Sasscer Hill and I became friends at the Malice Domestic Convention in 2011, during the awards banquet. Sasscer was up for an Agatha Best First Novel Award, and I was a finalist that year in the Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Novel contest sponsored by St. Martin’s Press. Since I hadn’t heard anything, I was sure I would not get the award, but two people right before the banquet had suggested I still might, so we were both nervous. I had chosen to sit at her table, because I thought she should win Best First Novel. I still think so.
People become closer when they go through difficulties together. The suspense leading up to the announcements and our shared disappointment at not winning enhanced our connection, not to mention that we found out we both loved chickens. We have different lifestyles (Sasscer is a horse person, raises horses, and her novels are about horse-racing; I am a small farmer, have done lots of organizing, was a published poet before venturing into mystery novels which feature a group of community activists), but we appreciate each other’s way of life. We did our chat here a little differently, rather than back and forth. Here is mine. Then comes Sasscer’s. We hope you’ll read our mysteries! Our websites and blogs are at the end of each piece.
I’m taking up Kaye Barley’s challenge to tell about our best friend experiences in childhood, especially the ones in which we felt betrayed by that friend. I’ve realized, with a shock, that my mother was my best friend growing up. She did betray me, not once but several times. She had no business making me her best friend, but she was often lonely. In her role as minister’s wife, she was convinced that she shouldn’t have a best friend in the congregation, and she met few other people she had anything in common with. For her that meant sharing ideas in a liberal religious and political context. My father had no problem having special friends who attended our church, but she did. So I was selected. My father, she later told me, had only really talked to her before they married and again, not long before he died of cancer. She said she learned what he was thinking about in his Sunday sermons.
Mother was the one who educated me about social justice issues, who explained sex to me. “When Uncle Dick comes back from the Army, maybe Aunt Ruth will have another baby.”
“Why does Uncle Dick have to come back?” I was six, and she then read me a book about the birds and the bees.
I was four when I learned that, if I made some excuse about not being able to sleep, she’d hold and rock me, and we’d talk about babies, my favorite subject. She never refused. When I was ten and older, we’d talk about child-rearing, religion, politics, the neighbors.
In 1948, when I was eleven, we lay in her bed late at night listening to the Democratic Convention. She explained the significance of the Dixiecrats walking out of that convention (rejecting an equal rights plank the party had). We were the only people in our Jacksonville, Florida neighborhood and I was the only one at school, who wanted Truman to win. That was the year the newspaper headlines were already printed that Dewey had won, and then he didn’t. I was so happy.
She told me there was an abortion doctor operating next door in a big house that rented out rooms and small apartments. From then on that house took on an evil aura for me. Once she confided that we had only $15 in the bank until Daddy got paid. This tickled me, and I told Cletus, the girl across the street. Then I learned I wasn’t supposed to talk about that kind of news. She got pregnant early in 1947, when I was nine and a half, and she shared her joy in that. I knew she was determined to breast-feed this baby, and I saw her massaging her breasts daily. My younger sister had been born by Caesarian, but Mother hoped to have a normal birth, and she did. The first question I asked my father when he came back from the hospital to tell us we had a baby brother was: “Can she breast-feed him?”
I told Mother everything, and she shared a lot with me, more than was wise. She turned me into a kind of mother in her need.
So when, at age thirteen, I didn’t want to wear lipstick, though my eighth grade classmates did, and my school friend Betty Kaye teased me about it–mid-year--I was very hurt when Mother joined in the teasing. It should have been my decision, I felt then, but I did start wearing lipstick. Maybe that was why I stopped altogether some years later.
The most devastating thing she did in my early adolescence was to suggest I not go to a dance with my first boyfriend, Wesley, because he was “too short.” Wesley became good friends in seventh grade, and he brought me a fresh gardenia every day when they were in bloom. We loved each other. We held hands. We hadn’t even kissed. We were both sensitive and artistic. He was a gifted soprano, later a tenor. I had already decided to be a writer. It’s common knowledge that girls get their height first, but that didn’t sway Mother. I told Wesley I couldn’t go to the dance. I don’t know why Mother did that, but maybe she was afraid of my becoming sexual. Not much danger at my age thirteen. Or was it because Wesley and I loved each other so much? Her idea was for me to date Michael O., who was as tall as me and also had red hair, like Wesley. She even encouraged me to give a party later that eighth grade year, but Wesley was not invited. I tried to like Michael, but there was no “connection” there.
I was in New York City the summer after I finished college, and I met Wesley on a subway train. He was taller than I. I had a boyfriend by then, but I was happy to see him. We were both happy about meeting, but we didn’t exchange addresses.
Still later, in 2002, I found him via an internet search and wrote him a letter. He called me up. He was still in Florida, had married the same woman twice, and they had three grown daughters. Our lives had gone very differently, but we write to each other now and then. The basic “connection” is still there. We changed over time. He was a social worker and had an antique shop. I involved myself in small press organizing and various kinds of teaching, writing, of course, and now farming. He’s very laid back, procrastinates answering my letters and is in poorer health than I. I’m active, always doing something, in very good health, happier, I’d say. One does wonder sometimes. But there aren’t any answers to “what if?”
Had I had a different mother, my intellect and creativity, my social activism and tendency to help other people might have been stymied rather than cultivated, and Mother, because of her loneliness and my responsiveness, was the cultivator.
What finally divided us and led to my becoming my own person was my falling in love with John Crawley, a young, thoughtful, wise black man from Virginia. I was nineteen, and he was twenty-one. We met at a Y Conference in Ohio. When I came home afterwards, I told Mother I was in love with him, and she reacted with shock and fear: “What about the children?” I was hurt, again, and only my father’s more careful response, telling me such a decision as to who I married was up to me, allowed me the freedom I was ready to claim, regardless.
Mother didn’t remember her first negative reaction, but the memory is burned into my consciousness. Our first open disagreement. In the 1940s and 50s she had worked for equal rights, and the great bugaboo was intermarriage. “Negroes don’t want intermarriage. They want to be treated equally,” she’d say. Maybe so, but I’d met a black man a lot like me, already a risk-taker, and we were very similar, in our essential natures. He was very tall, but not a basketball player. He studied philosophy and wanted to read the modern Christian theologians that my father read: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, whose books he couldn’t get from the Virginia State library.
Mother’s initial reaction drove me away, drove a wedge between us. I was no longer the perfectly behaved daughter who listened to all her advice and told her all my problems. I never did, after that, fully trust her.
Later, when I met John’s mother, after he died, and told her of my mother’s reaction to our love and how she and I had been alienated from each other for years, though in my 50s, in our family therapy, I was told: “Go love your mother.” I tried to. I eventually could accept her human limitations as well as my own. Mrs. Crawley encouraged me also to forgive Mother and shared stories of how her mother had hurt her feelings, but she’d learned to forgive her.
Forgiving our parents is essential to our own well-being and never easy, I think. Mother is dead now, and I often think of how much my gifts and interests, my mind and imagination, were first nourished by her.
Judy Hogan’s first mystery novel, Killer Frost, which was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Mystery contest, comes out Sept. 1 from Mainly Murder Press. Judy founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91), and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal, 1970-81). She has published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime in 2007 and has focused on writing and publishing traditional mystery novels. The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about. She is also a small farmer, loves her chickens, and grows about half her food. She lives in Moncure, N.C. near the Haw River.
Like Judy, I had my crosses to bear as a child. Most of us did, one way or another. I am unable to point to any one person who “betrayed” me. But I can sure point to Lady Luck. Although I was born to a family that owned a little land, and a father with a law degree and a job at the Federal Trade Commission in DC, my father was a diagnosed manic depressive. Today, the fashionable term for the illness is Bipolar Disease.
It was doubly unfortunate this occurred more than fifty years ago as lithium and other drugs used today were unknown. I do not blame my father. Not his fault. It was the miserable disease and the luck of the draw. His illness fueled three heart attacks, alcoholism, as well as stays at the loony bin, Sheppard Pratt, and the dreadful shock treatments he received there. My sister and I were shadowed by Mother’s constant fear that Daddy would lose his job and we would be penniless.
The family tobacco farm saved me as a child. Lady Luck had at least provided a retreat from my father’s wild freight train that roared through my childhood with changing carloads of mania and depression. You could see the train coming, but you never knew what was on it.
My father’s four maiden aunts lived at Pleasant Hills farm. They were all sane, kind, and clucked over me like hens. I loved the old home, the farm animals, and the land. I never wanted to be anywhere else and would beg to visit. As far as the “Aunts” were concerned, I could do no wrong. The ladies raised chickens, turkeys, an apple orchard and tended bountiful vegetable gardens. Sharecroppers raised the tobacco as well as corn, cows, Belgium draft horses and pigs. The Aunts, born before nineteen hundred, liked to save the drippings from bacon for lard. I still miss their flaky biscuits and homemade apple pies. I was lucky to know them.
If you glance at the photo of me with the rooster and you think I look a bit standoffish and tough, it’s because I was. I learned early to put up the mental shields and protect myself. My husband tells me the caption for the rooster picture should be “Get your own chicken.”
The best thing I inherited from my father was his sense of humor. Nothing keeps the abyss away like humor. It almost saved my father, too.
We lived in an apartment complex called Park Fairfax in Alexandria, Virginia. Daddy was a survivor, kept his job, and when I was about ten, we moved across the street into a bigger, better apartment next door to the complex director, Mr. Parker. Being the manager, Parker had a high opinion of himself. He loved flowering plants and stuffed the area in front of both his and my family’s apartment with blooming, potted plants. He never asked how we felt about this, and every so often more plants appeared.
My father purchased white price tags with strings, wrote a dollar amount on each tag, and tied one onto every plant. He was so amused by this, he could hardly stand himself. I might have giggled a little, too. The next morning all the plants were gone from our side, and Mr. Parker never spoke to my father again.
When I married, my husband and I moved into Pleasant Hills and we kept chickens for almost twenty years. I brought the first chicken home, plopped him onto the wooden porch in front of my previously urban husband and announced, “This is a chicken.” I had already named the bird “Hooster the Rooster.” Hooster marched to the edge of the porch and leaned over to inspect a cricket. He leaned over so far, he fell off. But as he ran away from us across the yard, his beak had a firm grip on that cricket.
Not surprisingly, I favor British humor like “Fawlty Towers” and the “Monty Python” series. I love the ridiculous and am invariably drawn to those who share this love, like Judy Hogan. She totally “gets” that I love chickens because they are so silly. Besides, neither of us ever met a chicken who betrayed us.
Sasscer Hill is an award nominated author of mystery novels and short stories, including Full Mortality, which was short listed for both Agatha and Macavity Best First Mystery Novel Awards. Her books feature the young protagonist, jockey Nikki Latrelle.
Her second novel in the series, Racing from Death, was published in April of 2012. To date, the mystery has received excellent reviews from the Baltimore Sun, Mystery Scene Magazine, The Horse of the Delaware Valley and award winning/best selling author, Margaret Maron.
Sasscer lives on a Maryland farm and has bred racehorses for many years. A winner of amateur steeplechase events, she has galloped her horses on the farm and trained them into the winner's circle.
Sasscer graduated with honors in English Literature from Franklin and Marshall College.
Book titles: Full Mortality, Best First Agatha and Macavity Nominee; Steam Roller, a Nikki Latrelle Short Story, 2011; Racing From Death, 2012.
Link to Sasscer Hill’s website where the first chapters of each of her books can be read.
Link to Amazon page for “Racing from Death.” http://tinyurl.com/7elojmj