What if the Past Isn’t Dead?

Many years ago, Jeff and I set off across the country to look for a kinder, simpler place. We had grown up in Denver back when downtown was barely a pimple rising from the flat plains of Colorado. We’d suffered through years of exponential growth and the resultant crime rates. When Californians moved to Colorado to escape the gangs, they brought the gangs with them in the bodies of their own children. And with Denver on the map thanks to a presidential wanabee from Texas who declaimed, “Imagine a great city,” Denver was also flooded with big-time crooks in big-name suits. Lots of shenanigans going on with shady land deals at what was to be the site of the new airport, and of course the savings and loan scandal where even the son of a president managed to score some ill-gotten profits.

Add traffic to the mix, the exhaust-blackened trees along mountain highways, and a faster pace of life than either of us appreciated, and we’d had enough. (My being held up with a gun as I came home for work added to our determination to find a better life.)

We hit the road with no real plans of where we’d end up, though we did have list of relatively crime-free places to check out. It was thrilling — and liberating — at first, but reality hit when we couldn’t find a better place. We stayed in northern Wisconsin for a while (eighteen months? Two years? I should remember, but I don’t) then we headed back west. But not back to Denver. Remember that old Joe South song, “Don’t it Make You Want to Go Home?” That’s how I feel about Denver — everything’s changed, and there’s none of me left to go back to.

And now I am back in Wisconsin for a couple of weeks.

As I drove here along I-90, passing places Jeff (my deceased life mate/soul mate) and I had visited together, tears welled up so I could barely see the road. I remembered our hopes and excitement as we’d made that journey, but I also remembered the complications and complexities that waited us. And I remembered how our story ended.

Those two youthful folks are long gone, and as I struggled to see the road through bleared eyes, I had to remind myself their failures and sorrows are gone, too. Life cannot hurt him any more. That old pain does not wait for me here.

But somehow, I found it hard to convince myself of that simple reality. And so my journey into Wisconsin was accompanied by the shadow of my dead past.

I’ve been in Wisconsin a few days now, staying at the apartment of a friend while she housesits in Mineapolis, and I am doing okay.

But I can’t bring myself to go up north to where we lived. What if the past isn’t dead? What if we are still there, struggling to create a new and simpler life for ourselves? It’s best not to find out.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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No Blues at the Blue Belle Inn

I went from one mostly consonant-free state to another. Ohio. Iowa. A measly two consonants between them. No wonder I got them mixed up when I was very young!

Jeff and I had been to Iowa once a long time ago. We often reminisced about a motel near Ames, the quiet location, the pond our windows overlooked (though it could have been a rain puddle considering all the rain we’d driven through). We always wanted to go back through the state, and now we never will go together. But I went back by myself and this time, I didn’t stay at a motel. I stayed at a bed and breakfast, one I’d known about for many years: The Blue Belle Inn in St. Ansgar, owned by fellow writer Sherrie Hansen, author of the wildflowers of Scotland romances. (One is named Blue Belle. Hmmm. I wonder where she got that title!)

When Sherrie bought the house twenty-five years ago, it was in terrible condition, but she restored the building, upgraded it, and decorated each of the bedrooms to reflect a story. I stayed in Plum Creek, named after a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.

Talk about being steeped in luxury! Lovely and very comfortable room room. Gourmet breakfast — egg and ham strata, cranberry scone, fresh fruit cup. Delicious lunch — chicken salad on a croissant with a salad. Fabulous dinner — cottage pie with a thatched roof (her version of shepherd’s pie) and coconut cake for desert.

As you probably figured out, although the inn is a bed and breakfast, Sherrie provides other meals for guests who stay more than a night or two.

I also had the luxury of meeting Sherrie, a long-time internet friend. We met at Gather.com, a now defunct social network site for writers and photographers. Sherrie moderated one of my favorite groups — a photography group for all things color. She would choose a color, and group members submitted photos of something depicting that color. Such fun!

Sherrie is as wise and as intelligent as she appears online, making my stay at the Blue Belle Inn a real joy.

And so another online friend has become a friend for real.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Field of Dreams

I enjoyed the movie Field of Dreams and even liked the ending as long as I didn’t let myself wonder how the magic had already reached out to all those folks, bringing them to the field. Unless they were all local (and we know they weren’t since the locals thought he was loco), some of them would have had to start traveling almost as soon as the field was completed. But this is a movie about magic, not logic.

Apparently, the magic reached out beyond the screen because the field became a tourist destination. I always found that ironic. Didn’t people realize it was just a movie, and that the magic was only movie magic? I felt disconnected from these folk, unable to understand the draw, until I was driving along a highway and noticed one of those blue signs that listed local attractions. And there it was, in Dyersville, Iowa: Field of Dreams.

I’d chanced upon other movie locations in earlier travels: the Bagdad cafe, Tom Hanks’s house in Sleepless in Seattle, the fabulous wrought-iron building in Wolf, an iconic route 66 motel that has appeared in dozens of movies, the town where True Grit was filmed, the La Brea tar pits, and several others I don’t remember at the moment. In this spirit, I turned off the highway and made the three-mile trek to the Field of Dreams.

As I drove to the site, I had to laugh at the foolishness of my becoming another pilgrim to the location, but when I arrived, the feeling of being foolish disappeared. It really is special being able to see in real life something you have seen in a movie. Beyond that, it was fun seeing the field itself, so incongruous — a ballpark in the middle of an agrarian area. And it touched me, that magic of dreams.

Maybe

I don’t know what my maybe would be; don’t even know what to dream about or hope for, and yet as I stood gazing at that field, I sensed possibilities as yet unrealized.

Such is the magic that reached out to us from the movie. And such is the magic that draws even a cynic such as I to the Field of Dreams.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Apparently so.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

A Ghost of Times Past

I am a generation of one, without roots, and currently without even a place to call home, so people’s rootedness often seems strange — and compelling — to me.

Perhaps the most fascinating story of roots was one I heard at a Chinese buffet in DeKalb, Illinois. Not that the buffet had anything to do with this particular history — it’s just where we happened to have our conversation.

I had arranged to meet an author I had collaborated with on a steampunk book called Break Time. This book exemplifies the wonder of the internet — the authors collaborating on the project came from four different countries, and none of us had ever met in real life. So I was thrilled to finally be able to meet one of the authors — Dale Cozort, who writes science fiction and alternative histories.

Dale, his wife Elaine, and I had a pleasant chat over plates of delicacies until I happened to fill a momentary pause with an idle question. “Do you live here in the city?”

Elaine said yes, they lived in town, in one of the first houses built there.

That sure caught my interest! When she told me the house had been built by her great-great-grandfather, I asked how they came to own the place. I expected her to say that they bought it when it happened to come on the market, but what she said made my jaw drop.

Her great-great-grandfather, Eli B. Gilbert, an attorney and Civil War officer, had built the house in 1864, and it had been in her family ever since. She grew up in that house and is the fifth generation of her family to own it.

Wow! Talk about roots!

There are reminders of the past everywhere, including portraits of her progenitors. Apparently there are places in the attic Dale and Elaine are still exploring, and they keep finding fabulous treasures, such as her great-great-grandfather’s will. They have donated many of the documents they have found to the local library, and there are probably more to discover.

Can you imagine being so bound to a place? No wonder Dale writes alternate histories! History colors everything he does, everything he touches. The house even stirred up my muse! What if someone living in the house were to open a door expecting to enter their bedroom, for example, but entered the room as it was 153 years ago, before the Civil War ended? Oh, my.

Elaine and Dale invited me to the house and, stepping inside, I could feel the weight of all that history. Elaine said, almost sadly, there were no ghosts in that house, but in a way, the house itself is a ghost — or at least a testament — of times past.

Such an unexpected and unplanned joy of this trip — meeting Dale and Elaine and being introduced to their history and their house. I just hope that in my amazement and enthrallment, I remembered to thank them.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Connecting the Dots

When I talk about how meeting people on my cross-country trip affects me, a friend tells me that I shouldn’t underestimate how my contacts with others affects them.

I do think about it at times, especially the chance encounters — the tow truck driver in Port Richey who took a picture of “Herbie’s brother” for his Love Bug loving little boy. The men who get joy of changing the oil and doing other maintenance on such a work of art. The older women who remember the fun they had in a similar vehicle and the young ones who dream of owning such a cute car.

I saw a billboard for an automobile museum that said, “They are not cars. They are time machines.” This never seemed as true as the day I visited a VW dealer — my car looked as if it had driven straight out of the 1970s into a 2016 showroom.

And what about the girl I met in the woods? There she was, sitting by herself in sorrow, and a woman appears and offers her a hug.

But mostly I know the story from my side, at least I think I do. It seems as if we live multiple lives at once — our everday life, our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our emotional life, our mythic life. It’s the mythic aspect of my journey that I am thinking of today.

When I left Hocking Hills and drove back through Columbus, I tried following US 33 through town, thinking that despite traffic, it would be the easiest way to get out of town and on my way to Marshall, Michigan to see the Honolulu House.

I got lost in the labyrinth of detours around construction zones, not just geographically lost, but mythically lost. Afterward, I seemed to be driving to no purpose, just futilely racking up the miles, with no sense of adventure or direction.

I finally found the road that cuts diagonally through to Fort Wayne, but it turned out I was on the wrong road. I had intended visit a special candy store someone had told me about, and by the time I realized I was going in the wrong direction, I was too tired to turn around. So I kept driving and almost ran out of gas because I couldn’t see a gas station anywhere on the road.

I made it all the way to Battle Creek Michigan when I belatedly discovered a message from a woman in Ohio, who wanted to meet me as I did her. I felt terrible because it was too far to turn back, but then I thought, “Why not? Who said I always had to keep moving forward?”

So I backtracked and discovered I was still moving forward. The road was always before me, my eyes focused on the path in front of me with only occasional glances behind to keep me centered. There was not even a sense of repetition since I saw everything from a completely different viewpoint. In Indiana, bright pinkish-purple redbuds lined the road in broad swathes, trees that had not at all been visible when I went the opposite direction.

And I realized that so it is with life — even if we feel as if we are backtracking, we are always moving forward, always changing, often seeing the same things with a different perspective.

I must admit that a good part of my decision to go back to Ohio had to do with having a second chance at visiting the Coons homemade candy store. Coons Candy is a five-generation store preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary. They make much of their own candy, toffee and fudge being specialties and, as the person who recommended it said, Coons Candy was definitely worth a visit.

I roamed the store, exchanged stories with a few members of the family, bought a sampling of their wares, and took a photo of them.

I left feeling as if I’d found the self I had lost during my previous sojourn in Ohio, as if somehow I was supposed to go to that store, as if it were a connection I needed to make like those connect-the-dot puzzles I used to like in childhood. If you missed a dot or didn’t connect them properly, the picture didn’t make sense.

And that turned out to be the case here. As soon as I connected that particular dot, the next steps of my journey appeared. I was invited to stay at an ex-sort-of-sister-in-law’s place for a few days, and a friend asked me to housesit later in the month.

And so it goes, this mythic life of mine.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Searching for the Unique

Somehow on this trip I have managed to bypass some of the biggest attractions such as San Antonio, New Orleans, Savannah and Saint Augustine. If you know my aversion to traffic, crowds, and cities in general, that makes sense, but somehow I also missed the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail although both had been on my itinerary. (They now head of list of places to go on my next trip.)

During my many visits, people have suggested I visit many places, but few of those capture my imagination. One, the mention of a sign at the beginning of I 40 outside Wilmington N.C., so intrigued me, I spent hours looking for it, even though it turns out it had been stolen so many times the highway department stopped replacing it.

Another such quest was the Honolulu House in Marshall, Michigan. I have passed and bypassed so many historic houses, I have no idea why that particular house seemed vital to visit even though it was hundreds of miles out of my way. Probably the words “unique architecture” swayed me. After 9,000 miles, it gets harder to find things to amaze. (Not that the world becomes less amazing; it’s that your tendency to be amazed becomes overpowered.)

The Honolulu House, built in 1860, is now a museum that happened to be closed when I got there. I took my photo, then wandered around the area, gawking at the houses on the aptly named Mansion Street. There were so many fabulous places in such a small area it wowed me.

Apparently, my ability to be amazed isn’t completely overpowered yet.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

Hiking in Hocking Hills

A friend recommended Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio as a place to go hiking, and since I desperately needed to make some sort of wilderness connection, no matter how tame, I visited the park.

It was worth going out of my way to visit the place — fabulous rock formations and a lovely hike through trees to a lake where I saw red-wing black birds, cardinals, and a huge bird that might have been an owl.

Although the park was fairly crowded, I took the trail less-traveled. On my way back I noticed a young woman sitting cross-legged on a wall. She seemed sad, so I asked if she were okay. She gave me a faint smile and said yes, but still I hesitated. I asked if she would like to talk or if she needed a hug. She stood and said, “I can always use a hug.” I held her for perhaps a minute while she cried, told her I was sorry for her troubles and continued on my way.

Later, back on the highway, I became tearful. It wasn’t until the unexpected bout of melancholy passed that I wondered where those tears had come from. Had I absorbed her sorrow?

Remembering other tearful episodes on this trip, I realized the tears always came after visiting people caught in grief-stricken or stressful lives. Tears for me seem to be a response to stress, so although it is possible I absorb other people’s emotions, it’s also possible I am just reacting to the stress of the situation, or maybe it’s only that their sorrow calls forth echoes of my own.

I don’t suppose it matters one way or another — whatever the reason, I process the emotion, then wash it away.

And in this particular situation, what I am left with after the cleansing is the memory of a hike made more poignant by that brief encounter with another human being.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Pass the Matzo

So far on my cross-country journey, I haved traveled 8,000 miles and visited or passed through 16 states. I don’t collect souvenirs (except for the pink cowgirl hat I bought in Texas). Instead, I collect firsts. My first night camping. My first view of the Sonoran Desert. My first sip of Grand Marnier. My first taste of Greek food. There have been hundreds of firsts on this journey, but a true gem to add to my crown of experience was the first time ever I was at a dinner when someone said, “Pass the matzo.”

If you have spent any time reading the comments at the bottom of my posts, you will have come across Rami Ungar, a long-time follower of this blog and an author of horror fiction. (He has a new book coming out next month, so look for it if you like scary fiction.)

Rami and his rabbi father invited me to a family dinner when I passed through Ohio, and they apologized profusely for the poor fare. Because it was Passover, there were various dietary restrictions, but even if the food hadn’t been gourmet quality (it was truly delicious), I would have been delighted with the meal. I mean really — Passover with a rabbi? How cool is that! (Another couple of firsts for me: first Passover meal, first visit with a rabbi.)

It was wonderful to meet Rami after all these years, a treat to sit in the kitchen with him and his father as they baked the following day’s fare, and a pleasure to meet his beautiful sisters.

There was a lot of talk that night — religion, writing, comedy, travel — but what I will always remember is the joy of that simple sentence, a strange one to me, a common one to them: “Pass the matzo.”

Be sure to check out Rami’s post for more about our visit:
https://ramiungarthewriter.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/a-wonderful-visit-meeting-with-pat-bertram-in-person/

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Virginia is for Lovers

The Virginia state slogan is “Virginia is for lovers.” I can’t vouch for the veracity of that, but I do know US 23 through Virginia is perhaps the loveliest stretch of road I have been on during the 8,000 miles I have traveled so far. Of course, it’s entirely possible the route was colored by my relief at having escaped a rather chilling southern gothic episode (see previous post), but still, by any reckoning, it was a lovely drive. The only thing more beautiful would be that same drive in the fall.

Often during this long journey I have passed by a special sight or site that had to go unsung because there was no place to pull off to make a mental or photographic note. The blaze of sunset-orange poppies on a verge in North Carolina. A swathe of goldenrod in Tennessee. A median filled with daisies in Virginia. A hillside in Kentucky purpled with mountain laurel. A road lined with dogwood in Ohio. A fuchsia-colored field in Indiana.

But luckily, there was a turn-out at a postcard-perfect view on that Virginia highway. I stood there at the overlook mesmerized by the scene that lay at my feet, by the lushness that surrounded me.

On a journey of this magnitude, where each turn of the road brings a new view, individual sights get lost in the collage of miles. I don’t know if it will ever be possible to comprehend everything that has happened, everything I have seen in the past few months, but there in Virginia, for just a little while, it all made sense.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Southern Gothic

I met a woman at a campground who offered me a place to stay while I hiked a bit of the nearby Appalachian Trail. When I went to visit her, I didn’t find the trail; what I found was a family feud of the Tennessee mountain kind. You know what I am talking about, you’ve seen it in a dozen movies — the backwoods family that hates each other but hates everyone else more. This was the first place I’ve stayed that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to be able to extricate myself. (Techincally, I was in North Carolina, but the mountain bordered on Tennessee.)

The visit started out fine. Since most of the characters in this southern gothic drama did not live in the woman’s house (she provided a second house for her mean-as-rattlesnake-venom mom, her indolent sister and autistic nephew) the first twenty hours were fine. We had a nice visit in the evening, and the next morning I hiked for an hour on her private trail.

We’d found a stray Irish setter at the grocery store that first evening, and despite her bad back, she spent two hours hunched over a tub cleaning the thing. She woke in considerable pain, took some pain pills, and fell asleep during the day. Her family came up during the day, got all excited and called an ambulance, even though all she needed was to sleep it off. I told them she didn’t want to go to the hospital, and so it was. As soon as she awoke and realized where she was, she left and walked twenty miles back home.

I stayed an extra day because she needed help, but that night, when her mother sent up food for the woman and her father (although the woman supports both her parents, they can’t stand each other, so the father lives with his daughter) she didn’t send any for me. Apparently, I had committed some horrible faux pas by sticking my words in where they didn’t belong.

It doesn’t sound like much in the retelling, but it was unnerving, and a bit uncomfortable, especially when I was increasingly given tasks. I felt bad for the woman — she’d gotten screwed not only by her family but by her attorneys and bankers to the tune of four houses and forty acres (apparently they tried to get all of that extremely valuable mountain property, but she finally managed to stop the land grab before they got the remaining forty acres).

But none of that was my problem, and I couldn’t allow anyone to make it mine.

I left the next day (escaped!) before anyone else was awake. (It was nine o’clock, so my sneaking out was only half the case.)

Still, as chilling as the visit was, I am glad I went. The episode falls under the heading of “experience,” and that is what I got — a glimpse of the painful reality that lies beneath the serene beauty we often accept as truth.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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