Trial by Fire

Last month, a former high school classmate invited me to read my children's book for a literacy event at Kendrick Lakes Elementary School. I was all for it, except my book isn't published and hasn't gone through a formal editing process. My classmate said it didn't matter, she just wanted the kids to meet authors and hear their work. So I readily agreed to read Hedy and the Secret Shoes to the toughest imaginable audience. 


Before reading, I shared some thoughts on writing in general and showed them one of the first stories I ever wrote called The Scariest Ghost. It's about a ghost who sneaks into shops to eat snacks at night. A third-grade girl commented that the story didn't sound scary at all. I agreed, "It's not." I didn't mention that in a perfect world ghosts eat snacks, not human souls.

Anyway, I launched into Hedy and the Secret Shoes and I could not have been more delighted by their response. They laughed at the jokes, cooed at the cuteness, and were in wonder with the final reveal. It doesn't matter how long it takes to get this story published, because the whole point is for it to reach kids, which it now has. And it was awesome. 

Go ahead, Mr. Wendell

One might assume our friendship sprouted from the relational void with my own grandfathers, but really, Wendell was just fun to hang out with. He was a regular at my parents' ice cream shop, and one day we discovered our mutual love of poetry. I started writing it when I was ten. He began in his nineties. Here's a shot of Wendell at my 21st birthday party:

We had a beer together on occasion, but mostly we played cards or Scrabble. Wendell was my friend, my fellow poet, and my time machine. Like Colonel Freeleigh in Dandelion Wine, he took me back to an era I'd never known. Wendell Winn Cooke was born in 1914. He rode in a zeppelin over New York City and had a little pet lamb that was as obnoxious as Mary's. At 97, he published his first book of poems. He's the only person I've ever met who twiddled his thumbs in all absentminded seriousness. Here's a shot of us looking tough at the closing party for my family's shop in 2007:

He teased me, saying he'd send this photo to the dean of my grad school if I got out of line. Women with tobacco was taboo before 1920. How far we've come. Now tobacco is taboo for all. My favorite Wendell catchphrase was when he'd meet someone younger than 90 and call them a "mere child." Whenever I'd answer his phone calls with, "Hey, Wendell," he'd reply, "It's Wendell."

He decidedly lived to 101. A few weeks after his birthday, he suffered a massive stroke. He could barely speak. He couldn't eat. He said nothing the last time my family went to visit him, until as last, loud and clear, he spoke, "Eleanor." I held his hand and told him I was right there. Then he looked at me and choked out, "How was your trip?" Of all the worthwhile things to expend waning mortal vitality upon, he wanted to know how my stupid trip was. I am not worthy, dear Wendell. Ask something else. "It was good. You're about to go on a trip now, too," I replied with my own labored voice. Go ahead. I'll see you there. 

It is spring and the man loved his lilacs. I think of him as they peak. I'll leave you now, mere children, with a Wendell verse:

"In the quietude of age there is/Time to dream, to dream of a love/That did once the heart invade/And finding a safe haven there/Long remained/Unchallenged and unchanged."