Monday, December 27, 2021

Our Dead, Booksignings, and author S.A. Cosby


The last month has been hectic with the conclusion of the most stressful semester I have ever taught. Masks, weekly COVID-19 tests, distancing, negotiating public transit, etc. etc. And, my book was released in November so before the even scarier variants, I had agreed to two in-person book signing events. I’ve noted it before and if you follow me on social media, you know that I haven’t even hugged my parents since March 2020. 

We’re uber risk-averse and aside from going to work, my fella and I keep our distance from others and stay home so others can have space. Since I’m vaccinated and boosted, and both venues would have space and open doors to allow air circulation, I first went to the Brew Ho Ho authors event, where I met the author S.A. Cosby, an Anthony Award-winning writer who is the author of the New York Times bestseller Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and was named a best book of the year by NPR, The Guardian, and Library Journal. Writers have the power to change our lives, to make us feel connected to that outside of ourselves, and to enable us to feel deeply. It wasn’t Cosby’s writing that inspired any of that though. It was his memory… but I’m getting ahead of myself.  

My fella and I arrived at the book event, which was super organized and felt safe in many ways. I have only nice things to say about Chop Suey Books new owners, Chris and Berkley.  As I was standing at my table, I looked over at S.A. Cosby’s table not knowing who he was but saw a storyteller. He was talking and everyone around him was engaged. I pointed it out to my fella who proceeded to do a Google search. He shared the entry that noted that S.A. Cosby is a 'Southern noir' mystery writer who resides in Gloucester and works at a funeral home and drove a hearse. I laughed and said we should meet. Here’s where my story becomes a bit more interesting. We actually had met long ago.  

S.A. or Shawn is from Mathews, Virginia, located in the Southeastern part of the state. The population was under 9,000 in 2010 per the census. I’m from New Kent County, which I’ve always said was the tiniest of towns but in that same US census, there were just over 18,000 people residing in New Kent. Of course, those numbers were much smaller back in the early 1990s when both Shawn and I were in our schools’ One-Act Play and drama programs.

As a Southerner, even as an introvert, I chat. It’s in our DNA. My parents used to say that I have never met a stranger. Shawn strikes me as much more of an extrovert but either way, he chats too. He almost immediately mentioned that he was old. It just so happens that I’m a year older but as we were talking schools and where we’re from, he mentioned theater and forensics, and how being from a small town, those programs in school were everything to him. I learned that he read poetry during the school competitions. I mostly did speeches although I somewhat recall reading a poem or two. It turns out, we competed against each other at the state level. He laughed and said that everyone did Good-bye to the Clown (1982) by Ernest Kinoy that year. It’s true. We did it too!

The description of that one-act play reads that it requires a male and female and that the male needs to have some minor singing skills and a little athletic ability. Our team had two females instead- my friend Susan played the role of the clown. Susan could not sing although in middle school I remember us riding in the backseat with her folks on our way to Florida for a vacation. She had her cassette player and was rocking out to Whitney Houston. I had to ask her to please stop in a loving way, of course. 

The one-act play required no props but that year our coach, Susan’s mother, had not read the rules, which had changed from prior years. For that year, we weren’t supposed to have props but we did; we weren’t supposed to move on stage but we did that too. The basic plot of the play is somewhat haunting to read today. It’s about a young girl’s struggle to accept the death of her father and to relinquish the imaginary clown-friend that she had created as a way of dealing with the sadness.

Girl Scouts with our brothers on top of that statue; Susan and I are in the middle. I think my eyes are closed.

She was born 18 days before me and we celebrated nearly every birthday together. Susan was always able to sucker me into nearly anything—for good or bad. She was much more like a sister than just a friend although from middle school onward, we had the split-heart best friends forever necklaces. I still have mine in my jewelry box. Susan was strong-willed, opinionated, caring, could be kind and could be a mean-girl when she wanted. She had a promising future although not necessarily in singing or drama.

Susan and I used to laugh about our names being the main character names in the 1961 version of Parent Trap with twin sisters plotting to reconnect their estranged parents. We also used to talk about having rocking chairs on each of our front porches so that the other could visit when we were old ladies.

An old time photo taken in the mid-1980s
One of the drama moments that I remember is us doing a shortened scene-by-scene version of the 1988 movie Beaches starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. The film is about two girls who meet in childhood and then keep a friendship throughout their lives. Susan played the character of Hillary who develops viral cardiomyopathy and then later dies in the film. I played the character CC Bloom who becomes the guardian of Hillary’s child. There is one scene near the end of the film after Hillary convinces CC to take her to the beach house, knowing that the end is near. The two are playing a game of cards when CC casually says, “I know everything there is to know about you and my memory is long. Very, very long.” As CC leaves the room for a moment, a fragile Hillary quietly responds, “I’m counting on it.”

Fast forward to standing at the book signing event chatting with Shawn about Good-bye to the Clown, I mentioned that we had not read the rules that year and we were supposed to not move but Susan did a backflip. He smiled and said, “she juggled too!” 

Susan practicing her juggling
He remembered. I hadn’t remembered until he said it. 

I had not thought of these moments for quite some time. My grandmother, who had collected all kinds of clown figurines and music boxes, left me a clown music box that played "Send in the Clowns," such a sad and haunting song. While Susan had been practicing for her role as the clown, I gave her the music box to keep with her own collection of dolls. I can still see it displayed in her bedroom.

I wish I could have called her to tell her. For a brief moment, Susan was there with us and it felt magical. One of my closest friends who had supported me throughout my youth and after my first marriage failed (she drove down the road where my folks lived, saw my car, and called me from her folks' house as soon as she got home to check in) felt so close in that moment. We had been there for each other through marriages and divorce. We would have been friends forever just like our necklaces read when the two broken hearts were placed together. And, we would have sat on those rocking chairs. 

Olivet Presbyterian Church; Susan's grave in the background.
Susan died in a boating accident in April 2003; she was 29 years old. I remember immediately driving to her parents' home and standing in their yard. "This sucks," I told her mother. She is buried in Olivet Presbyterian Church with her husband who also passed during that accident. Her father passed in 2009 and is buried not too far away. In February, she would have been 48.

As long as you are remembered, you’re not dead.

My book Women Writers Buried in Virginia is all about remembering women. Shawn helped me remember one who was even closer to my heart. 

Olivet Presbyterian Church

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Professor Minnigerode and Christmas Trees

"Tannenbaum" gained acceptance in England and the United States very slowly. By the nineteenth century a few of the "German toys" to use Charles Dickens's phrase appeared in London. But these foreign oddities were still not yet accepted.

In 1841 the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated a large Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, reminiscent of his childhood celebrations in Germany. When a print of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's family around a decorated tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, the custom truly caught on.

At about the same time as Prince Albert’s tree, Professor Charles Minnigerode, a German professor at the College of William and Mary, trimmed a small evergreen to delight the children at the St. George Tucker House. He introduced a German Yuletide tradition by setting up a Christmas tree in the parlor of a friend’s home on December 24,1842. The tree was decorated with nuts, paper, and strings of popcorn.

Dr Charles Minnigerode’s evergreen was the first Christmas tree in Williamsburg and the first documented in Virginia. You can visit his grave in Hollywood Cemetery here in Richmond, VA.