During this holiday season, I’ve been thinking about my Mom. About all the things she’s missed seeing since she passed away last year, most of all the birth of our first grandchild. How she would have adored little Levina! This past April, the Wall Street Journal published my article about bringing my mother’s ashes back to China. I wanted to share it with you.
My mother flew home to China in checked baggage.
Worried that TSA would confiscate her cremated remains from my carry-on, I pack the urn with her ashes into a suitcase filled with gifts for my Chinese relatives and entrust her mortal remains to United Airlines. Mom and I often talked about the trip we’d someday take together to the “city of eternal spring” where she was born. In Kunming, she said, the fruits are sweeter, the mountains are like Chinese paintings, and the weather is always perfect. I promised that I would go with her when my life was less hectic, but the years inexorably slipped past and suddenly, it was too late. As she lay dying, I made that promise one last time. Yes, Mom. We’ll go to China.
The Kunming I encounter is nothing like the quaint town my mother described. Instead I find an eight-lane freeway and a skyline studded with highrises. I also discover dozens of excited relatives I’ve never met before, waiting to embrace me and my American family as we walk out of baggage claim. Both my parents were Chinese, but I can’t understand a word these relatives are saying. It’s my half-Caucasian son Adam who translates for me. Adam has passionately embraced his Chinese roots and he easily switches between English and Mandarin while I can only nod and smile as I berate myself for never learning Chinese. Growing up in California, I was so determined to be American that I refused to attend Chinese language school, and this is the sorry result. I’m just another clueless foreigner, humbled by my ignorance.
On the day of the funeral, the relatives drive us out of the city in a caravan of cars, and we arrive at a neighborhood of dirt roads and crumbling buildings. I’m bewildered when someone hands me a black umbrella. Adam explains that we’re bringing Popo’s ashes to visit her parents, but she must make the journey in shadow. As Adam carries the urn, I hold up the umbrella to shade my mother. We climb a half mile up a dirt track, past stray dogs and chickens, and wade into a cornfield. Unprepared for this hike, I slip and slide in my sandals, and my feet are coated in mud by the time we arrive at my grandparents’ tomb.
The Chinese relatives reach into the many bags they’ve carried up the hill, pull out gardening gloves and hedgeclippers to clear away the weeds, and set my mother beside the tomb so that she can visit. They burn incense, plant colorful paper flags to ward away evil spirits, and lay out fruits and cakes and cookies for the dead to enjoy. I’m startled to see them also place two cigarettes beside my mother’s urn. Her smoking was a habit I long deplored, and I almost blurt out: “Take those away, they’re bad for her!” I imagine my mother’s spirit merrily puffing away in the afterlife.
After the visit, we carry my mother’s urn back down the hill. Another hour’s drive takes us into cool and forested mountains, to a serene Buddhist mausoleum where her ashes will be entombed. The relatives cheerfully point out all the niches of deceased friends and family, as if pointing out the homes of the living. In China, the dead are not forgotten.
Buddhist monks lead the ceremony, and although I claim no religion, I find myself dutifully bowing and chanting words that I do not understand. It is my brother’s duty to clean our mother’s eternal home, so he wipes down the niche and places the urn inside.
It is my duty, as firstborn, to close the niche and lock it.
I hesitate, my hand caressing my mother’s urn. I think of her turbulent journey to this place. How she escaped war-torn China, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved, and never again saw her parents. How she struggled as an immigrant in America, endured an unhappy marriage to my father, and nursed a lifetime of regrets. Now here she is, back where she was born. Home at last.
I am sobbing as I lock the niche and shut her away forever.
There is one final ritual to perform. Before you leave a cemetery, someone must call out your name and say: “We are going home.” You must answer: “Yes, I am going home now,” so the spirits know you are departing the place of death. The relatives queue up, waiting for their names to be called, and one by one they leave.
At last it is my turn. My son calls out my name and says: “We’re going home.”
But it is to my mother I speak when I answer: “I am going home now.”
To my own home, in America.
I first met Michael Palmer in 1999, but in truth I’d known about his kindness and generosity since 1996, when he gave my debut medical thriller HARVEST an amazing blurb. At our first meeting, I was overwhelmed by his happy exuberance and his larger-than-life personality. I’m a quiet Aspergian type; Michael was hands-on and affectionate. I’m no good at working a crowd; Michael could slap anyone on the back and become their best friend. He was my opposite, yet he became one of my dearest friends. And when he was asked to teach an annual course on Cape Cod for doctors who wanted to write fiction, he immediately invited me to be his co-instructor for the course.
Every autumn for twelve years, we met up in Cape Cod for our annual weekend course. Before an audience of 150 – 200 docs, Michael and I would share the stage as tag-team teachers, tossing thoughts back and forth about the creative process, publishing, and the ups and downs of the writing life. When you share the stage with a guy for 16 hours, every year, you get to know him. And in the evenings, when Michael and I hung out together, we got to know about each others’ families, too. I knew that Michael loved being a father more than anything else in the world. I knew he found writing books fun but also agonizing, and his #1 piece of advice to aspiring writers was this: “Don’t kid yourself, this job is hard. Writing is hard work.” He’d laugh about the time his sister told him he’d never become a writer because “Michael, you’re just too dull.” He adored his literary agent because from the very beginning she believed in his keen storytelling instincts (even though she also said he didn’t know the first thing about writing.)
What I found most endearing about Michael was his sense of humility, his ability to laugh at himself, to never be embarrassed. One day, while my husband and I were houseguests, Michael said, “Hey, let’s all go get facials!” My husband was horrified by the idea. So Michael took just me to his favorite spa, where we got our facials, side by side. He was the ultimate metrosexual, not afraid to embrace his feminine side.
Then there was the incident with the acute attack of gastroenteritis, the live lapel microphone, and the audience who heard every sound. As Michael reemerged from the bathroom, he was bewildered when the audience applauded. And when he found out why, he simply grinned and took a bow.
And finally, there was the rhinoceros. Michael loved the saying “writing a book is as easy as making rhinoceros stew. First, you have to find a rhino.” The rhino became his talisman, a creature he was so obsessed with that he eventually bought a huge bronze rhino sculpture for his garden. And I’m talking HUGE. (Did I mention that Michael was larger than life?)
Alas, our annual meet-ups in Cape Cod eventually came to an end when the writing course shut down. We still managed to see each other from time to time, but I missed our long weekends together. I missed laughing and grousing together about writing. I missed him. We’d email each other, intending to get together one of these days. He and his loving partner Robin had come through a difficult time together because of her surgery, and now that she was healing, he was excited about their upcoming trip to Africa. He just had to deliver his damn manuscript, and then he’d be off to his dream destination.
He did finish the manuscript on time. He did visit Africa. But upon his return, while waiting in the Customs line at JFK, Michael collapsed from a heart attack and a massive stroke.
I still can’t believe he’s gone. I can still hear his voice, his stories, his laugh. As long as I can still hear him, see him in my mind, Michael will always be alive.
I wanted so much to be at his funeral, but a certain family obligation sent me to Ithaca, New York. I heard that his memorial service was overflowing with friends and family, and no wonder; Michael was everyone’s friend.
Three days after Michael’s funeral, my first grandchild Levina came into the world. Life truly is a circle. Even on the heels of sadness, there can be joy. Michael once told me that the best thing in the whole world was a grandchild. He would have been crazy about mine.
Thanks to everyone who attended #tesstourindy live and in person – it was an incredibly memorable experience for me and I hope to do a tour like this again – and everyone who followed the tour virtually on my blog and social media. Below is a digital recap of the tour, highlighting some of that social sharing, interviews and media coverage, and blog posts from others. Even if you weren’t in Indiana for the tour, this may make you feel like you were!
I’ve spent the last few days at home resting and reflecting on my time on the road. Here are the final numbers from my tour:
Days traveling (including RT air travel from Maine): 18
Days driving: 16
Miles driven: 1700
Libraries visited: 23
Total # people who came to see me: 1800
But those are just numbers. It says nothing about the lovely hours spent with friendly people, the pleasures of exploring new towns, the countless books I autographed, and the new readers who found me because of this tour. Again and again, people said: “I’ve never read you before, but when I heard you were coming to our town, I started reading your books. And now I’m reading them all!”
That’s exactly what a tour should do.
There are costs for an author, of course. I paid my own airfare and car rental and there were four hotel nights which weren’t covered by libraries. There’s also the time I spent away from my writing. But I can say now that a tour of small-town libraries is exactly the sort of book tour that authors should be taking. Unlike conventional book tours, which send you to major metropolitan areas where audiences are jaded and turnouts can be disappointing, this sort of tour sends you to places where readers are actually eager to meet you. In these small Indiana towns, I found larger audiences than I usually find in big-city bookstores.
The other great thing about a driving tour: driving from town to town is a lot less stressful than flying to a new city every day. For me, traditional book tours are fraught with the anxiety of: Will my plane be on time? Will my flight get cancelled? Will I lose my luggage?
This tour allowed me to enjoy the scenery, stop at local joints to sample the food (Steak and Shake! Barbecue!) and be assured that, yes, I will get to my next event on time. Assuming I can trust my GPS.
And then there’s the charm of small towns. Since I live in a small town myself (about 5,000 people), I wanted this tour to focus on small towns. After driving through farmland and cornfields, I’d always wonder if anyone would show up to see me. But they did show up, with out-of-the-way venues sometimes drawing audiences of more than 100.
I’d definitely do a tour like this again. I’d probably make it shorter because 18 days is a long time to haul around dirty laundry. It’d also be a good strategy for authors who travel in pairs, so you can keep each other company and split the cost of the rental car (which was our biggest expense.)
So here’s to libraries and small towns everywhere. May you start to see many, many authors walking through your doors!
After a night in Louisville, we had a big chunk of free time today before the evening event, so we headed for just the sort of destination I love: Marengo Cave, about forty minutes west of Lousville, in Indiana. Caves have always attracted me, and if it weren’t for a bum shoulder, I wouldn’t mind crawling and slithering around in them. Marengo is a far easier visit, guided and well lit, with two different hour-long trails that take you to various formations, and even offer a glimpse of bats.
Then we were back on the road, headed west for another hour and a half to Owensboro. It’s my one stop in Kentucky. Soon after my tour to Indiana had been announced, Shannon Sandefur of the Daviess County Public Library invited me to include her town in my tour, so we extended the trip and extra day to include Owensboro. I was happy to find a lively audience of about 75 waiting to hear me speak.
Also happy to find Books A Million there to sell books.
Back in my hotel now, packing to go home, it’s hard to believe I’ve been on the road for over two weeks. It’s been an exhausting trip, and I’m still processing all I saw and all the people I met. Wrap-up to follow in the next few days!
My belt is getting tight. After two weeks on the road, I’m afraid to step on a scale, and my breakfast this morning at the Tuggle’s Folly B&B in Rising Sun certainly didn’t help matters. Innkeepers Dean and Debbie cooked up the most lavish breakfast yet — ham and jalapeño omelets, homemade biscuits, fried peaches, and something we’d never tasted before: sorghum syrup. We’d seen sorghum growing in fields here, but didn’t stop to think what you did with the plant. So tasty, I think I’d rather have sorghum on my pancakes than old-fashioned Maine maple syrup. (Shh, don’t tell the Maine chamber of commerce.)
We had a little time before my noon speech at the library, so Hubby and I walked along the pretty Rising Sun riverfront, browsed in a local gallery, and sat watching the water.
Then it was off to the Ohio County Public Library in Rising Sun, which was officially closed for the Columbus Day holiday. But Director Cynthia Schid-Perry opened the building especially for my appearance, and about 35 people showed up on a beautiful holiday to hear me speak.
Among the patrons I met was a delightful 94-year-old WWII vet, Captain Bill McClure, who had a fascinating tale to tell about his war experiences. General Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army was Capt. McClure’s prisoner at war’s end, and despite the fact these two men had been enemies during the war, they became close friends. McClure said Yamamoto was a fascinating, intelligent man. McClure made a number of Japanese friends, and wished he’d been able to visit them in Japan in his later years. Wouldn’t this make a terrific memoir? I hope he writes it.
One more event to go, in Owensboro Kentucky. It feels like I’ve been away from home forever.
After a second restful night at the comfortable Brookville Inn, it was on to the town of Aurora, on the Ohio River. We had plenty of free time since the event wasn’t until the evening, so right after we checked into the cozy Herman Leive House, we visited the Hillforest Mansion, home of wealthy industrialist Thomas Gaff. Beautiful furnishings, plus a display of period wedding gowns, made it a fascinating trip back in time. Gaff could afford the very best, and the mansion is stunning, but there was no indoor plumbing, no running water, and no toilets. Instead, this rich family used chamber pots and a 3-seat privy behind the house. Forget the good old days; I want my modern bathrooms.
That evening, I spoke at the Aurora Public Library, where I met Director Mary Alice Horton, who did an amazing job getting the word out about my appearance, which drew an audience of nearly 60. The library staff had even featured my books on a parade float the week before, decorated with big displays of my “books”!
Afterwards, Hubby and I had the pleasure of sipping margaritas with Mary Alice and her daughter Michaela at a local Mexican eatery. (I’m a San Diego girl, and anything with salsa is my kind of food.)
The next day, Aurora Library hosted a second event at the Dearborn Country Club, where a room full of library board members, Friends, and patrons joined me at dinner.
On the dessert table were specially designed cupcakes with my book covers, courtesy of librarian Kim Batchelor (who almost lost them all when a sudden traffic stop sent them flying in her car!)
A grand evening, made possible by the staff of the Aurora Public Library!
After a scrumptious breakfast at the Brookville Inn on Main Street where Hubby and I are staying for two nights, we’re off for a day of adventure with our hosts from the library. They’ve got a jam-packed itinerary, and have even reserved a bus for our trip. Library genealogy expert and historian Julie Schlesselman supplies the details as we travel, and if there’s a theme for the day, it’s “Brookville mysteries.” Our first stop is the now-unused Little Cedar Grove Baptist Church, oldest church building standing on its original site in Indiana. The restored brick building is well worth seeing, but its macabre history also draws us: a woman’s severed legs were discovered there by a celebrating bridal party. (That would have been a wedding to remember.) Add in local rumors of satanic rituals performed here, and you have a site worthy of any Halloween tour.
We drive through picturesque Cedar Grove to our next stop in the mystery tour and arrive in New Trenton, site of the notorious “Head and Hands Murder.” In 1936, retired Cincinnati fireman Harry Miller was bludgeoned in a house that’s still there today. His headless, handless body was found in Kentucky; his head and hands were found partly encased in concrete in a pond 20 miles away. Four men were later convicted and executed in a case of greed and murder for hire. The victim’s house — neatly kept and surrounded by manicured lawns — stands on a bank overlooking the river. I wonder if the current occupant knows its dark history?
A drive through Big Cedar Creek takes us past another crime scene — this one more recent and still unsolved. In the spring of 2013, the skeletal remains of a missing Ohio woman were found at the side of the road. A sad monument has been erected there in her memory, a reminder that even in small towns, danger lurks.
It’s on to far pleasanter destinations. We stop at the Brookville Lake Overlook and take in the magnificent view. Here my hosts tell me about the sad history of Fairfield and Quakertown, villages which had to be sacrificed when the dam was built for flood control. Hundreds of people — as well as cemeteries — had to be relocated to make way for the reservoir.
After a drive through Blooming Grove, we stop at the Laurel branch of the Franklin County Library to visit the staff there.
Then we arrive at the most unexpected and delightful lunch venues I’ve ever encountered: Rileybrook Hall. You walk through exuberant gardens where peacocks roam and step into a magical grand hall straight out of Harry Potter. Our hosts are Tom and Rob, partners for over 40 years. Saturday dinners at Rileybrook are booked all the way through winter, and Kenny Rogers, Wynona Judd, and actress Jennifer O’Neill are among those who’ve dined at this secret spot.
The afternoon takes us to the canal town of Metamora where we visit the “Museum of Oddities,” an eclectic collection of strange and unusual objects from around the world. The proprietor, “Indiana Joe,” is a fun and colorful guy with tales to tell about each of the 2000+ objects in his collection.
To wrap up a wonderful afternoon, we all hopped aboard a canal boat for a ride — towed by two draft horses — across the Duck Creek Aqueduct.
But wait — the day isn’t over yet! For dinner we all meet up at the library for a fried chicken and potluck dinner, where everyone gets together for one last photo:
I go home with memories of a most amazing day — plus a very special souvenir presented to me by library employee and wildlife naturalist Jim Trumbull, whose fascination with Native American history makes him the local expert in the subject. He gives me an ancient arrowhead found in the area, a precious reminder of Brookville that I will keep right beside my desk, to remind me of this unforgettable visit.
With no daytime event today, we spent the morning exploring a bit more of Columbus, known as the “Athens of the Prairie” and for good reason. The architecture really is impressive, and much of the town’s good fortune is due to the success of Cummins Inc, a business that was started by a local chauffeur/mechanic who worked for the wealthy Irwin family. With Irwin money backing him, Mr. Cummins designed the first small diesel motor to power an automobile. Now a huge international firm, Cummins builds diesel engines for large equipment and boats, and you can tour their headquarters, where they have an “exploded engine” on display, showing all the parts that go into one of their engines.
Of all the architectural wonders I saw in Columbus, the one I can’t stop thinking about is their Veterans’ Memorial. It’s just a simple complex of columns with names carved into them. Also engraved on the columns are the last letters these dead sent to loved ones, letters expressing fear and love and longing for home. A few minutes there, and I just had to leave because I was crying.
A beautiful drive through rolling hills and woods brought us to the town of Brookville, where Melody Gault, Director of the Franklin County Public Library District, had a treat planned for us: a dinner at the historic Hermitage Inn, once home to the “Hoosier Group” of Indiana artists J. Ottis Adams and T.C. Steele. Hanging on all the walls is a wide selection of works by contemporary Indiana artists, which I loved studying while innkeeper Martha Shea served up a homey meal for our table of library supporters and booklovers.
Then it was on to the event in the local community center. Over 100 people streamed in — what a crowd for a town as small as Brookville! They had chosen THE KEEPSAKE as their community read, and I spent some time talking about mummies, CT scans, and how fiction sometimes can’t compete with the weirdness of real life.
Tomorrow, the local ladies are treating Hubby and me to a tour of the area. They’ve already primed me with a packet of documents about a local mystery called the “Head and Hands Murder of 1936.” Gotta go — there’s a murder I need to read up on!
Today we start off in the birthplace of John Mellencamp — the town of Seymour, where the sidewalk is decorated with a plaque in his honor.
Becky Brewer, head of Information Services at Jackson County Public Library, meets us at the local American Legion Hall, where I’ll be speaking at the noon event.
Boxed lunches are waiting for us, and so is an enthusiastic crowd, many of whom have to hurry back to work. But after I speak, they wait in line to get books signed, and a few even tell me they’ll be seeing me again at the evening event!
A quick drive takes us to Columbus, where we check into the B&B that Bartholomew County Public Library has booked for us — the magnificent Irwin Gardens Inn, a place so beautiful it’s worth returning to this town just to stay here again!
With a few hours before the event, we explore the town, eat ice cream at the famous Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum (best strawberry ice cream ever!) and stroll through Mill Race Park. At the visitor’s center, we learn that Columbus is considered one of the top six architectural destinations in the country, and everywhere there are public sculptures.
Library Associates Ann and Bud Herron and Diane Spofford treat us to dinner, where we talk about harrowing childbirth experiences in Sierra Leone and cupcake bars in NYC. You just never know what topic of conversation will come up when you talk with book people!
And then it’s off to the library — yet another architectural gem, designed by I.M. Pei. Here I meet the woman who launched this tour, the librarian who made it happen: Mary Clare Speckner. For months we’ve been emailing back and forth. She designed the itinerary, she contacted the libraries, she figured out the logistics. If not for Mary Clare, I wouldn’t be here!
A nice crowd turned out to hear me talk about The Bone Garden, which was their Community Book Read. For many of them, it was the first book of mine they’d ever read. And bookseller Terry Whittaker was on site to sell them more.
Starting to feel a little sad that the tour is soon coming to a close…