Friday, June 27, 2014

Barely A Pot To Piss In: Eugenia Burney Christensen

Eugenia woke up every morning with a great desire to live joyfully.* At least that’s the impression she conveyed to me. 

I met Eugenia Burney Christensen (1913-2012) on her 83rd birthday, July 4, 1996 in the tiny mountain town of Dubois, Wyoming. Much of her life had passed but she wasn’t one bit ready to slow down.

On the day we met, a local artist/tanner had dressed Eugenia in buffalo hides and a long black wig with a bone tied to her head and situated her on one of the home-made floats for the town’s Fourth of July parade. She waved gaily and laughed until tears streamed her cheeks.  “It was a hoot,” Eugenia told us later that day. A phrase I would hear for years to come. To say Eugenia enjoyed life is an understatement. She was always happy even when she barely had a pot to piss in.

We didn’t know about Eugenia’s illustrious past but we got a glimpse when we had to side-step through a tiny subsidized apartment overfilled with antique furniture, paintings, sculptures, books, a stack of papers, and a typewriter balancing on an ottoman. Eugenia was a writer and we could already tell just how enthusiastic she was about it. We were immediately drawn to her as she graciously both welcomed and accepted us. We toasted our budding friendship with cheap champagne in Dollar Store glass flutes. 
   
Eugenia was born in South Carolina and even though she lived in Idaho, New York, Wyoming, and California she never lost her refined Southern accent. Perhaps that’s what drew her to me—I’d been raised in the south and that great accent offered me a bit of Southern hospitality that I’d found missing in Dubois. She pulled Bud and me into her life and we spent the next ten years captivated by the wondrous tales of her past. She had to be a writer because she was a fascinating storyteller.

Together with her husband Gardell Dano Christensen (1907-1991), Eugenia published several books in the 60s and 70s including Colonial South Carolina in 1969. 


Gardell was an artist as well as a writer. After working at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC for seven years (in the 50s), he was asked to represent the museum on expeditions to Africa and Alaska to collect animals for building dioramas in the museum to “tell the world of faraway places”.  



Gardell set out to fulfill his dreams and spent a lifetime living them. A former student, Nan (Morgan) Smith, said, “Over the years the Christensens continually invited friends and pupils into their home and into their hearts. Together they made the people and places around them sing with the beauty of art.”

It seems that everyone who knew Eugenia and Gardell knew an endearing story about them. A local plumber told us that when they first moved to Dubois, Gardell bought a plot of land and built a house mostly with materials he’d scavenged from the landfill. Sometime after they’d moved in the plumbing went haywire. When the plumber arrived on a rainy morning, he found Gardell and Eugenia sitting at the table eating cereal while the rain dripped on them through holes in the roof. That was their life. It was a good life even when the roof leaked. 

Eugenia often boasted that she’d written more books in her retirement than in her career which included an editorial position at one of the big five New York publishing companies. Most of her later writings were biographies of colorful and influential people who shared their life stories as she typed and edited. The most notable being Fremont Miller, a WWII war hero (who had spent 76 hours in the frigid North Sea after his P-47 Thunderbolt caught fire over Diepholz, West Germany) and a retired legislator of the Wyoming House of Representatives. Together they published, Growing Up With Wyoming, a fascinating story of a man who loved Wyoming. 


Eugenia is listed in the World Who’s Who of Women. No wonder. She was as comfortable mingling with dignitaries as she was with cowboys.

The next fall Eugenia convinced a local outfitter to photograph her upon a horse for her Christmas cards. She wanted to show her family and friends that she lived in cowboy country. The outfitter had to have been very brave and must have had an old calm horse to be talked into posing an eighty-five-year-old unsteady woman horseback. But he did and it was, yes, a hoot!


Bud and I moved to Eureka, California in 1997 and the next year Eugenia followed because she had gotten tired of the small town that rolled up the sidewalks at nine p.m. Eureka had a few bright lights, but I honestly think she longed for not only the bright lights but big city as well. She applied to a five story senior assisted living complex and could have moved in that same day but she wanted a room on the top floor! What she lacked financially she made up for grandly. After all, the top floor was the best and Eugenia wanted nothing less.

Eugenia dreamed big, just like Gardell had. Every single time she saw a convertible she’d stop and stare. “Oh, I want one of those,” she’d say dreamily, “except I want a red one!”

In early December 2002, when Eugenia was 89 and frail she called Bud and asked if he’d photograph her on the beach at sunset for her next Christmas Card. She wanted her friends to know that she’s moved back to California. “I have an old bathing suit that I still look pretty good in,” she said. On the next sunny day we headed to Samoa Beach even though the temperature measured just 45 degrees. The sunset was glorious…just as Eugenia had ordered and Bud shot photos until the sun gloriously sank into the  ink-blue ocean. Unfortunately the camera didn’t cooperate and the shoot failed to give us even one acceptable shot. If Eugenia was upset, it didn’t show. We fixed the problem and headed back to the beach several days later. This time the temperature measured in the 30s and while we waited for the sun and sky to burst into orange, peach, and lavender, I wrapped Eugenia in warm blankets. This time the sun and sky refused to cooperate. Instead of setting like a big red ball the sun turned completely white before sinking into a bank of gray clouds. I wanted to cry when I saw the photos. But Eugenia, always positive, was thrilled beyond measure.


She was always thrilled beyond measure…even when she went through cancer and surgery and especially when she decided to move to Santa Rosa for even brighter lights and bigger city.

The last Christmas card we received before she died had been taken in her brand new red convertible…a mobility scooter. And she had a smile on her face.


We miss her terribly, our wonderful friend of ten years. Eugenia taught us that we didn’t have to be wealthy to be rich and she showed us how to live joyfully every day of our lives.



*From a quote by Alexandra Stoddard

Saturday, June 21, 2014

CRASH LANDING in Savannah



"The air told me and the azaleas confirmed it: it was the end of March in Savannah."


Alberto Landi traveled to Savannah, Georgia 23 times. Me, just once but we both crash landed. My face-first "fall" really wasn't a fall at all. According to my husband I went flying without a parachute from a 24" raised sidewalk on River Street. We'd just left a restaurant when a huge cargo ship slowly maneuvered down the narrow Savannah River right in front of us. I'd never seen such a spectacle so I ran over to view the ship that towered over me by some 50 feet. When we turned back toward the shops and restaurants I looked up and pointed to the second story. "People live up there," I said. It amazed and surprised me and like I do whenever I visit a new place I imagined living there in the romance of it all. That's when I flew off the sidewalk and landed face first on the pavement below. Covered in blood, I took my first ride in an ambulance. I am happy to say that I walked away from the hospital with five or six stitches in my lip and no other injuries. 

Alberto Landi, the protagonist in Whispering Tides by Guido Mattioni, took a far more impressive fall. After the horrific death of his beloved wife of 23 years, when his world crumbled, he left his home in Milan, Italy and with all his worldly possessions in two bags, moved heart and soul to Savannah where he slowly healed. 

"Now I understood the sincere sensation that I had experienced the very first time I had arrived here and immediately felt this place hidden deeply inside something already familiar that belonged to me. It was almost as if that water and that mud, so remote from the places where I was born and had lived, were in reality elements that had always been known to me, so much so that from then on I felt as I was immersed, secure and at ease in an amniotic liquid."

Mattioni goes on to describe Savannah, its residents, the flowers, and the wildlife in such detail that the writing seems three-dimensional and in slow motion. This brilliant writer paints such beautiful pictures with his imaginative prose that I will not soon forget them.

Whispering Tides is not a story of grief and loss. It is a wondrous love story between Alberto and his wife, Nina, and his romance with every nuance of Savannah.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Twitter and Infertility

A few years ago I joined Twitter with the idea of marketing my books. All the “marketing books” told me to do that. After a couple of years I realized that ninety-eight percent of my followers were also authors with the same idea so I discontinued my account. I wasn’t there to buy books, I was there to sell them. I read another book on marketing that suggested I join Twitter to simply make friends—the kind of friends who might enjoy one of my novels. In other words: readers. Since my books are mostly about women and children I started friending mothers as well as avid readers. Soon I realized that the majority of my friends/followers were infertile women and I identified with them. Not because I was infertile but because I was childless. Somewhere in Twitterland I came across the memoir, BREEDING IN CAPTIVITY: One Woman’s Unusual Path to Motherhood. I decided to read it, mostly because it was written by a woman with my maiden surname, Stacy Bolt.


From page 12: [“So, pregnant yet?” Why in the name of all that’s socially appropriate would anyone ever ask a woman this question? No good can come of it. If I’m pregnant, and I want you to know, I’ll tell you when I’m ready. And if I’m not, this question is like getting a drink thrown in my face. It stings. It’s embarrassing. And it makes me want to crawl into a corner. Right after I slap you.]

This is a heartwrenching story written with humor, sarcasm, and anguish. I gave it 5 Stars not only for the impressive writing and fresh voice, but because I identified with Stacy’s disappointments.

I wanted my twitter followers/friends to become my fans, my audience. I actually expected them to make me famous. I put the responsibility on them to make me famous. So, after a year of suffering with so many infertile and childless women I really don’t want them to buy my books—they can’t afford them. They’ve spent millions of dollars, taken out second mortgages, borrowed from their relatives, gone without fine champagne in caf├ęs on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees—that’s what their doctors do. The ones who have failed to give them the one thing they can’t live without, a baby.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Little History: Opal and Me




Prior to writing Child of My Heart or I should say, all my life, I wanted to be a mother. Way past my childbearing years I came across a book by Barbara Cooney and Jane BoultonOnly Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl. 


This book changed my life. Opal Whiteley, a child born in 1898, changed my life. She is the child I should have raised and whether you want to believe me or not, she came to me in a vision. She inspired me to write a fictional story about my life. And so my writing career began.

From CHILD OF MY HEART: 

Pg 261: Eugenia placed a copy of The Story of Opal, by Opal Whiteley on the desk in front of me. I opened it and began to read, My mother and father are gone. The man did say they went to Heaven and do live with God, but it is lonesome without them. The mama where I live says I am a newsance. I think that is something grownups don’t like to have around."

Pg 248: My hands trembled. I dropped the book. A newspaper clipping fell out. I picked it up and read. "These words are taken from the turn-of-the-century diary of an extraordinary six-year-old girl named Opal Whiteley. This child, who was a friend to animals, had been given to a family in Oregon when her French parents died."

Thank you, Opal. xoxoxo