.  But more than anything, I wanted to be in the room with others who were interested in hearing what it was they thought, and who enjoyed discovering they could trust themselves and their language to guide them into places they wanted to go.

Ron and I made another move seven years later.  We moved to North Carolina, exchanging our lake-view home for an apartment in a retirement village to be closer to our daughters and their growing families and to have more physical support available to us.  After securing drivers licenses in our new state, no easy task for Ron with his limited language and me with my spotty memory, we began the new job of making community for ourselves and becoming community to others.  When asked what I do, I say, “I facilitate writing groups and participate in writing groups.”  When someone seems to want more, I say “I am no longer well-rounded, I am angular; Ron, my girls and writing friends.” After dinner in the evening, Ron joins the puzzle table group.  I leave eight women and my man as I move toward our apartment for a couple of hours of writing time, all of us smiling.  

WL Strands: Writing Group

Before retiring from my career and moving from the city to our country home, I had discovered that I could know what I thought and felt when I wrote.  I wanted to give other people this amazing entry to more of themselves but didn’t know how I would find people interested in a writing group in this rural place. New to the town I joined AARP, became a pink lady for Minnie G Boswell Hospital, started singing in the Golden Tones at the Baptist church, and took charge of the offerings for a young minister’s new non-denominational church, yet I was unsatisfied.  I needed people in my life who wanted to write, to read, and maybe publish. I wanted thinkers and playmates.

When a few women formed an arts alliance in our small, three-traffic-light town, I went, hoping to find writers.  I found wonderful friends and fabulous paintings but no writers.  Unlike Atlanta, where I had lived, here there were more cows and chickens per acre than people.  

In January 2001, as I dismantled the Christmas tree and wrapped old ornaments in newsprint, it occurred to me I could place an ad in the weekly newspaper, the Greensboro Herald Journal.  Whether anyone would read my note or want to write was still a mystery.  “Those wishing to write are invited to gather at the Greene County Library at 1:30 on Tuesday January 27th.”   

“Oh, there is no charge for that. I’d like to see if anyone’s interested in writing,” said the editor Carey Williams as he smiled and took my small ad.  Still scared that no one would respond, during the next two weeks I announced the start of a writing group everywhere I went.  I posted fliers on the front door of Hunter’s Pharmacy and Yesterdays’ Cafe, the only downtown eateries, unless you count Hardees, Wendys, and McDonalds.  Then on Sunday when I announced my new mission David’s church meeting, Dot followed me to my car, “I love to write,” she said.   I took her phone number.

On Tuesday morning I called Dot and asked her to meet at the Waffle House beside Interstate 20.  As we sipped coffee and listened to bacon sizzle on the grill, I told her about my dream to create a writing group and asked if she would help by coming to my first meeting.  “If there are two of us and someone shows up, maybe it will feel like a group,” I suggested.  Dot smiled, “I won’t come regularly, but I’d love to help you get started.”  

And so at the appointed hour Dot and I waited.  Someone named Don Adams had called me during the week to verify the time, so I was hopeful.  To our delight six people arrived: Don, Shirley, Sparks, Kathy, Boots, and Gay.  They had no idea who I was nor I them, but we laughed a lot, read samples of our writing to each other, talked about what we wanted to write and how important it was to our lives.  Three months later I moved the group to my home studio and we continued weekly meetings for five years.  

By the time I moved from Greensboro, Georgia, to Durham, North Carolina, the Greensboro Writers’ Guild consisted of twenty-two writers from six surrounding counties.  Each week, members brought their stories, poems, memories, essays, snacks, good humor, eventually aluminum cans for my husband to recycle, and the lively feedback of encouragement.  Occasionally some of the writers from my old Decatur groups would drive the distance to write and read together for the afternoon.

During that five years, two published novels, three printed poetry collections, others offered gifts of their written stories as they read at Christmas or Thanksgiving events, some read stories at family unions, and all collected stories about their life to pass on. The arts alliance printed seven collections of our writings and sold them at street festivals and in the Chamber’s office.  Surprisingly, we were invited to perform often and gave eighteen readings: community art groups, garden clubs, library events, a retired military conference, and several senior luncheons.  

On the day I posted my advertisement, I never dreamed that what I was creating for myself would bring such pleasure and delight to so many others. I had not imagined typing copy, printing booklets or giving performances either. Though I am no longer there, the group continues, new leaders emerged and they have invited me to their meetings and to contribute to their publications.  As I write today, I smile thinking of each of them and my way of shrinking the distance that miles might dictate, except for my marking each lap I swim in the morning by repeating a writer’s name.  

Strands

II Memoir

Jane Penland Hoover

February 3, 2006

October 19, 2006, October 24, 2006

November 5, 2006, December 2, 2006

December 3, 2006

Extra stuff – to save for a bit

Writing Sense

Writing is exciting to me because it gives me a way to hear, to revise and to claim.  Often when I write, I find that I know more than I thought I knew. No matter how many times I return to the blank page, I find that the first thing I must do as the narrator is to say what happened.  The next thing I must do is to say what I am making of what happened.  

As I reflect on what is before me, I hear something new. The sound may be as loud as the single word “yes”; it may be a softly whispered, “oh no, not that”.  Mostly I find messages of “not that exactly, it is more like this”.  Listening and receiving whatever arises from moment to moment gives deep pleasure, stimulating me to continue the journey.

Over time, writing helps me draw closer to knowing what I know; knowing how I want to say it, knowing what must be said before the next thing can be said.  The process may be long and tedious, lonely and dry, crisp and swift.  Being stuck and not knowing what may occur to me to write next only serves to challenge me.  The possibility of being surprised and maybe even pleased urges me onward.  The fact that words will escape and ideas evaporate threatens, pulling me back and away.  It this tension I crave, that is addictive.

In my literary life, I design and build an abode that I can live in and that my readers may visit.  I am selective.  Not just any events or characters will do, only those I choose.  I build the dwelling with the words I write, not the words I speak. Spoken words dissipate, get lost, and are to ephemeral for a house. The unique value of writing is that writing holds together so I can recognize what I have heard spoken within me.  I can think about it. This recognition and reflection translates then into vibration and absorption, inviting the entire body and soul to respond.  The structure becomes space alive and deeply meaningful.

I learn what it is I like, think or want through my written words.  I become more congruent.  I am not foggy or uncertain; I am not confused.  Those negative sensations arrive when I am afraid that what I think, like or want will not be suitable to others. So I find writing evokes clarity and joy.  I find that telling and telling again the same stories, eventually makes more room, enlarges my sense of the world and grants me new perspectives.  At long last, I write entirely new stories from old material.  

As pen strokes fill my pages, I am rewarded from time to time with a resounding “Yes” spoken in my chest.  I hope you too experience through your own art this kind of alignment.  Maybe “yes” will reverberate in you as you write and read and listen to hear what is so powerfully spoken through your words.

Jane Penland Hoover

March 9, 2003

My dad put himself on our team by searching for a suitable two-tier cart that Ron could push and load.  He found one that served Ron well for the five years he was the newsman.

And though excruciatingly slow, Ron learned to do the bookkeeping, manually posting the financial details, making bank deposits and reconciling numerous accounts.  Eventually he prepared the payroll information for our thirty-five employees each month.   

(This doesn’t add much other than our own memories)

On weekends while Ron and the girls carted papers, I worked the security position in our building to earn offset hours so I could go home at 3 pm Monday through Friday.  After papers and work were done on Saturday, we treated ourselves to breakfast at the Ole Hickory House.  On Sunday, the three of them washed away newsprint and dressed for church across the street.  I sat at my desk hoping no one would fall or have a heart attack.  I preferred office work to emergency assistant duties and mostly I got my wish.

1 Today he continues to do our personal record keeping and most months pass silently, but occasionally I hear the dreaded call, “Jane, come here.”

2Mr. Harling had done a superb job but he was in his late seventies and didn’t want to do all that again.  Since Ron was doing much of the accounting, I needed more to do.

The day

Persistence

Persistence

What I Anticipated in January 2013

 

1

Inhaling sweet fragrance of

Japanese Paper bushes

blooming fervently along the wall

beyond Tammy’s office door.

 

2

Walkng the extended length

of Croasdaile hallway

that allows me comfortable

year-round walk-zones.

 

3

Reading humorous postings

outside David Aron’s door

as I complete my

daily routine treks.

 

What I Enjoyed in January 2013

 

Jane Penland Hoover

January 13, 2013

For: Croasdaile Resident Meeting Collection

What I Enjoyed in January

 

Time alone

to let the world drift ~

Let my line linger

feed the fish.

 

Air so quiet

roadways far away

where others search for

yet unfound ~

 

Soft silence

in a winter day

I content, inhale

sufficiency.

 

I feed fish ~

offering my breath

as this world hums in

solitude

 

 

Jane Penland Hoover

January 13, 2013

Poetic Bloomings: Picture by Keith R GoodImage