What We Save

An old woman with swollen feet puts on a pair of house shoes.

When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down.

The four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, asking his older sisters what it meant while he slurped cereal from a bowl. Their mother was in the barn, so it was up to my mother and her older sister to get the kids out of the house and then run a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.

The fire department came, but the house was a total loss.

Their neighbors followed the fire truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.

Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.

After all, she’d seen her mother sigh in relief as she removed her barn boots and slid her feet into those slippers. She’d noticed how her mother would have a cup of coffee and sit for a moment after putting them on. They were important. But important enough to be celebrated for surviving the fire? Did they reach that kind of heirloom status?

What counts as an heirloom?

None of what I consider heirlooms from that side of the family came from the pre-1947 house. They’re from the barn or the shop where Grandpa fixed electronics: crocks and tins and horseshoes used for utterly mundane purposes.

The generation that originally owned the stuff is not always a good judge of what subsequent generations will consider precious. When I was in my 20s, I admired my grandma’s red glass vase collection and she handed one to me. She loved that vase and I love it, too; it’s the perfect vessel for a stem of bleeding hearts in the spring. But I also treasure something my grandpa thought of as garbage: two rusty horseshoes from the pre-tractor days. When I asked whether I could take them, he laughed the same “you’re crazy” laugh he gave when I told him how much bags of purslane (a weed that plagued his fields) were selling for in New York City.

I’m a big city girl, but I love my rural roots. The horseshoes, the red vase, my great-grandmother’s crock, and a blue and white egg-collecting tin remind me that, only one generation before me, my mother worked the fields with her 11 siblings and used a two-holer outhouse (with Sears catalogue for wiping) for the first seven years of her life.

They remind me of summer afternoons spent with my grandma and my aunts in the farm kitchen, pitting sour cherries with bobby pins, of tipping squeaky piles of snow peas, of my gentle grandma and her squinty-eyed smile, of my mischievous grandpa and his giant ears and hands.

Who are heirlooms for?

Will my children find those same items as rich? Will they find them as beautiful as I do? If so, I’ll do what my grandparents did, and dole them out while I’m still alive. If not, I’ll be dead when they decide what to keep, and past caring. If my kids decide to pitch the horseshoes when I’m gone, that’s fine.

They don’t need to keep anything for my sake: heirlooms are for the living.

This came home to me at my Oma’s funeral. I wore her 1954 coming-to-Canada suit jacket. When she was alive, she would have loved that I wore it, but as I stood over her body and touched her hand, about to tell her, I stopped. She looked so at peace, beyond the cares of this world, even the pleasant ones. It turns out that I didn’t wear the suit for her; I wore it for me. I loved it.

This can set the living free from the burden of the previous generations’ stuff. You don’t keep the stuff for them, you keep what you keep for yourself, because you find it meaningful or beautiful or useful.

Even with that awareness, I keep thinking about those slippers. My grandma was embarrassed because everyone saw her beat-up house shoes, but maybe she was also secretly glad for their familiar feel when they had to live for a year in the workshop.

In this case, the heirloom isn’t the item: it’s the story.


** An earlier version of this story was published in catapult magazine in 2014, http://catapultmagazine.com/heirloom/article/salvaged-goods/index.html

The Lord Is My COVID-19 Nurse

Female Medical Worker Wearing Protective Face Mask and Gear Against Dark Background.

Tomorrow is Good Shepherd Sunday, which got me thinking about the 23rd Psalm. There’s nothing particularly holy about the job of shepherding–it’s just that a gifted poet had been a shepherd and so could write about the ways the job reminded them of the Lord. And all the original listeners were also familiar with the job of shepherd, so they would have understood everything David was trying to say without a lot of explanation.

On the other hand, most of us these days don’t know a lot about shepherding. We need to learn about what the job entailed in order to understand all that David is saying.

For example, “your rod and your staff / they comfort me,” never made any sense to me (what’s comforting about a big stick?) until I read Nogah Hareuveni’s Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (1984), and Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage (1991). Shepherds in Israel would make a rod out of an olive tree spur that still had a knot of trunk at one end. When they were walking in the middle of the flock (they lead the flock from the middle more often than they lead from the front) they’d toss the rod in front of the flock so the sheep in front would know which way to go, and that heavy knot would help the rod carry far. So the rod, as the symbol of the shepherd, tells the anxious sheep at the front which way to go. I can see how that could be a comfort to the sheep: “I can’t see our shepherd, but he is still leading and guiding me. Phew.”

But I had to learn that. It didn’t come as part of my cultural knowledge.

One of my favorite things to do with children is rewrite Psalms so they directly reflect the things that are happening in their lives, so the metaphors and analogies are drawn from their experiences.

What to do with culture-bound examples
Back-to-school Psalms

So why not do that for Psalm 23? Below are two attempts to do just that.

The Lord is my COVID-19 nurse;
   I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in my hospital bed;
   he leads me through my breathing exercises.
   He renews my strength.
She guides me as my oxygen levels change,
   bringing honor to her name.
Even when I have to be intubated
   And my organs begin to fail,
I will not be afraid,
   For you are close beside me.
Your PPE and your kind, tired eyes
   protect and comfort me.
You prepare all my medications for me
   in the presence of the virus.
You honor me by flipping me onto my stomach.
   My canela overflows with oxygen.
Surely your goodness and competence will sustain me
   all the days of my life,
   and I will live in the house of the Lord 
The Lord is my preschool teacher;
   I have all that I need.
He lets me rest on my sleep mat;
   he leads me out to the playground.
   He renews my curiosity.
She guides me to make good choices,
   bringing honor to her name.
Even when I walk
   through the 5th graders hallway,
I will not be afraid,
   for you are close beside me.
Your staff pass and Time Timer
   protect and comfort me.
You prepare a snack for me
   in the presence of the mean kids.
You honor me by putting my drawing up on the wall.
   My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing patience will teach me
   all the days of my life,
and I will make good choices and share

Now it’s your turn. What’s a job where you see God at work? Where you can see characteristics of God in what a person in that job does? Write your own Psalm 23 in the comments 🙂

We’ve gone without toilet paper before.

A woman sits on the toilet, on the floor is a basket of newspaper strips and a magazine caddy, her middle finger peeks through a strip of folded newspaper.
An image of a woman on the toilet with a basket of newspaper strips and a magazine caddy on the floor, her middle fingertip peeks through the middle of a folded piece of newspaper.

I spent all of Friday writing informational, factual, calming, encouraging, and supportive communications about COVID-19. Emails, an article (Changing Our Habits and Getting Creative: Church in the Age of COVID-19), texts, and about 1,000 more emails. It was a great day. I felt like I was part of helping people navigate this new reality by providing more light than heat.

But my Facebook feed was full of photos of empty store shelves where toilet paper usually was–empty shelves at megastore after megastore.

Which reminded me of a story from my family archives.

My dad was born in occupied Holland during World War II. He is the 4th of 7 kids, so he’s got 3 older brothers who remember growing up during wartime. I’ve told some of the stories elsewhere (here and here), but this one is new to this space. It has to do with toilet paper.

In September 1944, just in time for the Hunger Winter, my dad’s family moved out of the city of Velp and to Ermolo, where my Oma’s sister lived. The Holtrops owned a soup factory and had a big house in the country that could kind of fit the three families who wound up living there that winter. The Nazis had long commandeered all the actually edible food from the factory, but left them fish heads and other odds and ends that they ground and turned into gruel to nourish themselves–they ate in two shifts, younger kids first so they couldn’t see the older kids and adults gag their way through meals. After all, the youngest kids didn’t remember a time when food was delicious.

So of course there was no toilet paper. It would have been an unimaginable luxury. But it’s not like people stop going to the bathroom. Here’s what my uncle told me they did:

  • Next to the toilet was a basket with strips of newspaper.
  • When you finished your business you folded one and only one strip of paper.
  • Then you poked a hole in the middle of the folded strip.
  • You pushed your middle fingertip through the hole and used that to wipe your bum–your finger. You’d use your finger.
  • Then you used the newspaper to clean off your finger.
  • If that didn’t do the job you had to refold the paper and wipe again. With your finger.


Why didn’t they just flat-out use a few of those strips and leave the finger out of it? After all, during the same time period my mother’s family in Michigan used the traditional Sears catalogue in their outhouse.

I’m guessing because even the newspaper they had was rare and no, they could not spare a strip. It’s possible that it was often an underground Resistance newspaper, like this one that one of my uncles still has.

I really hope we don’t get to that point in this country. Also, I don’t get a newspaper anymore, so I’d have to use magazines and that sounds like it’d be ouchier. Do I need to stop recycling my magazines now so I have a stack all ready? Then again, if the hoarders keep snapping up all the T.P. maybe I’ll just buy a toilet-top bidet. I will not do what a friend had in the outhouse as a kid and use dry corn cobs!!!

Hoarders of T.P., I know that you’re anxious and you’re trying to control what you can, but you’ve created a problem. When the plush white rolls are back on the shelves, please let others have some. You will be okay. My father’s family all survived their finger-newspaper-toilet-paper ordeal. Well, they survived, but their humor and conversational topics definitely run to the scatalogical.

And now, because I can’t resist, here is what I learned at the Kent County Health Department today that is helping me not panic:

How is the virus transmitted:

  • Via droplets that an infected person coughs or sneezes out. The virus is only on our hands and hard surfaces because people cover coughs and sneezes with their hands or not at all, and then touch stuff.
  • The contact zone is within 6 feet of an individual with active COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes (walking past someone is not enough to get the virus).
  • If someone is infected but not showing symptoms, or if they have mild symptoms, their chance of transmitting the virus is similarly low—the disease is more likely to be transmitted the worse the symptoms are. Read that again. It is very good news, especially about our children as disease vectors. They’re apparently great at spreading the common cold and the stomach flu, less great at spreading COVID-19, because the disease affects them very mildly.

What you can do as an individual:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover your mouth with something other than your hand when you cough and sneeze.
  • No handshakes. No hugging.
  • Limit touches to hard surfaces.
  • Spread out! Limit the amount of time you are less than 6 feet away from members of the public for 10 minutes or more. This is the virus transmission zone.
  • Before you visit someone, ask if anyone is sick, if anyone has a fever or a new cough. If so, go to a virtual visit (phone call or video chat). If not, maintain safe distance and no handshakes/hugs.
  • Disinfect hard surfaces regularly.

But I’ve never been there

a dog sniffs the air with its head out the car windowPlease pronounce the been in the title with verve and so it rhymes with seen. This is so it will take part in an event that I didn’t witness, but have heard about enough times that I might as well have. A Canadian friend was in a play at his U.S. college in which he had to utter the line, “Canada! I’ve never been to Canada.” He apparently said that been in as Canadian a way as possible, to the high amusement of all his friends–so much amusement that they still tell the story some 30 years later.

Given that this post is about writing a book (series) set in a place I’ve never been, it’s a fitting anecdote to start with.

Also, that isn’t quite true. I went to Israel when I was nine. I remember being shocked at the soldiers walking around with automatic weapons, being weirded out that they searched my kid luggage at the airport. I lost a ring a friend had given me as a goodbye gift. It was very hot and very dry and there was one really straight road that felt like it was out in the middle of nowhere.

These are not observations to build a fully-fleshed world out of.

And that’s what I have to do in The Giant Slayer (and subsequent books): recreate the world of 1,000BCE in Israel. Youtube is a glorious friend; all I have to do is search for people hiking in any part of Israel and someone out there filmed it and put it online, so I can get sights and sounds. I can read a lot of books that contain snippets I can use about flora and fauna, camping in the wilderness, what it’s like inside a cave, what a shepherd’s life is like in countries where the kids still take the flocks out. But there’s one sense none of these help me get at: smell.

What does it smell like in the morning during the dry season? During the rainy season?

How do their different bushes and trees perfume the air?

What does their honey taste like?

What is the difference in smell when you go from a dry area to where a spring is? How close to the spring can you smell the difference?

How does the ground smell up close?

What do the rock outcrops smell like after they’ve been baking in the sun all day?

Those are all tiny details that I don’t have access to that I’m desperate for. I can make it up, of course, and I do, but how much better it would be to have something to use as a springboard for my imagination. If you have been to Israel and have any memories of the smells you experienced, let me know in the comments. Seriously. I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments.


Today, a friend posted a poem by Billy Collins about “trying to manufacture the sensation” of being in a place you’ve never been and doing a thing you’ve never done. I think it’s lovely and evocative.

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure—
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one—
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table—
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.


Big City Sidewalk

I’ve got a fun guest post up today at the always interesting You Are Here Stories — a site for stories centered around Place, around those places that have been important to us, to our communities. Please click on the last words of the excerpt to join me over there, even if all you want to see is a photo of me at age 12 (sweetly earnest and awkward).

 In my forty-seven years, I’ve been all over the world, but all it takes are a few cues to haul me back to my childhood.

A certain sharp and damp and lumber-ish smell brings me to my grandparents’ farmhouse in Michigan (a smell it retains years after their deaths and despite my cousin’s attempts to eradicate it). Outcrops of red, grey, and black veins of Great Canadian Shield rock bring me back to camping trips and weeks at the cottage.

But the capital-P Place where I feel the instant settling of my spirit that says “home” is the big city sidewalk.

Settling the spirit might be an odd response to a place that’s loud and busy and can be crowded and chaotic, but that’s where I grew up: in the middle of the great city of Toronto, Canada. Truly in the middle: one block from the main north-south thoroughfare of Yonge Street, and two-thirds of the way up our subway line.

I was taking the subway by myself…

The story is the heirloom

I have a folder called Family Stories. It started with my Oma’s funeral. I’d gone around that day, asking people to remember the sayings she had, “You haff to laff,”  “It comes handy-in,” “It’s an unicum [oonickum],” “I simple cannot,” and, to her own children when they were growing up, “Act normal and you’re acting crazy enough” (except said in Dutch). I wrote down every remembrance, every story, every detail someone told me.

And I’ve done that ever since, whether with my family or my husband’s, because I know that if I don’t scribble them down somewhere, I’ll forget. There are stories that stick with me, like the Nazi soldiers coming to the house for my Opa (because he worked in the Resistance) and his sister-in-law dressing him in a lace cap and nightgown, plunking him in a rocking chair and handing him a baby, and then showing the Germans around the house, “See. No men here. Just women and babies. Women and babies.” They bought it, and he was safe. That one’s so good I’m putting it in the second David and Saul novel, with David getting the nightgown and baby treatment. Or one my father’s earliest memories: he was playing outside during the war and the air raid siren came on, and his mother (and nanny?) screamed for him to come inside, but he wouldn’t, because he was only two, and it was fun outside.

There is one story that I’ve been wanting to write about in a more formal way for a long time: the time my mother’s house burned down when she was 6 and she managed to salvage something both silly and important and everyone laughed at her. catapult* magazine gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful to them for it.

Even in the writing of that piece, I found out things I didn’t know before. I had to call my mother for clarification and learned that the outhouse she used until she was 7 was a two-holer, and that the Sears and Spiegel catalogues were the toilet paper of choice. Also that they moved into the basement of the new house the year after the old one burned down, and lived in just the basement for a few years while her Uncle Herm built the house above them, as they could afford it. This was apparently a common way to build houses back then.

Don’t get me wrong, I love every item I have from prior generations, and I recently made clear to my dad that I don’t want him to give away their art after he and my mother have died (which won’t be for many, many, many years). But the real heirlooms are the stories, the reminders of different ways of life, of the fears and struggles and triumphs of those who eventually made me (and my husband). The fun stories and the not-so-fun ones. They’re all important.

So I’ll keep jotting down the details as my family members let them slip. I’ll keep stealing good stuff for my fiction. And I’ll keep turning them into more formal pieces, so I can learn even more. ETA: Since publishing this, I learned two things I got wrong — there were 5 kids in the house, and she only had to run 1/4 mile to the neighbor.

When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down. Her mother was in the barn, and the four kids were in the house. After the four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, my mother and her older sister got the kids out of the house and then ran a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.

The fire department doused the flames, but the house was a total loss.

Their neighbors followed the truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.

Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.

Please click here to read the rest.


We Are A Mixed Bag, All of Us

I recently returned from a family reunion that left me with a lot to think about. Yes, we caught up with the present of our lives, we watched the kids form their own little societies, we cooed over the babies, and sang songs late into the night around the campfire. But we also received a tremendous gift.

Two of my cousins had conducted interviews with the generation above us — the six boys and one girl who were children of our Oma and Opa. Just in time for this reunion, they distilled 21 hours of footage into a one-hour story that led us through their parents’ early lives in the Netherlands to their own years shortly after emigrating to Canada. They built on (and used photos from) the year-long project of another of our cousins to scan all the old family photos and documents and organize them into a CD that she then distributed to us ten or so years ago.

The film even began with a video none of us had seen before (and many didn’t even know existed) of the oldest uncle (now 78) as an 18-month old, toddling beside a canal in his short pants, babbling and crying until his Opa takes him for a boat ride. Like I said, a deep and tremendous gift.

One that spawned a great deal of storytelling and conversation afterwards.

The thing is, very few of those stories (some familiar, some new to me) and very little of the conversation was flattering to my grandparents, as parents.

My aunt and uncles grew up in what was probably a fairly typical upperclass home. Father’s study was the Holy of Holies, where you dared not enter unless you’d been granted permission, and woe unto you if you were sent there, and left to twist in agonizing anticipation while he made you wait to confess. Displays of emotion were unseemly, even positive ones, even within the privacy of the home. They were minister’s children, so their public behavior reflected back on their father, and violations were often dealt with harshly. There are stories that would break your heart and make you angry, but I won’t tell them here. They’re not mine to tell.

What’s mine to wonder is how I see this man who raised my father’s generation. One of his children worried about that and wanted some of the stories never to make it to light, so my generation wouldn’t think too badly of him. Which led me to wonder. How did I think of him?

My Opa died when I was 9, and I’d lived an ocean away for the last few years of his life, so I have just one memory of him, with his head back, shaking with silent laughter at a family party. What I have are his children, each one a prime product of intermittent reward.

Think of a squirrel at a birdfeeder that’s hard to reach, either ten feet down a rope or with a pressure-sensitive feeder bar. Watch it make its way to the food, only to be tossed or to fall off. Time after time after time. But it can smell and see the food; it knows it’s there. And every now and then, it manages to snag one seed. It knows food is possible, so it keeps working harder and harder to merit that one occasional seed. In squirrels, it makes for an entertaining show. In people, it makes for highly accomplished, hard charging, hard working risk takers and experts in whatever their chosen field; in other words (whether in academia, politics, business, church, or the nurture of people), my aunt and uncles.

I want to know the man who made them possible so I can better understand them. I admit it, I’m greedy: I want to know it all. The worry that he will seem like the villain of the story is a real one. But if I see him in the whole of his life, I think he’s more of an anti-hero. There is much that he did that was out-and-out heroic.

If an injustice was involved, he sprang into action. When his children were victims, he would march down to the school and demand justice. When his children were perpetrators, he could take calm and imaginative action, such as taking them to the police chief to confess and receive a lecture, and then negotiating restorative justice for the neighbor wronged. During World War II he worked in the Resistance, at considerable risk to himself and his family (including an awesome story of German soldiers coming to the house to search for him; he was home; so one of the aunts popped him in a nightgown and frilly cap and plunked a baby in his lap to successfully fool the soldiers and keep him safe). After the war, he moved his family of 9 to Canada in part so his sons would have more opportunities. He had studied literature before theology, so always wrote well (articles and sermons as well as poetry), and even did literary deconstruction on biblical texts (or so I’m told). He was proud to have played a role in the forward-thinking decision for the denomination to purchase land to increase the size and scope of Calvin College. And although I’m sure Oma frustrated him in other ways, he admired her more childlike and less anguished faith.


And here’s where the stories I won’t tell would go. Trust me when I say they are not heroic.

So how do I see him? Hero or jerk? As with many either/or questions, I answer, “yes.”

Think of King David. God called him a man after His own heart. David was the king all other Israelite kings were measured against. He took tremendous risks and showed astonishing courage because he trusted God. Yet he was an adulterer and murderer. God wouldn’t let him build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. Yet he could recognize when he was wrong, when he’d sinned. He was concerned about justice for the vulnerable in his society. He wrote poetry whose truth and beauty have endured for thousands of years. Yet he let his kids run amok to rape their siblings and kill each other and foment rebellion against their father. He is one heck of a mixed bag.

But if I can look at King David, if I can delve into his story and still wind up admiring him, if I can see him as simultaneously a good example and a cautionary tale, I can do the same for my Opa. After all, I do the same for myself all the time. We are, each of us, a pretty mixed bag.

I hope my aunt and uncles aren’t afraid to tell us more. I think we can take it — not so much to understand him as to understand and appreciate them more.

How is truth handled in your family? Buried or blabbed? Fought about or trumpeted?


Deep and Silly

It was at one of those sunny Fuller Park play dates. We were gathered at the upper part of the park, since our normal meeting time often coincided with the mowing schedule. Tash came striding up the hill with her daughter, the sun bouncing off her pretty-well-grown-in, spiky blond hair, and then slowed down when she saw me. She sauntered towards me on those long legs, her smile both beatific and mischievous, and said something about reading such a [great] book. (In an ideal world, I’d remember the exact adjective she used, but I didn’t know yet that I needed to hoard memories of her.) Clueless, I asked what book. And then she began to describe my manuscript, even quoting some of my own words back to me.

Validation. Encouragement. Relief.

She was the first non-family person to read my earliest noveling attempt. It was the summer of 2004 and Book Club had a weekly play date at Fuller Park. I’d written a romance novel during my son’s year of preschool. I can’t remember now whether Tash offered or I asked her, but she wound up as the person I trusted to read it and tell me whether it was good enough for anyone else to see. I truly believed that she would tell me, kindly, if it sucked, but looking back now, she was such a big-hearted friend, I’m not sure.

But it meant the world to me at the time.

My friend Natasha died last week. She fought cancer for 9 years, had “mets” (as she referred to metastatic cancer) for 6, so it wasn’t a surprise, but it was a horrible shock. You can prepare your head, but you can never prepare your heart for such a loss.

I’ve been hitting Facebook hard for the last several days, soaking in all the tributes to her, rereading her great obituary, as well as this amazing post  on a friend’s blog. She was a bright light of a person, fierce in her love and support of her friends and family, but also, because of the cancer, forced to be able to accept love and support. We were in a book club together for 12 years, the kind that always chooses a book, but doesn’t always read it, although we always met, because, after years of dealing with kid-rearing, divorce, miscarriage, and cancer, we were more about us than about the books.

The moments I keep going back to are not the deep moments, although there are plenty of those. They’re the silly ones, the ones that made me smile. Her imitations of her mother. The poem she wrote and recited for us once, at Fuller Park, about how to make her husband happy (yes, it was a funny and sly, yet classy, poem about what we shall call here, marital relations). Her smile that almost always held a hint of mischief managed. The family stories she told. I have a vague memory of an attempted kitchen table exorcism story that I’m kicking myself for not writing down.

One of my favorite stories is one she wrote down in her blog.

This fall Dad made and installed 30 custom storm windows (mostly interior) for our leaky old house. Dad is well acquainted with storm windows having hauled them around his own house every year. When Dad was painting his own windows with his perfectionist eye, I was only 4. He would pay me a nickel to tell him stories while he worked. One day, Mom snapped this picture:

Back when I was still trying to write romance, I stole that little story. Who wouldn’t fall in love with both the man who paid his daughter to tell him stories and the irrepressible little girl who needed an outlet?

I sure loved that little girl when she grew up. My world is a little dimmer right now.

Joab, the War-Crazed Traditionalist

Joab is David’s nephew. As I’ve written him, he’s a couple of years older than his uncle, David, which is an example of me stealing from life: in my mother’s family, the oldest nephew is older than his youngest uncle. In high school, the nephew apparently took great pleasure in needling his uncle about this in the crowded hallways.

We first meet Joab in It Is You just after David  has killed his first lion. Most of David’s family responds with a combination of awe, irritation, and hostility, but not Joab:

“Show-off!” someone shouted from behind the family.

They turned around and David went up on his toes to see his accuser.

“Always boasting,” the voice continued.

By then, David knew: it was Joab.

A smiling Joab broke through the rest of the family. “You go off to live with the king and then come back and kill a lion with your bare hands. How are the rest of us supposed to compete with that?”

When Joab goes off with David on a mission to find running water for David to clean himself with properly (there’s a spring a few km away), we get a sense of his life’s obsession.

Joab shouldered him sideways. “Someone said that the king has been training the men of Benjamin all winter. That true?”

David nodded.

“Man. You get to hang out near the army, see their weapons, watch them train. You get all the luck.”

David shrugged.

“Details. I need details.” Joab held his bundle out in front of him. “I’ll drop your clothes right here and make you walk back naked if you don’t tell me something soon.”

“Okay, okay.” David laughed. “A hundred or so men from Benjamin live in Gibeah and train year-round. Commander Abner hopes it’ll grow when the tribes see the success of an army more like the armies we’re fighting against. We’ll never again scatter in fear because an army lines up in ranks against us.”

Joab drove his right fist into his left palm with a satisfying smack. “Oh yeah.”

In this scene, David is 14. At 17, Joab is just a few years from the age of military service (20), close enough to imagine himself as a soldier.

As they walked back to the village, they weighed the merits of various weapons and retold old battle legends until David said, “But our best weapon is the Lord. Only He can throw a whole army into confusion so they kill each other and all we have to do is stand and watch and reap the plunder.”

“See, that’s why you’d make a great king,” Joab said. “You say stuff like that and even I want to follow you into battle.”

“Did you have a fever that boiled your brain while I was gone?”

“I’m serious.”

David pointed at the half-dead fig tree ahead of them. “You’d follow that tree if it meant you could be a soldier.”

Joab sniggered. “You’ve got me there.”

In the rest of the series, I build on that basic character trait: he’s always primed to fight.

After he hears that David has left King Saul and that the Lord has told David that he’ll be king some day, he does the one non-traditional thing in his history: takes off with his two younger brothers — leaving his father with nobody to work the land with him — and joins David. I think his war craziness is behind this. It was a calculated risk to give him a chance to command his own army, just like he and David used to play when they were kids.

In the early years of being on the run in the wilderness with David, and there are less than a hundred men with them, David takes his parents to Moab to ask the king to protect them. He’s gone for at least a couple of weeks. During that time (in my version), Joab gets the men all riled up to march on Gibeah and overthrow Saul. David has to talk them down and remind Joab that the Lord hasn’t given him the go-ahead for that.

This is a continual frustration between the two men; after all, David twice refuses to kill Saul when it’d be easy to do so. It deepens when David becomes king and has to learn diplomacy. It gets really messy in the story I told this week (Parts I, II, III, and IV), because David is trying to wrestle people into a new age and Joab doesn’t recognize either the dawning of the new age or the need for one.

Saul was the first king, but he wasn’t like what we think of as a king now. There was no golden throne, no formal court, no glorious castle at the capital of the country. There was no capital until David made one in Jerusalem. Saul was more like the most powerful tribal lord. So when David tries to get Joab to see that he should put away the idea of getting revenge for the death of his brother for the greater good, Joab just doesn’t see it.

As I see them, Joab is right and David is right. Joab is correct that every custom of Israel says he has the right to kill the man who killed his brother. It’s a little dicey in that Asahel was killed during a combat situation while he was chasing the people who were retreating and who gave him every chance of stating his intention and avoid being killed. But, in Joab’s eyes, his brother was killed, therefore he can seek revenge.

But David is also right. It would be better for Joab to sacrifice that old tribal ideal in order to make a peaceful transition to a united Israel possible. Abner was going to go out and negotiate allegiances for David, so that Ishbosheth would see every tribe arrayed against him and give up without a civil war. With Abner dead, there was nobody else with as much clout with the Saulean traditionalists to present David’s side with any authority.

When David makes Joab attend Abner’s funeral, it’s a public shaming. Joab does become commander of the tribal army (but not of the elite, permanent force), but the balance of power between him and David is way on David’s side until David sends word to put Uriah at the front line and then retreat behind him to leave him alone. But that’s a story for another day….

Stealing from Life: Don’t Forget the Prankster

I will admit that I’m writing this post as a not-so-gentle nudge to get back to work on the 2nd book in the David and Saul series — my lack of alone time in summer wreaks havoc on my concentration. Also, I’ve told a story from my Hart side that influenced a scene in It Is You (the 1st book), and it’s time my Steenwyk side got a little glory.

The book series takes place around 1,000 BCE. Things were not luxurious for most of my characters. Theirs was a survival economy and survival was tough. So I’ve tended to make everyone focused on survival all the time, with very little lightheartedness once they reach early teen years.

But I forget about my grandfather, John Steenwyk. He was born in 1915 in Chicago, but moved to Byron Center (when it was all celery farms) soon after. They were, apparently, impressively poor. Even other poor people remember thinking, “At least we aren’t as bad up as the Steenwyks.”

And there were a lot of them — seven kids to feed and put to work to survive.

Yet Grandpa, the oldest, was a lively and curious kid who loved building things, messing around with electricity and chemistry, and playing pranks. The quotes below are in his own words.

Four of us boys all slept in one bedroom in two beds. My brother Herm slept with me and brother Joe slept with Lou in the other bed. Sometimes Herm and I would talk together about some scary things, like falling stars, to get Joe and Lou in a scary mood. One night I started telling a scary story about the stars falling down, and the boys, Joe and Lou, asked questions, you know. “Does it make a big noise when they fall?” They fired all kinds of questions at me. So I said, “Yes, sometimes they do.” Well, finally I said, “Well, let’s go to sleep now.”

Herm and I had made up a plan together. I gave him a very heavy book and I said, “You bang this book together when I give you a nudge.” Now, I had about 4 or 5 dry cell batteries under the bed with wires connected going up the window to a light I rigged outside the window. When the boys were just about nodding off, I gave Herm a nudge with my elbow so that he would bang that book together. Meantime, I snapped that switch off and on and that bulb shone and flashed in that dark room real bright. Those boys were so scared, especially Lou. He thought the house was on fire.   They were scared stiff! They thought sure that a star had fallen. 

Herm told me the same story at Grandpa’s funeral; it was a great memory of his boyhood. He said that the book closing was as loud as a gunshot and Joe and Lou thought the world was ending.

What did I learn from this? Even in desperate situations, people like to mess with each other, especially boys. Given that this David story is mostly about male persons, I can’t forget this.

Grandpa didn’t grow out of pranking, either. During the Depression, when he was 18, he joined/was drafted into the Civilian Conservation Corps, and cut down the forest to build roads in northern Michigan. He wound up with a group of only guys, living in barracks, doing hard, physical work all day.

Another story of the CCC Camp: On Saturdays we didn’t have to work all day. We could take the afternoons off and if you wanted to go to town and they would take you in the truck. Some of the guys would go and get some booze to drink. One Saturday evening, there were some fellows who had come back from town. They had been drunk and had gotten in a fight in town. Then me and a couple of pals and another fellow who liked to fix radios too, Joe Hamilton from Detroit, decided to play a hoax using my radio.
Joe had given me some parts so I could fix my old radio. Way out there in the sticks my old radio didn’t get the best reception but by adding a tube in there, I made my radio more powerful so I could get reception none of the other radios could get. We could even get police broadcasts on my radio and pretty plain too. So we made up together with a guy, Bucky O’Connor, who had a big voice like a truckdriver, a plan to pull off a hoax on those guys who had gotten drunk and in a fight.
Bucky was the broadcaster. I had run a fine wire over the ceiling from my bed towards Bucky’s bed, connected to an earphone which he was going to use as a microphone. He was going to pretend to be sleeping in his bed with the comforters thrown over his head. I had the radio. The plan was that when I gave the signal, three taps on the floor, he would begin his broadcasting.
So first I turned my radio on and got some regular police calls and the guys who had gotten drunk were playing cards at a table and they didn’t pay much attention. Then I gave the signal and there was a call about “a drunken brawl in Nigawni, Michigan, and the perpetrator alleged to be in the CCC Camp” and that sort of thing. So then those guys pricked up their ears and started to get really worried. Then, to tease them a little, I would turn on the regular police broadcast for a while, and then a bit later, give the signal for Bucky to do his broadcast again. Now I had about 30 of those guys going; they stopped playing cards and said, “Now, listen! Listen!” And then they all looked at the guy who had been involved in the fight and he said there were others who had been involved too.
Pretty soon, Bucky accidentally disconnected the wire to his earphone microphone and didn’t know it. My radio went dead and there was a muffled mumbling coming out from under Bucky’s comforter: “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!” Someone ran over to Bucky’s bed and pulled off the comforter and there was Bucky with that microphone, trying to broadcast.
All we had to do was connect that wire and we were in business again. The fellow who had been so scared from our hoax wanted to pull that same hoax on two other guys that were involved too. So we could continue the hoax when those guys came in.

Then everyone wanted to broadcast too. Half of the guys wanted to broadcast. Some had guitars; some had mouth organs and other things. The other half would go outside and stand in the cold snow listening. So that was some excitement there that they had never experienced before.

I have to add a prankster to this manuscript. Of course, there was no electricity to aid in mischief, but I’ll think of something. I’m at the point in the story when David is first living in the caves in Judah. He’s hiding out, but more and more men escape their desperate situations and come to him. And wind up in an even more desperate situation. It’s not like he has giant reserves of food for them, yet, as their leader, he has to figure out how to provide for them and (in my version) to do it as honestly as possible. Even so, there’s got to be some nonsense happening, just to blow off steam, and to make David frustrated.

J.K. Rowling used the Prankster to great effect, with Peeves and the Weasley twins. So today, while I go about my business, I instruct my imagination to get to work on some first century BCE pranks.