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November 12, 2011

Holding On

Hank Phillippi Ryan:  Margaret blogged about 'meeting cute' this week....and it reminded me so sweetly about how many new friends I've made in book world.  What I remember about meeting Sharon Potts was not where it was--do you remember, Sharon? I think it was a convention--but  her wonderful smile. Looking at the photo below of Sharon and her mother--now I see where she got that smile.

You'll also see Sharon got a lot more from her mom.


By Sharon Potts

My mom always used to say she couldn’t write. That putting words together on paper was a struggle for her.  Then she would tell me another story about her childhood. Wonderful, vivid stories that still come into my head.  About her doll with the porcelain face that she swung around the tiny kitchen in exuberance until its beautiful face smashed against the old gas stove and broke.

About her soft white cat Matilda who would climb up and down the fire escape stalking the neighbors’ dinners through their open windows.  About the exquisite taste of warm pumpernickel smeared with chicken fat that her mother would throw down to her from their third-floor kitchen window. 


My mom passed away a year ago, on October 23, at the age of ninety-three. She was determinedly independent, living on her own until the end. She was my confidante and dearest friend and I still reach for the phone every night to call her and tell her about my day.  Then I remember.

 Her apartment, a condo just outside of Fort Lauderdale has become my retreat, a place of solace. The thought of dismantling it feels like a violation.   And so, every week I drive an hour to check the mail, water the plants, and make sure the apartment is as tidy as she always had it.  But each week, I notice another plant is brown and shriveled and I realize I can’t go on like this indefinitely, any more than the plants can.  It’s been a year—perhaps it’s time to put certain things to rest.  


And so I’ve begun cleaning out the closets and drawers.  Piled on shelves behind hanging dresses and coats and buried in drawers beneath blouses and sweaters, I find old manuscripts of mine that I’d given her to read—short stories, early drafts of my novels. She’d kept them all.

Then there are the shoeboxes filled with birthday cards, Mother’s Day cards, letters from her grandkids, envelopes addressed to “Grandma Hecht” in clumsy childish print, scribbled letters, neat cursive writing.


Dear Grandma Anna, I’m having a great time at camp. Today I went swimming…

Dear Grandma, Paris is soooo exciting!

Decades of words, expressions of love. She’d kept them all.


The bedroom walls are lined with bookcases, filled with books—novels, biographies, classics, even French and Spanish books from her college years. La Fontaine’s fables in the original French. A tattered copy of The Ancient Mariner.  She’d kept them all.

I’m overwhelmed by all these words, squirreled away by a woman who claimed it was such an effort to write her own.  She loved words, and I realize that although she had trouble putting them down on paper, her gift was in telling them.  Her stories swirl through my head as I pack up the photos of her childhood, her marriage, her own children and grandchildren.

How after losing her dad when she was six, her mother sold eggs from their Brooklyn apartment in order to survive with three young children. Sometimes my mom would answer the door wearing only an undershirt that she held together between her legs for modesty.

Or shortly after her dad died, how sometimes when singing My Country Tis of Thee, my mother’s throat would tighten and her eyes water at the line “land where our fathers died,” thinking it was about her own father.

And the joyous moments. How when she was around nine or ten, filled with good intentions, she decided to wash the sheets. She filled the tub with water, but the sodden sheets were so heavy that with the help of her younger sister Goldie, she dragged one into the kitchen. Then she began wrapping the sheet around her and told Goldie to do the same from its opposite end. The girls twirled toward each other, cocooned in the sheet, and met in a giant puddle in the middle of the kitchen. What a perfect opportunity to wash the floor!

The recollection of how my mother laughed as she told me that story makes me smile and my eyes sting.

I fill another suitcase, another carton.  Bit by bit, the apartment is losing its personality.

Then the obvious hits me.  I don’t need to hold on to her apartment to have my mother.  It’s okay to give away the clothes and furniture and knickknacks that my brothers and I don’t have use for.  It’s okay to sell her apartment and hand a stranger the key.  These are, after all, merely things. Not the important stuff.  My mother taught me what really matters.  The stories. The memories. The words.  She couldn’t write them down, but I can.  And I shall.  Because my mother knew that the words go on forever.  And I find comfort in that.

What about you? Have you had to cope with loss? How do you hold onto memories and those you’ve loved?


Sharon Potts writes novels about people—regular, ordinary people.  Sometimes, when the dark side of her brain can’t sleep, these “people” appear in novels of suspense like IN THEIR BLOOD (which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly) and SOMEONE’S WATCHING (called “shiver rich” by Publishers Weekly.) Other times, when Sharon feels like a good laugh, her “people” visit lighter, happier worlds like in her latest romantic comedy, SOUTH BEACH CINDERELLA.

But whether the genre is mystery or humor, Sharon’s novels are always about feelings—happy, sad and everything in between.  Because, after all, isn’t that what life’s all about?



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Usually I am starting my work day with the TLC. Today being Saturday, I am in my basement waiting for the children to want breakfast. On the shelf next to me is a box simply marked "Dad's Funeral." My father was painting one winter Sunday afternoon. His shoulders hurt at the end of the day. He thought it was from stretching to paint the upper parts of the walls. My mother convinced him to call the doctor so he did on Monday. The doctor said is was probably nothing but to stop by tomorrow afternoon. Tuesday my dad went to work. He went to the post office and then to lunch. In line at Arby's he had a heart attack and was dead an hour later. In that box there is a letter from one of the patrons telling us about it and the people who tried to help. There is also the stacks of cards and awards.

This afternoon, DW and I will take the girls to one of their favorite semi-annual events, an Elaine Viets book signing. Elaine was one of dad's clients, some of stories made it into her newspaper columns. It will be bittersweet, Elaine's new book is about St. Louis foods. Dad would have loved taking the girls on eating adventures around town.

My father loved books. His collection was eclectic to put it mildly. Some of his books line my shelves now.

We are all growing older. Try to get the family stories into some permanent form while "Aunt Sally" Mom, or your brother can still tell them. That is one thing my mother has done. In the last 15 years she learned the backstory of one of her family stories. Her father, my grandfather, owned a junk yard. He had heavy equipment and a rail spur in his yard. In 1948, he was approached by the US supporters of what where then, Middle East extremists. They had purchased a pair of Air Force surplus P-51 Mustangs and needed help shipping them to Israel. They were in unmarked creates in Grandpa's yard waiting for the train that would take them from northern Ohio to the east coast and on to Israel. Someone set them on fire. Grandpa yelled for his workers to put out the fire on the airplanes instead of the boxes. Grandpa always assumed that it was local anti-Semites who started the fire. He never knew how they found out what was in the boxes.

According to Grandpa's FBI file, bunches of people knew everything about the shipment. In the file was where the planes had been purchased, who was at the meeting in Denver to plan everything (some names redacted on a 50 year old file), what train took them to Ohio and what train picked them up. Apparently, secrecy was not apart of the operation. The name of who probably started the fire was there as well, blacked out.

Good morning, Alan. It's funny how when someone mentions the passing of a parent, those of us who have lost one are flooded with memories. How fortunate for you and me that our parents' love of words and books still resonates.

Enjoy Elaine's book signing today. She's a good friend and has mentored me through Mystery Writers of America for many years. But watch out for the pig's ears she may make you eat!

And Hank--we met at Murder in the Magic City in Birmingham. I recall the night all the authors were locked away in a meeting room with nothing but bootlegged booze and each other. We spent the night doing what a bunch of writers do--telling stories. More words. Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of TLC today. And you have a pretty nice smile yourself, kid!

Sharon, you and your brothers are so fortunate that your mother told you stories, and that she kept so many precious artifacts of her life. Such a legacy!

My own mother refuses to look at the past, and she has thrown away everything that isn't new, especially over the last few years. Relying on my own memory is not as good as it used to be, alas. Fortunately, my daughters had their wonderful grandfather, who also lived to be 93, for a long time, and they know many of his stories. And, he and their grandmother kept a great many of their own stories in print form.

I won't be able to attend the book signing (balloons + latex allergy = not safe for me).
This blog inspires me to look through some old family letters and photos. I have made three little books of the stories my dad used to tell us, which he wrote down and I typed up way back in the '60's. I think there were more, but Mom said that Dad threw away many of them. I'm glad we have the ones we've saved, but I wonder about the others . . .
Yesterday, people at the Y brought family mementos for Veteran's Day. One item was a Bible with a steel cover, to be carried over the heart as protection. It was awe-inspiring to open it to a Psalm that might have given comfort in time of such need for comfort.

My grandmother passed away almost two years ago now. She was an amazing woman who travelled the world riding camels, parasailing and making friends wherever she went. I miss her terribly, so I write her letters, knowing full well that I can't send them.

stuckinmypedals, I'm ten years older than my mom ever got to be and I still write her letters. I never keep the letters though.

What happens when writers tell stories?

Three writers were on vacation and the weather did not cooperate. They sat around telling ghost stories. One of them brought his 18 year old GF. She thought about it and told a story.


Hank is trying to comment, but her iPhone and Typepad seem to dislike one another. She wants you all to know that she jumping up and down in frustration because she can't comment.

Before she died, my mother spent the last 30 years of her long life putting every leaf she could find back on the family tree. It is not a particularly distinguished tree. No statesmen, no financiers, no artists or writers, just ordinary small farmers, a few teachers, a milliner and a buggy maker... But she wrote down everything she remembered of their stories - the aunt that cooked by memory because she was too illiterate to read a recipe, the deaf-mute uncle who was almost hit by a train, the birthdate of her father (9 months to the day from when her grandfather came home from the Civil War), the great-uncle that disappeared in that war and was mourned for the rest of the lives of those who loved him, etc. etc, etc. I remember how she burst into tears when she came across the records of a Virginia Union cemetery and discovered that her great-uncle was buried there, a victim of flu and dysentery. "I wish Grandmama could have known," she wept. And her discovery is now part of our ongoing family history.

What especially saddens me is how much has been lost of my family's history. My brother called me the other day to ask if I remembered someone from the old bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains that we went to as kids, even though my brother's 9 years my senior and I never met this person. He didn't know who else to ask since our parents are gone. I find there are so many questions I have about my roots, so many fuzzy details that I wish I'd paid more attention to. Some of you have said that you have written down the stories and memories. I wish I had done more of that, sooner.

Alan, good reference . . . and it's widely thought that another teller added the element of the Golem myth, for which there is a wiki link at the end of the article, but this one goes a bit deeper http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2010/9/14/main-feature/1/the-golem-universal-and-particular/r
The Frankenstein concept shows up in so many other works, including "the Frankenstein complex" of distrust of Asimov's robots . . .
I did a paper on creation mythology in modern literature, and Howard Schwartz loaned me a very old book of myths to provide background on golems. His own research has resulted in many wonderful books of myths.

I wish I had written down or recorded more of our family stories. I do have a video of my mom talking about her childhood and memories of her father having one of the first cars in their farm area. He rode to town via horse & buggy with one of the neighboring farmers. The neighbor stopped on his way home to tell the family my GF would be back after he learned how to drive the Model T he'd just purchased. Mom talked about driving the car in the pasture (she would have been 9 or 10). She also tells the story of how she and my father met and married. I have the newspaper clipping of their marriage.

I have a letter that was written in 1900 to my great aunt that enabled me to track down a cousin in Germany. His grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers. They even had the same letter (in German) that was sent to my g aunt as well as a photo referred to in the letter. I learned to speak German and have visited them many times. I had the same photo but didn't know who it was until I saw it in germany. It had been taken in the 1890's. I think of all the wonderful times with my small german family (there were 7 of them when we met) that I would have missed had someone not kept that letter.

Welcome, Sharon!
Your blog today has such vivid descriptions of your Mother and her life.
When I was a little girl I was adopted by mom and dad who had such rich lives and there was a mountain of memories for them.
They imparted few details but I learned a sense of strength and determination to make a better life.
When I first met my mother-in-law we would sit outdoors on a swing facing each other. I would listen to her recant her life with her early family and then the struggles on the Island in Nova Scotia where she raised seven children. At one birth she and my father-in-law launched a small boat to try to get to Halifax to give birth in the hospital.
The waves were rolling and she was screaming and believe me I was mesmerized by her story.
She truly could have written a book about those days.
But telling stories to family members and new entrants to the family gives everyone a sense of belonging. They want you to belong and share their lives and immediately you feel that you have arrived home.

Holly, please tell Hank to update her iPhone to iOS5: http://www.apple.com/ios/ . It will fix that, and more iWonderbunnies will await her.

Storyteller Mary, I am so sad for you - that you cannot attend the booksigning. That is a huge disappointment, I am sure.

What a beautiful post, and I love all the stories. I've written down the story of my family since they were part of the Holocaust, and almost accidentally found a way out of Austria. But the stories that my mother told me about her youth in Austria live in my mind. I don't have room for all the things but her voice, and her stories are here.

Thanks, Reine. I am disappointed but hopeful that they will act to create a safer environment in the future -- at least they are willing to talk about it. At "my" Y and library (and my former Borders) they concluded that latex balloons were not essential to their mission and could be dispensed with. I have read _Death on a Platter_ (thanks to McClay Library), and it's really good! Main St. Books sold out yesterday! (I couldn't go to that one because of the Veterans' Day event at the Y).

Oh Lil, I'd been looking for something personal to post about remembering. I couldn't find any, because I was stuck remembering the people who had hurt me.

I often find this happens, as the good memories seem to connect to the bad. If I think about my wonderful Auntie-Mom, I recall why she took me on. If I think of Hans who drove me to school, his alma mater in Boston, I then want to stop remembering.

I am thankful to still have Auntie-Mom, but Hans died recently, as did his wife who found ways to watch over me as a child. When my mother left me alone with a spinal injury, Elizabeth waited until she was gone then came over and read to me. When she left me alone with measles she risked her own health to walk to our little cabin with fresh soup and tell me about the cookies she would make when I felt better.

Your comment about Austria and the Holocaust brought Hans back to mind. He was a German boy in those days. He went to boarding school in Austria. His parents managed to escape with him, and they settled in Massachusetts. I have wonderful memories of Hans and Elizabeth. Yet I find difficult to revisit them because of the unpleasant ones. I have no way of avoiding the association.

But when I read your comment, Lil, I realised that life is like that, and it is a terrible injustice to try to forget the bad at the expense of the good.

It's also dangerous, I know.

Sharon, welcome, and thank you for this beautiful blog.

Hi Margaret,

I love that you have that family history to share. I have been researching my own and found many surprises. Some are stunning, actually, but all are helping me see some of the good pieces in my family that I had been missing. It's a new focus that changes nothing except that it aids in healing.

. . . and did I ever tell you that I love how you write about family and relationships?

Thank you, Reine, and thank you, too, Sharon, for calling up so many memories.

Thank you all for being so welcoming and for sharing your own stories and memories with me. I guess we're all storytellers at heart.

My dad died six months ago and his wife brought me a box of things that were in a closet of their home.
Until now, I was not able to go through. But I think I'll know when I'll be ready to do so.
It's a good thing we had time to talk a lot about his past during the last year and I took notes to share with my brothers, nieces and nephews.
Thank you for your post Sharon

Thank you, Danielle. How great that you had time to talk with your dad and will be able to share those memories.

I"m back..and you all bring tears to my eyes. Danielle, we are with you.

So lovely to hear from you all...

Reine--really? Thank you! Checking it out..xoxo

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