Wednesday, March 28, 2012


In the movie, The Help, when little Mae Mobley said, "You're my real mama, Aibi," I had one of those time-travel moments, instantly transported back some sixty years, to Lillian.

Lillian came north from Georgia during the great migration of the 'thirties, and went to work five days a week in my recently-married parents' home. My mother (who eventually lived to 98) was, in the term of the day, "weakly," and Lillian did whatever needed doing in and around the house. By the time I made my appearance, she was family, as were her husband, Big Tim; and her sons, Little Tim and Ralph.

As a toddler and preschooler, I was Lillian's shadow. Mornings, I'd wait for her inside the front door, then trail her through the house. I helped her fold laundry and move the vacuum cleaner from room to room. As she worked, she told me stories about her early life in the south, and sang folk tunes and spirituals. Her favorite was Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Sometimes, when she was down on hands and knees, cleaning the kitchen floor, she told me to get up on her back and have a horsey ride. Lillian was one powerful woman.

She was a church lady of the hardest core. Above all else, she loved Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, and she often told me that when it came time for her to go to heaven, Jesus would be there to show her the way. I loved going to church with her on Sundays; there was wonderful music, and dancing, and even shouting. After the service, I got to bask in the glow from a circle of admiring ladies, to whom Lillian was introducing "My Laurence." (I had not yet become Larry). And then, off we'd go to Lillian's house, where I'd demolish a plate of pork chops, the likes of which I've never tasted since.

One day, when I was about four, I think, I discovered that pushing on that little stem coming out of a tire made an interesting, funny noise, and was enjoying myself thoroughly until the corner of my eye caught my father heading my way at an alarming speed. I took off running, into the house, saw Lillian vacuuming in the living room, scooted behind her, and grabbed onto her legs as if she were a life preserver. As my father charged up, Lillian raised the business end of the vacuum cleaner like a sword. "Mr. Karp," she announced. "If you lay one hand on my Laurence, I will walk out of this house, and I will never come back." My father let out a token splutter, then turned around and stomped out of the room. For the rest of his life, he told that story to anyone who'd listen.

When I was eight or nine, Lillian developed diabetes, and spent a long time in the hospital, where I'd go to visit her. We were all scared silly she'd never come out, but her constitution prevailed, and eventually she returned to work at the Karps', though with a lighter load.

Years passed. I grew up, went off to school, married (with Lillian's enthusiastic approval of my prospective wife), had kids, and eventually moved to Seattle. I wrote to Lillian, kept her up on what was happening, until one Sunday when I got a call from my parents. Lillian had died suddenly that Easter morning, just about the time the sun was rising.

I don't think any writer since late Victorian times has dared to put a story like that into print, but there it is. More than forty years later, thinking about it, my eyes still get leaky.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Name Blame

Last week, I went in for some blood tests. The venipuncturist looked at my order sheet, smiled, and said, "Be right with you, Laurence."

I ground my teeth. "Larry."

The young woman blinked. "Oh, you don't like Laurence?"

"One of my lesser gripes against my mother."


When I was a kid, I was unfortunate enough to have a name like Laurence to go with a head full of ringlets that my mother refused to let anyone cut off. The kids teased me endlessly. "Looooor-ince! lit...tle Loooooor-ince." Then, if they were big kids, they'd beat me up.

"Why did you have to name me Laurence?" I asked my mother.

"It's a beautiful name. It means 'crowned in laurel.' You're going to be a great success."

Maybe if I live long enough.

Then, when I was eight, I went to a summer camp run by a high school athletic coach named Henry Rumana. When "Hank" asked me my name, and I told him, he looked stricken. "Tell you what - we're going to call you Larry here."

The most amazing thing happened. I was the same kid, but the other campers treated me like a whole nother person. Like one of the guys. No teasing. I learned to swim, played baseball, hiked in the woods, put up pup tents. When I returned home, I announced that I was now to be addressed as Larry.

My mother's response was predictable. "Larry...ugh. Your name is Laurence, and that's what you're going to be called.

"If you call me that name, I won't answer," I said. And I didn't. No number of threats, smacks, or punishments loosened Big Larry's tongue.

Mother sicked my Aunt Bea on me. "Larry is the nickname for Lawrence with a w," Aunt Bea said. "You're Laurence with a u. If you want a nickname, it would be Laurie."

 "My name is Larry!" I howled. "Laurie is a girl's name." In those times, there were few things more uncool for an eight-year-old boy than having a girl's name. There was a male Marion in my school. Most days, his life was not worth living.


The venipuncturist pointed at her name tag: WINI. "Know what my real name is?


"Yes, and I hate it. Only my mother calls me Winifred." Her lips curled into a snarl.

"Try not answering to it," I said. "That works real well."


 Call me stubborn. Call me obstinate, or pigheaded. Or even contumacious. Just don't call me Laurence.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Case Of The Phantom Pisser

Today, I'm cheating a bit, but in a good cause.

The past couple of weeks have been very tight, and as some of you mentioned, last Wednesday's post was not quite up to snuff. I expect to be back to full operation by next week.

Yesterday was my turn to post on the Poisoned Pen Press Blog, and somehow, that piece turned out to be the post I've most enjoyed writing, ever. I hope you'll have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Consider adding the Poisoned Pen Press Blog to your regular reading list. You'll get some very interesting thoughts from a bunch of damn good writers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Collector Mindset

Antique music boxes have been an important part of my life for the past thirty years. These self-playing musical instruments appeal to both my ear and my eye, and they've opened doors for me to places I'd never otherwise have discovered.

I grew up in a household which valued only work done by the mind. "Manual labor" was very definitely infra dig. But when I began to acquire music boxes, I saw right off that these old instruments had a tendency to stop playing, and that I'd be wise to learn at least the basics of their care and feeding. Talk about starting at Square One. I spent a couple of weeks at Nancy Fratti's Restoration School in upstate New York. The teacher was Dr. Joseph Roesch, a professor of English, fully as adroit with words as with tools. Amazing! Joe patiently walked me through what I needed to know about the workings and non-workings of music boxes, listed out the tools I'd need, told me to call him any time I got stuck, and sent me home to enjoy more than a quarter-century of fulfilling manual labor.

Another of my father's strongly-held opinions was that opera was stupid. "I don't understand it," he used to say. "A man gets up on a stage and starts singing, "Oh, I am going to go out the door, out the door, out the door, yes, out the door. I am going to go out the door, yes, yes." But the music on the very finest antique music boxes was operatic - this, after all, was the popular music among people wealthy enough to be able to buy music boxes back in the nineteenth century. It didn't take long for me to decide I'd like to hear this music in a theater. The upshot was that my wife and I have been Seattle Opera subscribers for some twenty years now, and are declared Seattle Ring-Nuts.

I like the whimsical early-twentieth-century chromolithographs, and it just so happens that they sometimes can be found on the lids of small music boxes from the turn into the twentieth century. At the Palmer-Wirfs Expo Show in Portland this past weekend, I noticed a lovely Russian black-lacquer box with a small, unexceptional two-tune musical movement inside. But the lid was covered with a very engaging litho, at the left lower edge of which was printed "Bringing in the Christmas Pudding." And very unusual, the artist's name, Helena Maguire, was printed opposite the title. Well, I do collect music boxes, so of course this one came home with me.