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family cemetery

A Summer of Make-Up Memorials

by Susan Henderson on August 8, 2021

How is your summer going? Are you stepping back into the world?

Art by Chloe Cushman for the New York Times.

My summer has been one of make-up memorials for loved ones lost during the pandemic. Only now have we been able to gather and celebrate their lives.

Last month, in Virginia, I attended a memorial for someone I babysat for many years. I started working for her family when I was in middle school. When she turned four and I was, I guess, fourteen, she developed a brain tumor. Her whole family is terribly important to me, and I wrote about them here. Later this month, we’ll be in Pennsylvania to celebrate the life of Mr. H’s college roommate and to spend time with folx we love dearly. And I have just returned from a trip to our family cemetery in Montana, where we finally buried my father. Can’t tell you how badly I needed hugs and time with people I love.

Those of you who know me or have read The Flicker of Old Dreams know our family does old-school burials. I posted more Montana photos here (let me know if you need help getting past my privacy filters).

Other than these memorials, I’ve ventured out only a little. My first outings were for the Pfizer vaccination and a proper haircut. I quickly visited my mom, my kids, and a few friends. I started going to the grocery store again instead of ordering from Instacart, and was surprised how much that simple act revitalized my creativity. There’s something about spontaneity, chance encounters, or maybe even the shapes and smells and colors in the produce aisle that awoke my senses and my desire to write.

But re-entering the world hasn’t felt as natural as I’d hoped. On a purely physical level, my feet—after a year and a half without shoes—are rebelling with blisters. And while I’ve gone to a restaurant here and there, I find it stressful relying on others to keep an environment safe.

I’m way behind on sharing writing news. Grateful to The National Book Review for publishing my interview with the brilliant Marcia Butler. It was an honor to judge the High Plains Book Award for Fiction, which I awarded to Joe Wilkins for his extraordinary novel, Fall Back Down When I Die. I taught virtual workshops for Hampton Roads Convergence of Writers, 14:55 Literary Arts, and the Brandeis National Committee. And, soon, I’ll be offering private consultations through the Community of Writers.

What else? I did readings and panels with so many amazing writers, including Jennifer Haupt, Steve Yarbrough, Richard Blanco, Ada Limón, Pam Houston, Gina Frangello, Stephen P. Kiernan, Susan Rich, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Ron Block, Caroline Leavitt, Ruben Quesada, Anna Quinn, Kristen Millares Young, and Dawn Raffel. Oh… thank you to Joan Frank at The Washington Post for mentioning my contribution to the Alone Together anthology. A big hurrah to the narrators of the Alone Together audiobook for winning the Independent Audiobook Award for Nonfiction. I’m grateful to One Book Billings for choosing The Flicker of Old Dreams to read city-wide this fall. And thank you to 14:55’s Executive Director, Sean Murphy, for this interview, which was lots of fun:

As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
Claudia Rankine, Just Us
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
Tosca Lee, The Line Between
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Joe Wilkins, Fall Back Down When I Die
Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
Therese Anne Fowler, A Good Neighborhood
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos
Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures
Gina Frangello, Blow Your House Down
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
Jessica Anya Blau, Mary Jane
Nedra Glover Tawwab, Set Boundaries, Find Peace
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
Ellen Meister, The Rooftop Party
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale
Leslie Lehr, A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me … and You
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Walter Mosely, Devil in the Blue Dress
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Salman Rushdie, The Golden House
Christina Baker Kline, The Exiles
Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World
Noel Obiora, A Past That Breathes
Garth Greenwell, Cleanness
Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Tamara Winfrey Harris, The Sisters Are Alright
Kate Bernheimer, Horse, Flower, Bird
Marcia Butler, Oslo, Maine
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Amanda Stern, Little Panic
Clare Pooley, The Authenticity Project
Jodi Picoult, House Rules
Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone
Edith Wharton, House of Mirth
Paul Auster (graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli), City of Glass
Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl”
Rebecca Curtis, “Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit”
Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t”

A couple books I read for a second or third time…
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

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Say hello in the comments section. Would love to hear about your summer and how you’re transitioning out of pandemic-mode.

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Weekly Wrap: Places That Capture Us

by Susan Henderson on November 10, 2006

The setting that keeps cropping up in my writing is the town where my dad grew up and where my grandparents lived. I’ll just say it’s in the Northwest, and this is where I learned my fear of rattlesnakes. That’s me with my brother and grandparents up above.

The town looks like this:

Here’s a funny thing. I tried Googling the town for a better photo and this is actually the photo that turned up on a real estate page:

I guess the town is what it is – big and flat and brown.

This is my grandparents’ house:

I’m pretty sure that’s my dad in the photo. According to the stories I write, I’m very taken with this particular door. I don’t remember there being a tree. Anywhere. But there are two in this photo.

Of course there’s a downtown:

The unusual amount of traffic is because the photo was taken during a wedding at the courthouse.

Now, imagine you’re a colorful little girl and like to wear bows and cut your own hair; and you don’t especially like exerting energy except to chatter about books.

And the big activity when you visit the grandparents is to go to the family cemetery to clear the brush and rattlesnakes out of it. We always took rifles with us. I hope we were also armed with tetanus shots because many of the grave markings are made of rusted metal.

Besides snakes, the cemetery is full of stillborn children. One stranger was struck by lightning and buried there.

There is a hotel in town. Last I heard, there was still a community toilet, sink and shower. No TVs in the rooms.

The reason there’s even a hotel in a town this size is because there’s good hunting in the area. Recently, my dad had his high school reunion, but because 11 had rsvp’ed, they had to move the reunion to a larger, neighboring town. The reunion featured such activities as chokecherry picking and a ride past hay bale sculptures. My dad was the only one no longer living in the state, not to mention the only one with a Ph.D.

This place has never captured me because of love. It was a place where a girl who likes to go off in her head can suddenly find herself in the middle of danger. It’s a place where you better get things right the first time. It’s a place where the wind and the gumbo and the pure nothingness of it will humble you. Until I married, it was the place I feared I’d be buried.

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Thanks to those of you who described your favorite settings: Mark’s London, Aimee’s Ann Arbor, Mikel K’s small apartment, Amy’s Hudson Valley, Lance’s DC, Betsy’s Chicago, Julie’s beach, David’s North Carolina swamp land, Robin’s Philly and NYC, Lauren’s London, Carolyn’s England and California beaches, Gail’s Chicago, Sarah’s small towns, Juliet’s abandoned hospitals and factories, Noria’s Sonoma and San Francisco, Patry’s housing projects, Amy’s any-city, Myfanwy’s Adirondacks, Pia’s New Orleans (Gorgeous interview with Ron Carlson, PZ!), Shelley’s Boston, n.l.’s Bakersfield, and Maria’s echo of a place. Thanks to you and to Jim Tomlinson for telling your stories!

As for the favorite Beatle poll, the official count was 8 for John, 6 for Paul, 3 for George, and 2 for Ringo. And then there was one George-John toss-up and two who loved Paul in childhood and switched to John as adults. Thanks to everyone who played!

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Couple things before I go. Congratulations to Bach-Boy Henderson for landing the role of Harold Hill in his school production of The Music Man!

And here is a photo from the KGB website. That’s me, Carrie Kania and Josh Kilmer Purcell, dressed in our autumn palette. It was a great evening and I’ll have more to say about the reading soon.

Stop by tomorrow for the monthly lit riot!

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