A Tragic Anniversary

Frequently I have what I think is a good idea for a manuscript, but when I start writing, it just doesn’t work. The information below is from research I did for one of those discarded ideas.

April 15, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death. April 15, 1865, was to have been a day of Thanksgiving, marking the end of the long and bloody American Civil War. The president had proclaimed it.

The Confederate Army had surrendered several days earlier. There would be no more North against South, no brother against brother: The fighting was over. But the hating was not. On the night of April 14, an angry Confederate loyalist shot President Lincoln as he and his wife watched a play in Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died of his wounds the next morning. The national day of giving thanks became a national day of mourning.

The president’s funeral train traveled from Washington, D.C., to Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, where Lincoln would ultimately be buried. It traveled through 180 cities. One of them was New York City. For two days, including an overnight viewing at City Hall, Manhattan was draped in black: houses, storefronts, churches, synagogues, fence rails, and spectators, too. Only the red, white, and blue of flags at half-mast in every conceivable place, broke up the monochromatic landscape.

Sixteen horses made their way slowly and solemnly up Broadway, pulling the fallen president behind them.  One hundred thousand men—no women, in keeping with the times—marched in the funeral procession: veterans, firefighters, religious representatives, lodge men, and, by special last-minute permission from Secretary of War Stanton, a large contingent of free black men.  Sorrowing crowds watched from every inch of sidewalk; from the high branches of trees en route; and from windows of bordering buildings.

And that’s where one more tiny but fascinating detail comes in. Two little boys watched from one second-story window. The house was that of Cornelius Schaack Roosevelt—and the two boys are the future president, Theodore Roosevelt, and his younger brother, Elliott (who would be the father of future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt).  These moments of convergence probably happen often in history; in this case, a photographer happened to catch the moment. One of the many reasons I love history!

February 2015


Mispronounced Words

I confess: I am a word snob. It sets my teeth on edge when I hear people using words incorrectly. But just between you and I**, it’s even more irritating to me to hear words mispronounced. It’s not that I’m never guilty myself. My husband gleefully reminds me on a regular basis of the seventh-grade English class in which I said “TREE-cherous” (for treacherous) and of the Bat Mitzvah party, same year—the year I met my husband—during which I loudly proclaimed, “I love Janis JOE-plin.” I will never live that one down. 
Still, hypocritical or not, when I hear news reporters and politicians talking about things “nucular,” it makes me want to go nuclear. Ditto for “misCHEEvious.” Where is that final i that they’re enunciating? And please, don’t get me started on the second month of the year. So many people have ignored the fourth letter of the word—FebRuary—that the folks at Webster’s have capitulated. Not only is it now acceptable to say “FebYOUary,” it’s actually the first pronunciation listed in their dictionary. It’s enough to make me want to run screaming for the hills.
I know that English is a living language, changing according to common usage. The more people there are who pronounce a word wrong, the more likely it is that, before long, they will actually be pronouncing it correctly. So I’m going to stick with the written word, releasing words into the atmosphere for people to pronounce any way they like—and out of my hearing.
**KIDDING! It’s between you and me. But don’t get me started on bad grammar.


Eleanor and Me

I have a new picture book out this year. It’s called Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic, and it’s based on a true historical event:

In June 1939, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and King George visited the United States. It was the first time British royalty had ever set foot in their former colonies, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to go beyond the usual Washington, D.C., pomp. She decided on a picnic in Hyde Park, New York, with hot dogs as a main attraction. Americans were appalled at this gaucherie—there are boxes of letters protesting said menu that bear witness to this fact—but Eleanor stuck to her guns and the picnic was a big success. Both king and queen tried hot dogs for the first (and maybe the last, I’m not sure!) time.

To write the story accurately and with as many colorful details as possible, I traveled up to the FDR library in Hyde Park. I’ve been writing books for many years, but I can honestly say that nothing in those years has been more thrilling than holding the actual letters that Eleanor received about the royal picnic. (Not to mention the RSVP cards that picnic attendees sent her.) “I am holding something that Eleanor Roosevelt may also have held and read,” I kept thinking excitedly—although it’s more likely that it was her secretary who handled the mail. Yes, I am a total history nerd. But come on, Eleanor Roosevelt! Letters about hot dogs! It doesn’t get much better than that.

The cherry on the top came a few weeks ago when I was invited (along with the terrifically talented illustrator of the book, Victor Juhasz) to participate in an event at Hyde Park commemorating the 75th anniversary of the original picnic. There was a book reading and signing, and then—of course, a hot dog dinner. What a blast!

So as you enjoy your summer picnics, think of Eleanor. Better yet, make a pilgrimage to Top Cottage, Roosevelt’s modest little house on a hill near the main Hyde Park estate, and the venue for the festivities. You’ll see a framed thank-you note from the queen, mentioning specifically the hot dogs. Then, please, read my book! I can’t be the only person who’s tickled by the thought of incredible Eleanor having a soft spot for hot dogs on the grill. 

July 2014

Here's what the New York Times had to say.

The Last Luddite

[The Luddites were nineteenth-century English textile artisans who protested against newly-invented, time-saving machinery, such as power looms, during the Industrial Revolution. It’s come to mean anyone opposed to new technologies.]

Someone recently e-mailed me, asking if I ever updated my blog. How embarrassing! I haven’t posted since, well . . . never. My “blog” has the same post it did on day one of this web site. The baby who is its subject is now a happy young man in his twenties, more than a head taller than me! So yeah, it’s probably time to update.

It is a cliché—but oh, so true—that the older you get, the faster life speeds by. Like almost everyone I know, I am one of those people whose life runs like a very complicated and precise tango. More than two minutes behind, and I'm dancing to the wrong song. Luckily I'm a pretty organized person. I have the whole thing down to a science.

But I don’t like it. I prefer taking things nice and slow, if only I could. Every minute of every hour of every day seems to be filled. The devices which are supposed to make things easier seem to me to make things worse. They scream at you to take action: check your phone, answer office e-mails (even at night and on weekends), catch up with everyone’s news on Facebook. Obviously, technology has its place, but I’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to each new innovation. I resist because it hurts me to see technology taking the place of so many things I treasure. Walking through NYC’s Central Park at lunchtime, or even hiking on a mountaintop in Vermont, I want to cry when I see so many people glued to their phones, eyes closed and ears blocked to the sights and sounds of the wonders of the natural world around them. I feel a little like Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

 So whenever I get the chance, I make my own feeble protest against the quick tempo of living. For example:

         I go for a walk to nowhere in particular. Phone off, no music playing—just legs for locomotion and eyes and ears for appreciating what’s around me.

         I cook and bake from scratch. I make my own yogurt, my own pizza, and my own bread: not all the time, but often. I don’t use a food processor, either, preferring the slow pace of grating and chopping by hand. 

         I write thank-you notes by hand and send them by snail-mail. Hey, I just read in the New York Times that this is coming back into fashion!

         I sit down for meals with the whole family together. It’s how I was brought up, and it seemed to work. My parents are about to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, and my three sisters and I all still talk to each other. It’s easy to find reasons you can’t do meals together, but worth ignoring those reasons whenever possible.

         I try to ignore the persistent inner voice that tells me to multi-task. I used to think that being an accomplished multi-tasker was a badge to wear proudly. I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe giving one thing my full attention is even better.

So there you are—the suggestions of the last Luddite. Maybe one of these days I’ll even revert to writing not on the computer, but on one of those yellow legal pads I used to use, and a—what’s it called?—oh yeah, pencil.

May 2014

Roughing It

I remember with utter clarity the dizzying feelings that swept over me when I became a mother for the first time: the heady perfume of newborn skin next to mine; the sheer perfection of 10 tiny toes; the exquisite, long dark eyelashes. Most of all, I remember the giddy sense of adventure—the feeling that I was embarking on a voyage into the unknown that would change my life forever.

Four and a half years later, my second child was born. In the months leading up to it, I'd wondered how I could possibly love another baby in the same all-consuming way I had loved the first, still loved the first. I wondered whether the whole experience would be an intense, but slightly watered-down version of the first time around. As anyone who's had more than one child knows, I needn't have worried. I heard the little lamblike bleating noises, saw the sweet M-shaped mouth and the same long, dark lashes, and I was in love all over again. Strongest of all, once more, was the sense that I was off on a whole new adventure.

I couldn't have been more right. At about 30 months, the son who had charmed me with his smiles, his gurgles, and his big brown eyes, was diagnosed as autistic. My world changed instantly and profoundly.

No child comes with a road map. But with a so-called "typical" child, you feel like you're at least traveling on the same road that millions of other parents are driving down. If you make a wrong turn or come to a dead end, you know that you can stop and ask for directions. True, some routes may be straighter or faster than others; still, eventually they all pretty much move you from point A to point B.

With an autistic child, it's completely different. It's kind of like being in an Outward Bound program. There's no road map. There's no road. No car. Now, don't misunderstand: It's hard, but not bleak. There is a certain exhilaration to being a pioneer. Every single step brings huge feelings of excitement—even if the steps turn out to lead you back in a circle to your starting point. On foot, you move more slowly. There are gorgeous, pristine vistas all around you and no distractions to keep you from enjoying them. Nor is it fair to say you're completely alone. Over the years, my son has had help and support from countless doctors, therapists, teachers, friends, and family members. It will always amaze me that so many people, many of them strangers, will go all out for a child who isn't theirs. Still, at the end of the day, they drive home, and it's just my little family crawling exhaustedly into that tent in the wilderness.

I've no doubt that before this adventure is done, I'll have explored every corner of life's globe. My son has gone from no speech at all, to screeching in high-pitched tones, to nonstop talking; from no touching, to constant cuddling, to frequent hitting—all of these in every possible combination, back and forth and back again. He has terrors and obsessions and anxieties to work through, but he also gets incredible joy from life and brings incredible joy to his parents and sister. The obstacles autism puts in his path seldom dim the gusto with which he typically greets each day. And when I say that he's changed my life, I don't mean only by making it a bigger challenge.

Still, it's not what I planned for, not the way most of my friends live. He factors into every decision I make—from my business schedule (and whether I should be working at all), to vacation plans, to sharing an occasional evening out with my husband. Not a single day goes by when I don't anguish over my beautiful child and the frightening fragility of his world. And it doesn't in any way diminish the deep and abiding love I feel for him to say that some days I wonder how it would feel to race down the superhighway of life behind the wheel of a brand-new convertible.

Reprinted from Middlebury College Alumni magazine, Summer 2003