About the time I returned to college to study creative writing, my aunt tidied up her attic. One treasure she unearthed – a box of letters my maternal grandparents exchanged during WW I. Jackpot! I needed a class project, and a pile of beautiful letters had fallen into my lap. Why not build a book loosely based on a slice of my grandparents’ lives?
But there was a problem, a giant one. I wasn’t equipped to write about WW I, anti-German American sentiments, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the importance of epistolary writing during war times? Lucky for me, I love research. I dug in, devouring dozens of books on these topics and others. Eudora Welty, Nancy Willard, Tim O’Brien, Grace Paley, John Gardner, and Stephen King’s words and advice influenced and improved my writing.
E.B. White’s words in Letters of E.B. White particularly resonated. He writes,”If you are at the moment struggling with a book, what you should ask yourself is, Do I really care about this particular set of characters, this thing I am doing? If you do, then nothing should deter you. If you are doubtful about it, then I’d turn to something else. I knew, in the case of Charlotte, that I cared deeply about the whole bunch of them.”
That’s how I felt while writing Skipping Stones. It was joyful, an opportunity to reconnect with my grandfather and meet my grandmother who had passed a couple months before my birth. I, too, care deeply for my characters. Over time, Arno and Hattie morphed into more than my grandparents, they became my hero and heroine.
When I finally hit babysitting age, I had big dreams for the wads of cash I’d soon stuff into my faded jean pockets. Topping my list – my very own record albums. I’d had enough of Elton John to last a lifetime (sorry, Elton). Unfortunately, my older sister had not. For months, he sang me to sleep night after night. What kind of name is Levon, anyway?
I was ready to make it big in the babysitting world, but Dad had other plans. He told me his friend needed a babysitter for his bratty (my word, not Dad’s) five-year-old daughter, and he’d suggested me. Okay, I could make that work. KC and the Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way I Like it spun inside my head. But then I heard something else, something even louder. “And you’ll do it for free,” he said. Excuse, me? “It’s the right thing to do,” he added. “They need the help.” About the length of time it takes for Elton to sing Benny and the Jets, I learned that my onetime babysitting for free gig had morphed into a weekly chore. I resented it and my dad.
Dad passed away two months before I graduated from high school. I never thanked him for the valuable lesson on volunteerism and the importance of helping others. Back then, I still hadn’t fully grasped my father’s teachings.
Guess what my daughter did when she reached babysitting age? That’s right. She watched our youth pastor’s children every Sunday night for free. It seemed only fitting.
Since those days, volunteering has played a huge role in my life, shaping me into the person I am today. For 11 years, I worked at a non profit senior center where I oversaw a huge fundraiser every summer. And every summer, my family traveled to Wisconsin to help. They slept on air mattresses scattered across my floor, woke up early, worked hard, and served others. Why did they show up year after year to work for no pay? Because it’s the right thing to do.