A most extraordinary New Year’s Eve

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Vianden Castle is one of scores in Luxembourg, but it would be a castle in nearby France that would be the setting for an unforgettable New Year’s Eve.

Forty-two years ago, I faced a young man I had just met.

“Come with me,” he said.

I had arrived in Luxembourg, that wee country squeezed by Germany, France and Belgium, just two days earlier, the beginning of a six-month stint abroad at my university’s branch campus. I had been placed with Kurt and Margareta Schroeder: Swedes, two of the loveliest people I have ever met. Lennart was their son.

“She’s an old friend,” he explained about the woman who owned the castle. “Every New Year’s Eve we go there and celebrate.”

I did not, at that point, sense there was something he was not telling me. Sweet Margareta, who would, over the course of my stay, squeeze me orange juice and provide fresh-baked bread and honey each morning, assured me that the short drive into France would be fun and that her blond, blue-eyed boy with the mass of unruly curls would take good care of me.

“Sure, I’ll go. What should I wear?”

“It’s a drafty, dirty old castle,” Lennart said. “Just wear jeans.”

Later, we drove past open fields and woodlands where trees stood naked and lacy, having long ago shed their leaves. Pewter clouds pressed from above. The chill made me glad to be wrapped in a turtleneck, heavy sweater, and ski jacket. My straight-legged Levi’s topped rugged hiking boots. As the countryside raced by, I wondered what a “dirty, old castle” might look like. I’d spent my life in New Jersey, a place pretty much devoid of castles of any kind.

Lennart turned onto a narrow road, like the rest, a quaint blend of forest and rolling pastures.

“This is part of the estate,” he said. “She inherited two thousand acres from her grandfather.”

When he pulled onto the circular drive, I stared at the massive, two-story stone structure that was several hundred years old. As we mounted a wide, white stairway, I considered the odd placement of a sculpture that appeared to be George Washington and his men on their fabled crossing of the Delaware. The piece rested halfway up the staircase. I would soon learn that the statue’s haphazard placement was a remnant of the castle’s World War II occupation by Nazi officers, who were caught amidst their attempts to steal artwork. The sculpture was left on the stairs as soldiers fled an attack by local French citizens and there it remained.

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A six-foot, white marble sculpture depicting this famous scene of Washington crossing the Delaware incongruously rested halfway up the castle’s front stairs.

“The castle has sixty-six rooms,” Lennart said. “But we only use five or six of them. It costs too much to keep the heat on.”

Marie greeted us in French and with two kisses, one on each check for Lennart. She eyed me quizzically. I couldn’t help but notice her modelesque frame squeezed into impossibly tight jeans. A scarlet, long-sleeved shirt similarly hugged her curves, revealing a hint of cleavage, and perfectly matching red lipstick highlighted her lips. Raven hair hung loose down her back. High, black heels clicked with each step.

My hiking boots suddenly felt heavy. My cuffed Levi’s a bit too rustic.

Marie chattered on with Lennart in French, one of five languages he conversed in fluently. “She doesn’t speak English,” he whispered.

My French was pathetic. I could read menus and road signs and order wine, if I had to. But I didn’t need to understand the language to see there was something between them.

Marie led us into a dining room where a long table was set with linens and crystal. A chandelier sparkled above, throwing shadowed light on 16th century paintings. Over the course of the evening, eight other Parisians would join us, not one of whom spoke English.

Multiple bottles of wine and champagne were uncorked. When we were all seated, a silver tray appeared from the kitchen bearing a massive fish. I wondered if poisson was the traditional New Year’s Eve repast, as I requested another serving. I didn’t notice I was the only one asking for seconds.

I was surprised when the next platter appeared. And even more so when the many other courses arrived. I knew, without being told, that to decline an offering would be rude. So, I was greatly appreciative when we ran out of wine. Lennart explained we would trek to the cellar for more. One dark-haired, animated man, who, I was told, was a popular French comedian, led us through the castle’s murky halls and stairways. He started singing Gregorian chants, which seemed both fitting and a bit sacrilegious when we arrived at the family chapel, replete with alter and pews and cross. More than a bit tipsy, we joined him, our voices echoing off ancient stone walls.

We retrieved myriad dusty bottles of wine, some over 100 years old. As you might expect, much of the rest of the evening is a bit of a blur. But sometime later, I woke in a bedroom shrouded in shadow. I could hear the ticking of a grandfather clock. And stomping. Boots hitting the floor over and over. But my wine-addled brain and warm covers precluded me from investigating.

The next morning, I asked Lennart if I could see the clock. He translated my request. Marie, tilted her head.

“The clock was removed from that room many years ago,” Lennart said.

I wondered if the Nazis were to blame, but I didn’t ask.

“And the stomping?” I waited while Lennart spoke with Marie.

“That is the German soldier,” he said. “He was caught in the courtyard when the Nazis were fleeing. He was killed there. Later, Marie’s grandfather took the man’s skull and placed it in his library. He wanted to always remember. The soldier has been marching around the castle at night ever since.”

I stared at Marie. Her shrug told me a stomping Nazi ghost was no big deal in an old French castle.

On the drive back to Luxembourg, Lennart would confess that he and Marie had dated for years. This was the first New Year’s Eve celebration they weren’t a couple. He knew she was seeing someone and didn’t want to go to the castle alone. He did not disuuade the others when they inquired if we were dating.

Four decades of New Year’s Eve celebrations have passed since my trip into the French countryside, an evening filled with subterfuge, fabulous food, old wine, a stomping ghost, and an invisble grandfather clock.

I’m pretty sure nothing will ever top that.

 

Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

 

 

A gift from my father: Pondering what it means to be poor

Two years ago, my dad got sick. He was 92 and, with the exception of some childhood bouts of pneumonia – the result of growing up in a house full of chain-smoking coal miners – he’d been robustly healthy his entire life. That he survived the twin assaults of Valley Fever and pneumonia was surprising. That today, approaching 95, he still takes ballroom dance lessons, requires not a single medication, and reads the New York Times, amazes me.

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My father was an ice dancer until he was 80. Then he took up ballroom, which, despite the illness that almost killed him, he still enjoys today.

However, my dad is not the same as he was before his illness. His mind was altered, leaving him fuzzy in the short-term memory department. Ironically, and like many elderly people, he has no trouble recalling in vivid detail events that occurred many decades ago. The Japanese kamikaze that flew so close to his destroyer escort he could see the young pilot’s eyes before the plane narrowly missed the ship and plunged into the sea. The sailor plucked from dark, oil-slicked water who lay in his arms and asked for a cigarette before dying. The shipmate who worked as Mickey Rooney’s stunt double who sometimes climbed the mast and performed swan dives into the ocean. And the bodies of downed pilots, in a neat row on the deck, tarp covered save for their feet which rocked rhythmically as the ship swayed beneath the night sky, waiting to be buried at sea.

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My father served on a destroyer escort during World War II. The men of the USS Ulvert Moore fought in numerous battles, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Bright and clear is another memory my dad carries, one of a ten-year-old growing up in the mining town of North Irwin, Pennsylvania. The small dwelling on Penn Avenue housed immigrants, Irish in my father’s case. But Italians, and Poles, and Russians, and others lived on the street, as well, all sharing something in common. They were poor.

“Dad’s taking you to a ballgame,” his mother called.

Clad in knickers with clasps below the knees, brown shoes and socks, and a white button-down, my father balked when she handed him a sack lunch bearing a chicken sandwich and a small red apple.

“I wanna get lunch when I get there,” he said. “Everyone buys their lunch at the ballgame.”

My grandfather – thin, balding, blue eyes dancing beneath the brim of a fedora – smiled, then ushered my dad to the train station. There was no money to make the trip to Pittsburg’s Forbes Field, but my grandfather worked for the railroad – one of the few members of the the Butler clan to avoid laboring in the mines – so they rode the train for free.

My dad still clutched his sack lunch on the street car that would drop them in front of the stadium.

“I wanted to hide it,” he said. “I put it under the seat because I didn’t want people to see it.”

After disembarking at Forbes Field, they were caught in an excited wave of baseball fans rushing to get into the game. When they settled into their seats, my dad tucked the brown bag out of sight.

The game got underway, but then a strange murmuring swept through the crowd. My dad turned and, up in the stands on the third-base side, he saw a couple approaching.

“The man was young, dashing. Black hair. Big smile. Well dressed. She was a beautiful lady. Blonde. She looked like a movie star. People were waving at them.”

And there was something else.

“He was carrying a two-handled picnic basket.”

“What are you looking at?” my grandfather asked. “I think there’s gonna be a squeeze play.”

But my dad kept staring at the couple.

“Paul, you have to watch the game. Is there something wrong?” My grandfather turned.

“I don’t understand why anyone would bring a picnic basket to a ballgame unless they were real poor. He doesn’t look poor.”

“Paul, he isn’t poor!” my grandfather said. “That’s Billy Conn, the Light Heavyweight Champion of the World.”

Conn, an Irish-American boxer and local favorite called The Pittsburgh Kid, was known for being cocky and brash, his fights against Joe Louis, and his 63-11-1 record.

My dad continued to keep his brown bag hidden beneath the seat as he watched the game that day, taking a bite occasionally, hoping no one would notice. He wondered about the glamorous couple, sneaking peeks as they snacked on their picnic-basket lunch. He thought about what it meant to be poor.

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A chance sighting of world champion boxer Billy Conn had my then ten-year-old father pondering what it meant to be poor.

“I should have been proud to be able to go to the ballgame,” my dad said, blinking blue eyes that look just like mine. “I learned that I shouldn’t worry about what other people might think of me.”

I thought about his wise words, a lesson he learned at the tender age of ten, a time he still recalls so vividly.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, my father would earn a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University. When I was eight, I watched from the balcony as he received a master’s degree from Seton Hall. Because of his stint in the Navy and his education, we were never poor, something that, as a ten-year-old, he might have been comforted to know.

 

Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sears downfall: Maybe it’s my fault!

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Sears is in decline, the result of customers flocking to online retailers and the company not keeping up with current trends. Or, perhaps, it’s because of my refrigerator.

The headline read “Sears posts $558M loss ahead of the holiday season.”

The guilt returned. The thought of going into my kitchen pained me. I couldn’t bear to look at my refrigerator. I wondered, as I have in the past, if some small part of Sears’ downfall rests with me.

Once the premier retailer in the country, the company can trace its roots back to the 1890s and the iconic Sears Catalog, an all-encompassing publication where one could purchase everything from tractors to high fashion to livestock to home-building kits and everything in between. The catalog was the clearly the forerunner to Amazon. The day the massive, glossy tome arrived in the mail became a holiday, of sorts, with everyone wanting their turn to ogle the items first. Don’t believe me? Nostalgia associated with vintage Sears catalogs has some going for as much as $130 on e-bay.

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The holiday issue of the Sears Catalog was always a favorite.

Today, like many brick-and-mortar stores, Sears is in decline, the result of customers flocking to online retailers and the company not keeping up with current trends. Or, perhaps, it’s because of my refrigerator.

Seventeen years ago my fridge went on the fritz, so I hurried over to Sears. One swipe of my American Express Card later, I was assured a new one was on its way. The salesman – his name was John – smiled and waved as I left the appliance department.

A few days later, a refrigerator arrived, but not the one I’d asked for. Apologies followed, then another fridge appeared. But, again, the model was different than the one I’d purchased. Finally, the third time around, I got the refrigerator I’d ordered.

It wasn’t until the end of the month that I got an inkling something was amiss. I scanned my AMEX bill, looking for the $1,000 charge for my shiny new appliance. Strangely, there was no record of my purchase. Another month went by and Sears still had not requested payment for my refrigerator.

Even though I’m now a “recovering Catholic”, I still harbor vestiges of that guilt they inject into wee papists at birth. (I’m guessing it’s a permanent condition.) So, I called Sears and requested they charge me. Their response: “What refrigerator?” I calmly explained, but was informed that Sears had not delivered said appliance to my address, let alone three.

Finally, I went back to Sears in person and asked for John.

“Sorry, he’ doesn’t work here anymore,” a salesman explained.

I told my story.

“We have no record of you buying a refrigerator,” he said, after a brief computer search and before wandering off to assist another customer.

So, I wrote a letter, detailing the delivery of all three appliances, noting the cost and indicating that I would like to pay what I owed.

I waited.

And waited.

Seventeen years went buy, and the guilt of my “free” refrigerator still sometimes weighed on me. Then, the piece of rubber around the freezer started to rip and a new part was needed.

“I’ll call Sears and see if we can order another one,” my beau said.

I gulped. “You know, I never paid for the refrigerator, right?”

He picked up the phone.

“What if they find out? What will they think?”

“I’m looking for a part,” I heard him say. Then he recited my name and address.

Surely, there couldn’t be a record of my purchase, when there was no evidence of a transaction all those years earlier.

“Yep. That’s it.”

I froze.

“Great!”

I wondered, is there a statute of limitations? Is it theft? Is absconding with a thousand-dollar refrigerator a felony? Would a Sears truck soon be backing up to my door to reclaim the stolen loot while police sirens whined in the distance? Visions of the horrors that were probably living in my fridge danced in my head. Would they think me a horrible housekeeper?

My beau eyed me. “Let it go,” he said. “Just … let it go.”

I took a deep breath.

I recently read that Sears is having trouble funding the pension plan that supports 100,000 of its retirees. Eieeee!

I know what you’re thinking. Just … let it go

Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #YA The Scent Of Rain by Anne Montgomery @amontgomery8

Rosie Amber

Today’s team review is from Anita, she blogs here http://jenanita01.wordpress.com

#RBRT Review Team

Anita has been reading The Scent Of Rain by Anne Montgomery

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It was the cover that first attracted me to this book, and the title intrigued me. I instantly thought of the welcoming smell of the rain, the way the earth responds to it after an arid and depressing time. You can almost hear it breathing a sigh of relief and the scent is unforgettable.

There is a name for this scent, the ancients called it Petrichor, from Petros = stones and Ichor = the fluid in the veins of Gods.

I didn’t know much about the organisations like the one in this book. I had heard of the Amish and their refreshingly simple, although strict way of life. I was expecting this story to be similar, an account of how people live under such restrictive practices. I couldn’t…

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My life-long obsession with … rocks

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On a recent rocking excursion in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert a rushing stream blocked access to the mine we sought. But, no matter, the view was more than worth the trip.

People stare when you say you collect rocks. It’s almost as if they can’t quite wrap their heads around an adult’s desire to get nose-deep in dirt in pursuit of a stone.

I have been collecting rocks all my life. There are old photos of me standing near a large mound of soil, diligently putting pebbles in a cup when I was still toddling about in diapers. My mother, now 92, often recounts my arrival home from Girl Scout camp when I was maybe 10. My suitcase rested on the sidewalk in a line with others, having just been retrieved from the belly of a bus. When she lifted the bag, the handle broke off and, upon hitting the ground, the latch gave way, spilling not clothes but rocks onto the pavement. As I scrambled to gather up my prizes, she stood red faced, pretending, perhaps, that I wasn’t her child.

How did I end up with a life-long fascinating with rocks? Considering her sometimes discomfiture with my predilection – she periodically tossed my collection into the garden when cleaning – my mother might be the one to blame. After all, she was the one that trundled me into New Your City to the vaunted Museum of Natural History that houses one of the world’s premier collections of rocks and minerals, glittering jewels that dance in the light, all the more fascinating because someone, somewhere, dug them from the earth.

Because I spent a great deal of time moving about the country when I was pursuing my career as a TV reporter, the issue of my collection sometimes cropped up. When I went to work at ESPN, the moving company’s bill neatly itemized 500 pounds of rocks among my possessions. A skeptical HR employee wondered if there was some kind of mistake. Of course, there was not.

When people peruse my collection – I have about 400 specimens in my living room alone – they sometimes ask what my rocks are worth. Though some are quite beautiful, I do not consider their value in dollars, but rather in memories. While I don’t claim to recall the origin of every single stone in my collection, a great many remind me of certain places or people or periods in time. The pockmarked piece bearing green prenite and a splash of blue chalcedony that I dug out of a brook in New Jersey when I was 12. The smoky-gray geode that was a gift from my best friends for my 16th birthday. The apple-green chrysophrase I found in Australia, where I befriended an old miner who I think I may have known in another life and who later sent me an emerald nestled in grayish matrix. And the myriad specimens I gathered on my journeys with my dear friend Alice, who died a few years ago at 93.

Not all the memories my rocks evoke are idyllic. There are the two swirled reddish-white stones I picked up the day I suffered a horrendous bout of food poisoning ten miles from the nearest town. And the strange gray rock, etched with almost perfect rectangles, the origin of which I’ve never been able to ascertain, that I collected when I got lost in the desert with two dogs and subsequently ran out of water. I periodically reflect that my pets and I could be nothing but bleached bones today, had we not been rescued. It was the last time I went collecting alone. And though the situation was horrifying, those rocks remain nestled in with the rest, a reminder.

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My beau claims this is his favorite picture of me. The pencil drawing, rendered by his friend, was taken from a photo of me moments after I discovered a pretty rock.

The curious thing about rock collecting is that one need not always find something to add to the collection. Those who love me and who have been willing to head into the wilderness in pursuit of rocky treasures know that, often, we don’t find the collecting site we’re looking for. And that’s OK. The thrill is in the hunt, and being away from civilization, beyond the reach of electronics and traffic and walls.

While on my rocking treks, I occasionally climb slippery tailings piles to sit and stare at hawks that swoop above wild desert land. Other times, I venture beneath stony outcroppings, 48-once sledge hammer in one hand, chisel in the other, in the hope of liberating colorful crystals without smashing them to bits. Sometimes, on hands and knees, I scour the ground and smell the earth. And, every so often, when I’m very lucky, I find a rock to take home. One that, when I’m in need of a wild place, will take me there. All I have to do is look.

Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

On being a teacher

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I’m a teacher. I can say this now, midway through my eighteenth year at the head of my inner-city, high school classroom. But I did not feel like a teacher for a long time and I’m still sometimes surprised to find myself here, considering the circuitous route that deposited me before of all of these expectant faces at the tender age of 45.

My job, I’m told, is to prepare my pupils for a future filled with “college, career, and life.” So students are often asked to ponder what their lives might look like 10, 15, 20 years down the road.

“What should you consider when choosing a career?” I ask.

Blank faces all around.

“You will spend more time working than doing anything else. If you don’t enjoy your job, life can be depressing.”

Crickets.

“Think of the adults you know,” I urge.  “How many times have you heard them say they hate their jobs?”

A few heads turn. One child nods. Then another. A hand in the back goes up. “Ms. Montgomery, why’d you become a teacher?” The dark-haired boy grinned, incredulous that anyone would love my chosen profession. “Do you really enjoy this?”

All eyes are on me.

I was one of those “professional people” who thought life in the classroom would be easy. And since I’d devoted a few decades to officiating amateur-level sports, I had spent a great deal of time around kids. The teacher-thing should be cake, I’d incorrectly opined.

With a background as a TV and print reporter, I barged into my first classroom, bursting with the knowledge my video-journalism students needed to conquer the world. My deadlines and standards were strict and unyielding.

I know what your thinking. “Good for you, teach! Be tough on those kids. The world is a harsh place and they need to be ready!”

And, you’re right. However, I forgot to consider that I was dealing with children who were confronting all sorts of heartache forced on them by the poverty in which most of them live.

I was compelled to recognize my error early one morning when a shy boy was, once again, tardy for class. Frustrated at his constant losing battle with the clock, I took him outside where I berated him for his inability to get to my room on time.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, not meeting my eye. “It’s just that…”

“There are no excuses for being late,” I pontificated. “When I was in television, I couldn’t be one second late getting on the set. If the red camera light went on and I wasn’t in my seat, what do you think would have happened?

“I would have been fired!” I said, not giving him a chance to respond.

He nodded, still staring at the ground. “I’ll do better. But…”

“But what?” I crossed my arms.

“It’s just that . . . I’m never sure where I’ll be sleeping.”

“What?”

“I stayed on my uncle’s coach last night, and I didn’t realize how long it would take to get to school.” Brown eyes looked past me.

Though I’d seen them often enough driving to school, I’d never known a homeless person. The child before me was living on the streets and here I was chastising him for being a few minutes late.

It was then that I learned there was more to this teaching gig than imparting information. All these years later, I am still strict and, admittedly, demanding, but now I realize my job also entails getting to know my young charges, seeing the world through their eyes, and trying in every way possible to make the future look a whole lot prettier than the present.

“How do we pick a career?” I ask my students.

They consider the question.

“Find something you like to do,” I say. “Something you’re good at. And something someone will pay you to do. Then, you will enjoy life.”

I should know.

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Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.