Saturday, July 24, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Amelia Earhart

This week (July 24) we celebrate the 113th anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart.

Above my writing desk is a black and white poster, a print of a photo taken of Amelia's famous Lockheed Electra as it soared over the Golden Gate Bridge westward toward the Pacific Ocean on March 17, 1937. It was the dawn of the first day of her round-the-world flight, and the morning sunlight is just illuminating the leading edges of her wings. "Amelia Earhart in Flight," the caption reads. Beauty, solitude, and confidence--they're all there in that one image.

But I know a secret. The expedition that began on that March morning was Amelia's first round-the-world attempt, and not the one that ended in mystery and headlines. The journey ended only three days later, in Hawaii, when she damaged the Electra on a bad takeoff. Being Amelia, she refused to give up. The repairs took nearly three months and by that time world weather had changed. So when she began her expedition a second time, on June 1, 1937, she was forced to head in the other direction. She took off from Miami and headed east out over the Atlantic. You know the rest of that story.

False starts aren't uncommon in writing, as in flying. I've got a whole drawer of rejections and half finished pieces that just aren't good enough, dammit, to attest to that. But when I encounter a roadblock, I just look up at Amelia's gleaming Electra. And I head in a new direction and try again.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Chester McCormick

Last night, July 9, 2010, my dad, Chester McCormick, died.

From my dad I got my short stature, Irish temper, and compulsive need for clean floors. My sisters and brothers got the good hair, although I have to take this on faith. By the time children came along, the wavy auburn hair was gone. We never met that guy. Our dad was bald, and short, and wore glasses, and when I was growing up I knew that my Daddy was the handsomest man in the world.

It is sounds that come to mind when I think of my dad: the singular scuff of his shoes as he came in from the garage after work, waking up to the staccato click-click-clunk of an adding machine on a Saturday morning when he'd brought work home for the weekend. Each year on the first day of school, as I sat scowling at the breakfast table, he'd sing "School days, school days." The fact that I found this deeply annoying didn't stop me from continuing the tradition when my own boys went off to school. And they found it annoying, too.

As we all sat around his bedside the past week listening to him work hard at simply breathing, my sister Mary Anne remarked that he'd been such a hard worker. Every head nodded in agreement. Yes, he was. He said goodbye in the morning while we were all in pajamas and came home after we'd had dinner. I hope he knew that we knew why he did it. He did it for us. Every January for sixteen years he sat at the kitchen table and sweated over those hated FAFSA forms, creating a way for all of us to go to college. The harvest: six college educations, four master's degrees, one law degree. We are teachers, a lawyer, a speech-language pathologist, an audiologist, and a business-owner. You did it, Dad.

At my sister Eileen's wedding, he looked around at family members old and new. "This is what it's all about," he told Eileen's new father-in-law, "family. It's all about family." And he'd cupped his hands together as if to hold us all inside. It's all about family. That was my dad.

When I was six, I got my first library card. Now they pretty much give those away in utero, but in those days it was a rite of passage. Every Friday after that, my dad took me to the library when he got home from work. I was always waiting impatiently, the previous week's book in one hand, my library card in the other. But no matter how tired he was, or what kind of day he'd had, he always made the time. When I became a children's writer, I dedicated one of my first books to him. "For my dad, Chester McCormick, who always had time to take me to the library," it read.

I was so proud when I sent that book off to him. Sure enough I got a call from my mom a few days later saying how much they'd both loved the book. But that was all. "Did you read it all?" I asked. She assured me they had.

"Every page?" I was fishing now. Well, not the one with the numbers and small type. "Read it now," I pleaded.

When they both had, my dad got on the phone. He thanked me and we had a good laugh that he and my mom had almost missed the dedication and he made me promise that the next time I did something like that I'd send the book with a sticky note with an arrow pointing them to the pertinent parts. But then he said something I didn't expect. There was a long pause and he said, "When did I ever bring you to the library? I don't remember that."

As parents we do so many little things for our children and never stop to think that we are planting small seeds. I will never be able to count or even know the ways in which my dad led me and my brothers and sisters to where we are today. Maybe it's enough that we are there.