True Stories

The Shepherd’s Secret

“Time to pick up Aunt Lucille!”

We hopped into my dad’s blue 1962 Ford. I adjusted the heavy wool plaid blanket that covered the ripped seats. We were off to pick up my favorite aunt so that she could join our family for Christmas dinner.

The red cellophane wreaths with the giant Christmas candles lit up Main Street and every house displayed decorations, no matter how humble the home or how modest the decoration. Spying a brilliantly lit Christmas tree through a cozy window piqued my curiosity and made me wonder about the family inside. Did they have golden lights on the tree like we did? Did they have a turkey waiting, and stockings by the fireplace, and a beautiful nativity scene, too?

Continue reading

Standard
Inspiration, Personal, True Stories

Learning to Ride a Bicycle – Again

I’ll admit it; I’m not the most athletic person. I vowed to change that this year.

I’m tired of being fat, tired of being tired, tired of aching all the time. I took an inventory of all the times in my past when I was able to lose weight – what worked well? What didn’t work?

I cut out sugar in mid-August. I started walking at least two days a week, clocking 1.5 – 2.5 miles each time. On days when I did not walk, I made sure to do some yoga stretches, light weight lifting, or gardening, anything to get up and moving.

It was then that I thought about the list I had made of all the physical activities I love to do. Walking and hiking are first, followed by horseback riding, but that’s expensive and I feel like I’m too fat to ride right now. Yoga, pilates and weight training are all okay, but there’s on activity I have loved since I first pedaled a tricycle at age 3: bicycling.

My childhood bike  was a blue 1978 Columbia Roadster with coaster brakes, one speed, and a chain that clanked loudly against the chain guard every time I hit a pothole. I fell off of it on the hill on Magnolia Avenue, tumbling butt over teakettle and bearing scars on my knees and noggin to this day, thick raised keloid scars that tell the story of what happens when you pretend your bike is a dragon and you’re riding the wind on Pern.

I rode my bicycle all over the streets of Floral Park, often pedaling the 1.5 miles to Belmont Race Track on steamy July mornings to lean against the fence on one of the dead end streets adjoining the exercise track just so I could watch the horses trot on by.

My bike took me to the library, that cool temple of heavenly adventures where hundreds of books awaited; my bike and I traveled into Stewart Manor to the Averill Boulevard Park Pool because you could pay as you go.

Summers without my bike were unthinkable.

My poor blue Columbia Roadster is long gone. My husband, then my boyfriend, tried to fix it for me and ended up helplessly dismantling it. We could have brought it to the shop to have it re-assembled but decided not to; my old friend and writing mentor, Dr. Patricia Gross, sent me home from her house in Pennsylvania with her bike which she no longer rode on the hills near Scranton. I had a new bike, so my beloved Roadster went the way of many old bikes, to the landfill.

Pat’s bike was too heavy for me to pedal over the hills in Huntington, and so we gave that away, too. I was bike-less until I moved to Virginia.

Then, my husband bought me my current bike, a purple Roadmaster.

I am learning to ride a bike – again.

And I absolutely love it.

bike.jpg

 

It was on my summer list – ride my bike again. Every day, I had an excuse. Too hot. Too many client calls. Too busy.  The list went on and on.

We are blessed with the High Bridge Trail less than two miles from my home. It’s a rail trail, part of the Rails to Trails Conservancy which helps transform old railway lines into bicycling, walking, and horseback riding trails. It’s traffic-free so there’s no dodging cars and it’s less than a 10% grade so no trudging up the piedmont hills on the roads by my house.

I loaded the purple Roadmaster into the back of my husband’s SUV and drove the two miles to the trail on Monday as if I was learning to drive again as well as bike again. I inched along, feeling like I was driving a tank after moving from my sedan to his hefty SUV.

Once at the trail head near Elam, I wondered: what would happen if I popped a tire on the trail? Was I too fat today to ride a bike? If the tire blew out when I was at the far end of the trail, how would I get back?

Well, it was a holiday. I could walk. It might take me a while, but I’d get there. If I was too fat, sitting on the sidelines wouldn’t help me lose the weight to ride again. I clipped the chin strap on my helmet, swung my leg over the frame, and pedaled my wobbly way towards Pamplin.

Muscles screamed in my thighs; the unfamiliar hard sport seat of the mountain bike always takes my behind by surprise. It wants the old spring-loaded apple seat of the 1970s Roadster.

My hands hurt from clutching the straight handlebars but I did get the hang of the gears again. I pedaled in 2nd gear, then switched to the easier 1st gear when I asked myself what I was trying to prove. Nothing, Jeanne, I thought to myself. Relax and enjoy the ride.

I did. It was lovely.

The High Bridge Trail from Elan to Pamplin passes through lush, dense forests on the southern side. It skirts the highway, so you’re never far from the sounds of civilization: tractor trailer trucks, cars, lawn mowers as people cut their grass. A squirrel darted out in front of me, crossing the trail to the oaks on the opposite side of the trail.  I passed a cyclist and we nodded to one another as if we were old comrades. He seemed to smirk a little and I felt guilty, as if my sweat-streaked face and funny modest culotte shorts made me a laughingstock.

But I pressed on, and on. I passed Harvey Jones Lane, the first private road that crossed the trail, then another farm lane. My goal for the day was to cycle to the Five Forks Road crossing, then turn around and ride back. It was approximately two miles to Five Forks Road from the Elam parking lot, so I knew if I made it, I’d cycle four miles. A little ambitious for someone cycling seriously for the first time in 30 years? You bet. No guts, no glory.

Besides, I’m tried of being fat and tired.

I made it to Five Forks Road, mile 20 on the trail. The parking lot is at mile 18.

mile 20 west

20180903_085520

The ride back was easier even though I sweated more. I sweated so hard that I sweated right through my t-shirt.

I’m not someone who enjoys sweating. I do anything I can to avoid it. And I’m not one who loves strenuous exercise; I always feel like I’m dying and give up before I get to the sweat sticking to my t-shirt stage.

I couldn’t give up. I was two miles from the parking lot.  I had to ride back.

I rode back as quickly as I could, pedaling fast, standing up a little to stretch my left leg where the knee was shrieking for attention as it does when the old injuries flare up, the cicadas singing their end of summer paean to heat stroke.

I made it. The parking lot was one of the most welcome sights I’d ever seen. I had cycled four miles.

I took this picture to remind myself that it feels good to have sweat dripping off of my face. It felt awesome to have my hair plastered to my head under my bike helmet. It felt wonderful to walk around on strong, sturdy legs, the knee no longer screaming as if working my quads, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors had somehow supported the knee joint damaged from too many horseback riding accidents and bicycling accidents. That knee is my war wound to clumsiness and I lost the battle.

 

My ultimate goal is to ride to the end of trail – 3.0 miles from Elam as you can see on the sign – and back again. Six miles. And I’ll do it, too. By Thanksgiving, I think.

I’m hooked. I’ve learned to ride my bicycle again in middle age and I am a child again, happy and carefree, riding on my purple Roadmaster and conquering the trail.

 

Standard
Inspiration

The Lure of Forgotten Places

There is something intriguing about forgotten places – old cemeteries, abandoned buildings, crumbling walls. They beg us to ask, “Why are you forgotten? What memories do your walls hold?”

old-mansion.jpg

My fascination with the lure of old places and the stories they held began in childhood on warm Sunday afternoons when my great-aunts and uncles would gather in the living room and tell stories. My grandmother, their sister, lived with us, and thus on many Sundays throughout the year, they would converge on our living room, taking up every available seat while I sat on the floor, leaning against legs smelling of lavender and smooth with elastic support hose.

My mother came from a large, boisterous Catholic family known for stories and laughter,  kinship and deep ties to the local area. Their roots ran deep in the Dominican convent and in Brooklyn, Queens, and Floral Park, where I grew up.

Every street in Floral Park appeared as an old sepia photograph to my childish eyes as the stories told by Aunt Alice, Grandma, and Aunt Flossie layered over the current landscape, a lens through which I viewed the houses I passed on my way to school or the library. The tall old “coffin” houses on Magnolia Avenue had been built by my great-grandfather and great-uncle Albert; they had good plumbing but the wood creaked, or so I heard, and the rumbling railroad trains cracked the ceilings over time.

There were stories of the old Long Island, stories of horse stables in Mineola – horse stables! where my great uncle Clarence had once rented horses by the hour to satisfy his love of riding. I knew now where I acquired my almost genetic passion for horses. Somewhere in our Alsace-Lorraine heritage was an equestrian past that showed up in our genes the way big noses and a cackling laugh showed up.

Diana

Uncle Clarence was one of my favorite relatives, and another who kindled my passion for the old houses and mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast. You’ll meet his spiritual inheritor, Larry Schein, a character in the second Majek Family Mystery book, I Know You (currently a work in progress). Like the character of Larry, Uncle Clarence had been a plumber. He had his own plumbing business from the late 1920s through the 1950s. During that time, he often answered calls to service the big mansions along the North Shore.

He knew the old houses intimately as only a plumber can. The butler would phone him in the fall to remove the gold-plated dolphin faucets in the master bathroom. These would be ceremonially added to a velvet-lined box and stored in the mansion’s safe. Then, sometime around April, he’d receive a phone call to return to the mansion and replace them. How he would laugh when he told this story! With a twinkle in his bright blue eyes, he never said precisely what he thought of this parade of wealth and opulence, but I always got the sense from his stories that he thought it patently absurd to spend so much money on a home that was used only six to eight weeks a year – and to remove the faucets so they wouldn’t be stolen!

These are the story tellers that sing in my dreams, these wonderful old people who I spent many a dreamy Sunday afternoon with clustered around the living room. My grandmother would sit in her wheelchair and laugh along with her brothers and sisters, and I would absorb the stories, the tales of a Long Island long gone but still remembered in the stories passed from their generation to mine.

belz family

The story tellers – my grandmother, standing in the back row, middle. Clarence is the boy second in from the left and standing in front of Alice, in the front row. Aunt Flossie was away but she was another wonderful storyteller.

Standard
True Stories

What Literary Pilgrimages Have You Gone On?

Literary pilgrimages…the name conjures images of Canterbury Tales, of men and women in brown pilgrims’ robes and sandals crossing the rocky mountains of Europe.

I’ve had two unique experiences that I suppose count as a literary pilgrimage. This particular “literary pilgrimage” involved us staying in one of the plantations that had inspired Margaret Mitchell’s “Tara” from Gone with the Wind.

The story includes a ghost.

It happened like this…

vintagescene_faded

Back when I was in the corporate workforce, my husband and I took a journey each summer to a new destination. My husband planned the entire vacation. My job was to sit in the passenger seat of the car and navigate. We saw much of the United States this way tooling down the highways and byways, crisscrossing the back roads and staying in small towns to look for America.

On this particular trip, we journeyed to Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, the Bayou country. I touched Spanish moss dripping from old oak trees in an arboretum in Louisiana and almost fainted like a real Southern Belle in Mississippi when the temperature soared to 105 degrees with 100% humidity. I ate alligator meat for the first time and can vouch that no, it doesn’t taste like chicken, and do not, under any circumstances, try to eat cold alligator meat leftovers. It’s like chewing on an old rubber boot.

I love bed and breakfasts so my husband arranged for a room at one in Natchez, Mississippi. This particular house had quite the history. The original home had been built in the late 1700s, with additions up until the Civil War. The exterior photographs of the front of the house had been used on the cover of the soundtrack album to “Gone with the Wind” for the home resembled Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind, to an astonishing degree.

Our room in the B & B was in the oldest section of the house. It was an L-shaped room with a brick fireplace and an en suite bath. I felt as soon as I walked into the room an odd energy near the fireplace. In front of the fireplace was a small twin bed which the hotel owner said was often used when parents stayed in the room with children; the parents had the queen-sized bed while the child took the twin. We slept in the four-poster queen bed on the opposite side of the room.

Around 2 a.m. on our first night in the hotel, I awoke abruptly. The room was pitch black. My husband slept on. As I lay in bed, I heard the floor creak. It wasn’t the simple sound of old oak boards expanding and contracting – I know that sound well from living in many older homes. No, this was the clear creak-creak-creak of footsteps across the floor.

I held my breath. Was someone in the room? I couldn’t see anything. Creak-creak-creak. I realized that the steps weren’t coming near the bed, but seemed to be near the fireplace.

The footsteps stopped at 2:10 a.m. I screwed up my courage to creep to the bathroom. I checked the door to the room. It was closed and locked from the inside. No one had entered or left the room.

The next night, I was again awaked near 2:10 a.m. Creak-creak-creak. The same tread, as if someone paced in front of the brick fireplace.

We were leaving the next morning, and our hostess came up to our room to present the bill. Casually, I asked her, “Was this fireplace always here?”

“Yes,” she said. She walked over to the narrow, L-shaped bumpout that contained the twin bed, fireplace, and bathroom. She pointed to the wall behind the bed. “But this wall wasn’t always here. You see, this was actually the kitchen in the original 1700s house. This was the original cooking hearth. It’s bricked up now, but this is where the woman of the house would prepare the meals, dry the clothing, and probably spend much of her time.”

I looked at the area where I swear I heard footsteps two nights in a row and sensed an energy change when we had entered the room. It was the area where I imagine a woman, carrying a child red-faced with crying, might pace in front of a flickering fire in the wee hours of the night, comforting an infant with colic or trying to hush a baby with scarlet fever back into a fitful sleep. Or perhaps a woman had paced here once, worrying about a loved one away on a trip.

I never ‘saw’ my ghost, but I heard and felt her just as surely as I heard my husband’s rhymic breathing and felt his warm, steady, comforting presence in the bed behind me. My literary pilgrimage to one of the many mansions that inspired Margaret Mitchell’s “Tara” also inspired me to write more ghost stories, since ghosts can, and do, walk among us.

(Thank you to The John Fox website for the great author prompts that inspired this post!)

My latest novel is I Believe You, a thriller novel.

It’s available in paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon.

Standard