A visit for Remembrance

When I was 21 years old, preparing to travel to Europe for the first time, my Mother whispered a request: to get her a photo of the grave of her childhood sweetheart in a cemetery in France.  This is the true story of how, years after she died, I finally got the photo, and came to understand its importance.

THIS STORY was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2003 and on Smashwords to 5 star reviews. It inspired an aspect of my novel A THEORY OF EXPANDED LOVE, due to be published in May, 2015.

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This is a story that began and ended before I existed. All the words were spoken, the songs sung, promises made, kisses, letters, flowers and telegrams — all just a memory before my parents even met.  Yet, after they loved and married and I materialised, six births later, the story carried on in my mother’s heart. Even now, long after my mother’s heart has stopped beating, the story carries on in mine.

When I was fifteen, my sister Mary showed me a newspaper clipping she found in Mother’s cedar chest in the tool shed. On a smoggy summer Pasadena day, Mary had lured me into the cobwebbed darkness, with the promise of a really good secret. We scurried past Mother on the back porch, standing in the midst of huge piles of dirty laundry, pouring soap into the washing machine. The clipping announced the death of a man named Carl Robert Swanson, killed in World War II. He was survived by his wife, Marcelle Prudell, our mother.

I sat in the corner of the shed, scratching a sharp rock into the cement. We whispered and giggled to dispel the excitement of the absolutely unexpected. Mother was married ? She loved someone other than Daddy?

In the summer of my twentieth year, my Mother’s secret took on a new dimension.
I am standing in the kitchen next to a sink full of plates immersed in suds, facing my mother. The usual chaos reigns around us, toast crumbs, coffee cups half empty, cupboards open, leftover spaghetti in a metal bowl. Strauss’ Blue Danube coming out of the stereo, a child’s hands banging low notes on the piano. The dog barks and Mother asks me, “Can you do me a favor? While you’re in Europe?” and suddenly I feel important. “I’d really appreciate it,” she says, putting her hands in her apron pockets. My mother moves closer to me, speaks to me in undertones, and in the midst of this, we’re somehow alone. “Will you get me a photograph of Carl Robert ’s grave?” I’ve never spoken his name to her, but Mother doesn’t squander these secret seconds on explanations. She knows we know! She speaks of a French cemetery, near the border of Alsace Lorraine. “Just bring me back a photograph,” she says. I want to hug her, to say I’m up to the task, but I only nod, and she turns and puts her hands back in the sink.

September 28th. San Francisco/Vancouver/ Amsterdam. In Vancouver, I board a DC-8, and now we’re flying across Canada. The oranges and blues of the Aurora Borealis shimmer on the horizon.
It’s 8 AM, midnight Los Angeles time, when the plane touches down. I try not to give into the small, sinking feeling gathering in a ball at the pit of my stomach.

Canals sparkle in the morning light, framed by gingerbread buildings sewn together in whimsical shapes along narrow, cobbled streets. Two tram rides and five hours from touchdown, I arrive at the Van Onna Hotel, next door to a Dutch Reform Church. An empty moment filled with longing, an open door, a choir lifting voices to God: I listen, leaning in the cool doorway, soaking up the smell of incense, the flicker of lit candles. I trudge up steep, winding stairs with my bags to the top floor of the hotel. Rain  pours relentlessly on a skylight above my bed; I glance around the small room, count back the hours.

      Six months! I breathe in and out, as the months stretch ahead of me like a jail sentence. I realize I have never slept in a room of my own or been without the company of others as long as I have lived. How could I have known I would feel this way? I try to imagine the happy chaos going on so many miles away. They’ll all be eating breakfast soon, Daddy presiding in his captain’s chair, Mother up and down after every request, bright lights, clamouring voices, the room full of familiar sounds and smells and the  people I love. I ache to go back, but I’ve already spent some of the grant money on a plane trip. I pull off my boots, walk in damp socks to the sink. The taste of toothpaste comforts me.
December. Icy fingers upstairs at 10, Chemin de la Cheminette, Chambesy, outside Geneva. In the distance, jagged French mountains stretch thick and white with snow. I’m going to stay in this little white house, for three months as an Au Pair to a diplomat from the Ivory Coast and his two five year old charges. I’m going to write my paper on the European Economic Community, and then I’m going straight back, just like the plan.  With this little bit of income, I’ll have enough to treat myself to Toblerone chocolate bars. I’ll have a room where I can close the door, my own “shower” and I won’t have to keep an eye on my back pack. Here I’ll make friends in Monsieur’s kitchen with Paul Bouda, from Upper Volta; I’ll try to teach him to read. I’ll tell secrets to plump, cheerful Fiona, my fellow Au Pair across the lane.

      Christmas morning,  I can see my breath in my icy, bare room as I hold a blue letter, written in my mother’s hand. “I had to look up the records in my box out in the back for the info about Carl’s resting place. U.S. Military Cemetery Epinal, France, plot 2-N, row 6, grave 5682. Put a few flowers on it for me would you? Thanks a lot. It’s hard to believe so much time has gone by. His serial # is 36266015 PFC – Shall write again. I say a prayer for you everyday in Mass – lotsa love, Mother.”

*                  *                  *

     February is finally here, and I stand in our kitchen, drinking in the sight of my mother for the first time in six months, at the sink beside the dishwasher, hands in her apron pockets. Like she never left, like she’s still washing those dishes. Even as I arrived at dusk in dark and noisy train stations smelling of cigarettes and diesel fuel, as I woke in bunk beds surrounded by strangers in youth hostels, bathed in drafty, group showers, carried everything I owned with me to the toilet, Mother was right here, hands immersed in suds, singing to herself some opera tune which climbed to the top of her range. A simple gratitude floods my body just seeing her familiar face, her thick arms, her orange and yellow flowered apron, muddy with stains, her scuffed Hush Puppy loafers. I’m waiting to hear her “Welcome home!” I’m trying to think of how to say, I put it off to the end.  She looks tired, but there is excitement, anticipation in her eyes.
“Did you get the photo?” she says right away. “Did you get the photo of Carl Robert’s grave?” I am stunned by her desperation, and guilty. I have nothing for her. Her face is falling. The room swirls around us both.

     “I didn’t have any money left to travel on the trains.” My hair is ragged around my shoulders, I’ve lost 20 pounds, but Mother hasn’t seen me. “My friend wouldn’t take the detour . . . I, I . . It wasn’t safe to hitchhike alone.” Her disappointment suspends sickly in the air between us. “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be back to Europe soon.” I can barely spit the words out of my mouth, so desolate do I feel at the thought of ever going on a trip again. With the sights and smells of home surrounding me like old friends, I can only see the impossibility of it all. When will anyone ever have the money, or the time, or the interest to get that photograph? And then as the young do, I pushed aside the regret and got on with my own life.

     Years later, after my mother died, as my godmother Aunt Peggy Lou Prudell  settled her affairs, she sent me an old faded, yellowed Western Union telegram sent to her husband, my uncle:

1945 MAR 2 PM .
Milwaukee, Wis
Charles A. Prudell
Statler Hotel, WASH DC
CARL KILLED CONSOLE AND CHEER MARCELLE
LOVE, PEGGY LOU

And once again, this man who loved my mother, Carl Robert Swanson, came back to life in my imagination. I remembered his 8 x 10 army head shot tucked away in Mother’s cedar chest: smooth creamy skin, the thin face of a boy, really. As my mother lay dying of cancer, she couldn’t help speaking about him. As her hair fell out, a few details did too: he was her childhood sweetheart, they both loved music. As her bloated belly swished with liquid, I learned that he played the piano to her singing —  and that she sang well enough to cut a record at 19. We all knew her voice, full and rich and much too glorious for our dishes. What did his voice sound like?

When she died, a featherless bird at 58, we opened her hope chest again. “Singing Just Fun To Her; Voice Hints of the Opera” headlined an article about Marcelle Prudell (our mother!) at 19. The picture accompanying the article shows my mother sitting at the piano with sheet music open on her lap. She wears a striped blouse, dark fingernail polish and lipstick! She smiles coyly, perfectly composed.

Here, I learn that my Mother had the rare gift of perfect pitch, the ability to hear music, exactly, with her mind. Her voice was a natural coloratura, with a range from low C to the F above high C. “Here’s the first piece in any newspaper about Marcelle Prudell, who may some day be a singer as famous as — well, never mind the Lily Pons business, this young woman seems destined to go places.”

I have one small laminated photo of them. In this picture, my mother is a real bride, wearing a white dress and veil. Standing outdoors in front of the bay window of an old house next to this tall, shy man, my mother is smiling defiantly, triumphantly. She looks like my sisters Bernadette and Frances at the same time. The sun makes shadows of their eyes. Mother-before-she-was-Mother holds a bouquet of ribboned flowers in both her arms. He is lean, his blonde hair cut military short, his uniform crisp with a dark tie and gold buttons. The two of them are close, they’re touching, shoulder to shoulder. Behind their backs, an intimate gesture.

Now it’s fall, 1998, twenty four years after I failed to bring back the photo of Carl Robert’s grave. I live in Canada and my husband and I have flown to London to tour my play SINGING THE BONES in England and Sweden. Our son, Jaz 15, is with us. We vacation in the fall rain in Paris, the south of France and Italy, tourists just barely out of season, misplaced in empty restaurants, gaping museums and hotels about to close for the winter. Around every corner, the isolation of my first travel seems as close as the raindrops.

The night before we leave Italy to drive back to Paris, I stand in a small phone booth in lobby of Hotel Aprille, in Florence, dialling digit after digit to reach my sister Mary, in Santa Barbara. “I’m going to visit Carl Robert’s grave,” I tell her. “Can you find the name of the cemetery in France where he was buried? After all these years, I’ve forgotten it”.  She agrees to try. I promise to call her back in a couple of days.

The next morning at breakfast, newspapers announce: “Europeans Remember A War’s End 80 Years Ago”. A young man in a black and white uniform serves me coffee.“Today is Remembrance Day”, he says.

We take the road towards Geneva, arrive in Chamonix at dusk. I dial Mary’s number from the hotel room. Snow-covered mountains surround us; an icy grey river flows just outside our window, empty restaurants advertise Raclette with yellowed photos of badly lit food arranged on plates. Mary is not home, but her husband, Guy, reads to me from her notes: “Carl Robert Swanson was killed on January 8, 1945. He belonged to the 180th infantry, 45th division and is buried at Epinal Cemetery outside the village of Dinoze – Quequement, 30 miles from the German border, near Alsace Lorraine, 231 miles south east of Paris. He is in grave #50, Plot B-Row 30.” My heart is racing, a hot tension forms behind my eyes. In a bookstore we find a yellow map of Epinal, Nancy and Strasbourg. “Dinoze” exists. Quequement apparently, does not. I sleep fitfully.

The next day, we take the road to Geneva, and I find the street and the house where I spent the Christmas of 1974. I walk up the steps at 10 Chemin de la Cheminette. A woman in a bathrobe comes to the window, her hand over her mouth. En francais: she has lived here for 18 years, never heard of the Monsieur. She allows me in the front hallway. In spite of the messy household, I remember everything as it was, immaculate and formal and full of the tension of unspoken secrets. The kitchen to the left, where Paul and I spent hours confiding, laughing, speaking a broken French as he made supper; the dining table, where Monsieur sat for lunch with Liliane his Ivoirien friend, (who loved fried bananas); Monsieur’s bedroom by the French windows, where Paul would snoop into the empty sheets of Monsieur’s unmade bed for the telltale evidence of his love life. Frank & Jacob’s room to the right, where I read bedtime stories. It seems impossible, and yet, here I am. Gord takes my photograph on the front steps. Looking across the lane, I see the house where Fiona lived, the kitchen window we waved through. I glance up to my bedroom above the front door, remember the young woman on Christmas morning with a blue letter in her hand.

In Besancon, the next morning, newspapers count down: 50 days ‘til the introduction of the EURO.  And I think: 24 years later, they’re finally getting the currencies together. In the car, I write, my notebook on my knees: “Today, we’re going to get there. A riot of fall colours surround us on either side of the road: browns, amber, cinnamon. Suddenly over the crest of the hill, a city comes into view: Vesoul. Jaz is studying French again – his pronunciation is getting better. Bright orange and yellow leaves hang from black trees as if by a thread. Gord just saw the first sign of Epinal!” We pass a thick dark forest of mature evergreens, try to imagine what it must have been like in January, 1945 in these woods, 43 kilometres south of Epinal.  I see freezing white winds, army boots, cracked and dirty, crunching on packed snow.
Fog gathers against a slate grey sky at the base of the hills. “We’ve just taken the road to Dinoze/Epinal, past birch trees striped white and brown. I feel a strong connection with my sister, Mary.  The sign says Quequement!  Mary was right! We’re here!”
“People live here”, Jaz says as we drive slowly through the manicured grounds into an empty parking lot surrounded by a forest of evergreen and deciduous trees. The ground is dappled in fallen oranges and yellows. In the distance, a sea of white crosses. I pull my sweater close around me. A huge cement wall embossed with the seal of the United States gives us a name for where we are: Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial.

We walk up the steps to a small building. Inside, a spare, formal fifties-style living room. I address the caretaker, a short man with a French accent — in French. He finds the name, Carl Robert Swanson in the computer. In perfect English he tells me there was “quite an impressive ceremony” on November llth. Today is Friday the 13th. We are the only guests on this 54-acre estate, have only to stop talking to hear the rush of silence.  The man takes us outside, carrying a white cloth, a green bucket with sand in it, he tells us, from Omaha Beach, and a Polaroid camera. I walk with him down the steps under the arch. Jaz and Gord follow.

The monument at Epinal is majestic but simple, peaceful and clean with space around it. The Vosges mountains on the distant horizon are shrouded in mist. On low pink walls surrounding the central monument we finger the indentation of carved names  —  over 400 soldiers whose bodies were never found. In the distance, an American flag hangs limp on its pole at the centre of an empty green lawn. A line of trees stand at attention on either side, their leaves falling softly here and there.

“In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row. .” and I see them,  white marble crosses, just as the poem promises, thousands of them against bright green grass. We take the path to the right, down Row 30, past grave after grave.  My eyes glance eagerly at each cross we pass. The caretaker narrates: as they fell, soldiers were buried here in what was farmland, 12,000 wrapped in cloth bags, in graves marked with wooden crosses. Many were “repatriated”, dug up and sent back to their communities months after the war. More than 5,000 remain.
And I think: How did mother face this decision? It makes sense she would have left him here – by that time, her new life with my father had already begun.

I see it instantly, etched in white relief. The name, so full of meaning since I was 15, Carl R. Swanson, focuses my attention, and I realize I am finally here. The caretaker scoops a handful of sand from his green bucket and fills in the white marble letters. He wipes the cross clean, leaving darkened letters.

CARL R. SWANSON
PFC 180 INF 45 DIV
WISCONSIN    JAN 8 1945

I am ambushed by a stifled emotion which escapes and overwhelms me. My breath comes out in short gasps; my hand covers my mouth. A flash pops beside me, the caretaker tucks a developing photo into his shirt. Immediately I want to know: how old was Carl Robert when he died? but his date of birth is not on the cross. I ask the caretaker about the location and the activities of the 45th Division on January 8th, 1945, and he promises to put together an information package for me. He walks back to the fifties living room. We stay.

A plethora of questions:  What part of his body sustained what kind of deadly wound? Who was with him when he died?  How much did my mother know? Where are the letters they must have written to each other? And I think: how simple it is to be here. I sit down on the wet grass and write to Carl Robert Swanson, somehow thinking he can hear me now. “I  honour you because we both loved the same woman.” And I think about her 58-year old bones so faraway in a grave in Ventura, California, under the sod. And right here, under me, under the wet grass, the bones of a young man in his twenties, his memory defined by his death. And in this moment, at the foot of his grave, two days past Remembrance Day, in Epinal, France, I know what Mother and I would have talked about at the sink in our family kitchen 24 years ago.

I would have described the countryside, the French man who spoke perfect English, the quiet in the valley between the mountains, the fog on the horizon, the stately manicured grounds, the sand on the marble cross.  I would have told her I stood on this grass and the worms made little balls of mud under my feet. I would have given her the names of the men buried on either side of her husband: on the right, Elmer F.W. Priess, Nebraska, S Sgt 357, 90th Infantry, who died on September 7th, 1944; on the left, James F. Gilman, New York, Private 157, 45th Infantry  —  who died on October 25th 1944. I would have told my mother that Voral E. Bishop from Kentucky of the 79th Division died on the same day Carl did.

I would have asked my mother, and she would have told me, where she’d been when she learned that Carl Robert was dead. I would have asked, and she would have told what kind of food he liked, their favourite songs, their first memory of each other. I would know now, on what dates through all our lives my mother marked his birthday, their wedding anniversary. Twenty-four years ago, I would have wanted to know if Meta Swanson, his mother, the woman behind the fruitcakes sent every Christmas, was still alive. One thing I am sure of: my mother and I would have shared this weight she carried with her silently, all her life.  My visit to this particular grave, number 50, plot B, row 30 would have created a space for her to speak about this man and their life together — and let go of her grief. Finally, I understand her simple, urgent request entrusted to me so many years ago. My tears are not only for this young man’s wasted life; they are for my mother, for his mother, for myself.

The three of us stare, dwarfed in a sea of five thousand white crosses. Jaz says, “Mum, you have to leave something.” I look at Gord.

“Yeah, we gotta leave something,” he says, “what do you have?”

“Nothing . . . Two rings.”  So I take the silver ring, the one I wear next to my wedding ring, and tuck it against the base of the cross, so no one will find it when mowing the grass.

Jaz says,“I wonder who else from his family has visited his grave?” And I think: It’s been 53 years since he died. Perhaps they would be comforted to know that every year on November llth, the guns go off in this beautiful place, prayers are said, children lay wreaths and the mayor makes a speech. Two days ago there were 500 people here. We hurry back to the small building.

“Do you have the names of other family members who visited his grave?” I ask the caretaker, a little too eagerly.  He hands me a blue folder.

“You are the first one.” He says. In the folder, the Polaroid snapshot of Carl Robert’s grave. “This is for the next of kin,” he says.


 

Copyright © 2014, Caitlin Hicks, All rights reserved.

Contact: www.caitlinhicks.com/wordpress
www.lightmessages.com

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A Theory of Expanded Love picked up by US publisher

Color EXPANDED love hairwash
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Acclaimed Playwright Caitlin Hicks Signs with Light Messages Publishing for Debut Novel

Light Messages Publishing is thrilled to announce that Caitlin Hicks, an acclaimed playwright from Vancouver, Canada, will be publishing her debut novel with the press in May 2015.
Ms. Hicks’ novel A Theory of Expanded Love is a coming-of-age story featuring a feisty yet gullible adolescent, trapped in her enormous, devout Catholic family in 1963.

Surrounded by twelve brothers and sisters, and desperate for attention, Annie creates a hilarious campaign of lies when the pope dies and their family friend, Cardinal Stefanucci, is unexpectedly on the short list to be elected the first American pope. Driven to elevate her family to the holiest of holy rollers in the parish, Annie is tortured by her own dishonesty. But when one of her brothers gets left behind at Disneyland and ‘The Hands’ visit her in her bed, when her sister becomes pregnant “out of wedlock,” Annie discovers her parents will do almost anything to uphold their Catholic reputation. Questioning all she has believed, and torn between her own gut instinct and years of Catholic guilt, Annie takes courageous risks to wrest salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

While A Theory of Expanded Love is Ms. Hicks’ first novel, she has published several short stories, including That Rescue Feeling, which was shortlisted for the John Spencer Hill Fiction Award. Monologues from several of her plays were featured in Smith & Kraus’ series ‘Best Women’s Stage Monologues’ (New York).  She also wrote the play, later adapted for the screen, Singing the Bones, which debuted at the Montreal World Film Festival to stellar reviews and screened around the world.

“I’m thrilled to share this quirky family with readers,” said Hicks “It’s wonderful to have a partner to help me get this story into the world.”

Light Messages Publishing is a family-run publishing company that specializes in meaningful books by emerging authors.

“Caitlin’s debut novel A Theory of Expanded Love is a gem of a book, and we couldn’t be prouder to represent it,” said Elizabeth Turnbull, Senior Editor of Light Messages Publishing. A Theory of Expanded Love is in final stages of editing, but earlier drafts have already received tremendous praise from readers.

“In a nutshell: I love the story. The voice is fantastic,” said Erin Niumata, VP and Agent at Folio Lit.

“I love it! I love your character! I love this book!” writer JoAnne Bennison told Ms. Hicks after reading an early draft.

“Hilarious. Terrific story, bravely truthful,” enthused writer/editor Rosa Reid.“Brilliant ending.”

With cross-over appeal to both adults and young adult readers, A Theory of Expanded Love reaches across the divide of generations to tell the humorous and unexpected story of self-discovery and coming of age amidst dishes, diapers, dogma and two-piece bathing suits. Advance Reader Copies of  A Theory of Expanded Love will be available January 2015. Ms. Hicks is available for interviews. To schedule an interview or event with Ms. Hicks, please contact publicist@lightmessages.com.

5216 Tahoe Drive, Durham, NC, 27713
Phone (919)886-5498 / Email: books@lightmessages.com

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Early reviews for A THEORY of EXPANDED LOVE

“Does the reader need to be one of thirteen children of a near-destructively religious family in post WWII America to get lost in the trance of the period reality that Caitlin Hicks conjures in her coming-of-age tour-de-force? The answer is irrelevant to the pleasure and horror of consuming this book (that’s what you will do – consume it, inhale it, ingest it). In the same way that you don’t have to be a Huck Finn (or a Jim) to be immersed in Mark Twain’s recounting of Huck’s “Adventures”,  you don’t have to be penitent Clare for Hicks to make you cry for the injustice of Clare’s fate. Or to be Jude, to share his infantile discoveries, or Madcap, to be swept away by romantic passion, or Mrs. Shea, to bury her doubts over misguided motherhood in order to keep the marital and familial peace.

“Hicks leads you into and guides you through the story by means of the eyes and mind of Annie Shea, a pre-teen torch in a family of torches. Some of the Sheas may disguise themselves as votive candles in their slow moments, but they are all torches when the fuel is poured on. And there is a great deal of fuel, indeed.

“Yet, in the end, it is not Annie’s eyes, or brain or mouth that brings her story over the finish line with grace and power and love . . . it is her heart. Hicks bares Annie’s heart again and again and again and in doing so, the reader’s as well. . . It’s fucking BRILLIANT!”             - Lance Mason, Independent Health Professional

A baby patricia

I love your book The Theory of Expanded Love. I found the juxtaposition of the dysfunction within the family and the church fascinating; more so because despite the dysfunction, the physical and spiritual family were resilient and life affirming. That Annie suffers from the rigidity and chaos of her upbringing and benefits from the love and life training she receives is a conundrum many readers like myself will identify with. Our parents aren’t perfect, sometimes to a criminal fault, but when we come to accept their love, as Annie does, we are equipped to go out in the world and make our own mistakes instead of repeating theirs.

Your language is lively and descriptions engaging enough to make me want to find my way to the Shea’s bathroom to wash my hands regularly! . . . It is difficult to deal with a cast of characters as large as this one, but you do it masterfully. Once I got into the story, I could not put it down. . . The end was brilliant.”        -Sydney Avey, Author

I had to keep reading and hated for it to be over! Your book is wonderful. . . A great story, beautifully written. The Theory of Expanded Love considers all the great themes of life and death, who we are and where we fit or don’t, human greatness and human pettiness, God and religion, abandonment and reclamation, love and hate and in-between, lust and desire and sexual abuse… all from the point of view of 12, nearly thirteen, year old Annie Shea, number 6 in a family of 13! kids.! !

Many of us will remember 1963 as the year Kennedy was assassinated. Few of us will remember or know what it was like living those months before and after that event. What was the society of that time? What was it like to grow up in an enormous, practicing Catholic family with all the rules and rigidity and competition for privilege, social standing, and righteousness? What was it like to risk your eternal soul to stand up for what you believe in … to stand up for love?! ! Annie Shea lets us into that world, lets us live those days in full technicolor, rich and detailed. Annie lets us experience the confusion as real life thoughts and feelings struggle for understanding, as theory is tested against what really happened, as innocence is nearly but never really lost.

What is special and elegant in this story is the humour, honesty, intelligence and wisdom that unfolds and entertains moment by moment.! ! This story is funny. This story is a great read. This story is an eloquent life lesson. The theory of expanded love is proven.                                                                                     -Lynn Chapman, Environmentalist

In a nutshell: I love the story. The voice is fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed this and had a lot of fun reading it over, three times! As a Catholic who grew up in the 60′s and 70′s this spoke to me on many levels and I laughed right out loud on more than one occasion. It was a joy.”  – Erin Niumanta, Agent & VP @ Folio Lit

The book is awesome.  Totally unpredictable, I literally had NO idea what was going to happen.  I adore Annie.  I tore through it at warp speed because I just had to know. Then I read it again slower so I wouldn’t miss anything. ”    –  Aggie Sanders, avid reader

THEORY expanded by fence

“Hilarious . .  too funny. . . “Terrific story with so many twists and turns.”

“Excellent, a huge fall from grace. Very entertaining, lively and bravely truthful. . . A lovely glimpse of childhood faith & the big questions about God.”

“Brilliant ending.” . . .

Rosa Reid, Editor

 

 

 

Hi Caitlin, I have just finished reading Part 1. Terrific work! The prologue is very intense and compelling, draws us in. I found all fourteen chapters told spellbinding stories. Wonderful how you have remembered all the fine details of the times, the magazines and movies what people watched on TV, all such good memories, that so fully round out your stories. In the reading, your characters come alive and we become attached to them , or suffer with them, you bring us right into all the activities in such a real and vivid way. About the faith and religious part: you have handled it with truth, and very fairly and it just slowly moves along to God knows what lies ahead, but so far without an axe to grind or a cause to beat us with. I like the faith part very much. A great read so far.”                    –    Linda Szabados, writer

I love it! I love your character! I love this book!”  Joanne Bennison, writer

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The Theory of Expanded Love

A Theory of Expanded Love is a coming-of-age story featuring a feisty yet gullible adolescent, trapped in her enormous, devout Catholic family in 1963. Surrounded by twelve brothers and sisters, and desperate for attention, Annie creates a hilarious campaign of lies when the pope dies and their family friend, Cardinal Stefanucci, is unexpectedly on the short list to be elected the first American pope. Driven to elevate her family to the holiest of holy rollers in the parish, Annie is tortured by her own dishonesty. But when one of her brothers gets left behind at Disneyland and ‘The Hands’ visit her in her bed, when her sister becomes pregnant ‘out of wedlock’, Annie discovers her parents will do almost anything to uphold their Catholic reputation. Questioning all she has believed, and torn between her own gut instinct and years of Catholic guilt, Annie takes courageous risks to wrest salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

THEORY slide cover

 

Longer synopsis:

A Theory of Expanded Love is a coming-of-age story featuring an unflinching, gullible skeptic, trapped in an enormous Catholic family in Pasadena in 1963.

Tired of the ramshackle low-status life in her huge family, Annie sees her chance to raise their rank closer to heaven when a family friend is announced to be on the short list to become the first American pope. Number six of thirteen children and frantic for attention in the swarm of her boisterous clan, Annie tells fantastic lies to elevate herself — and her tribe  — to the holiest of holy rollers in her parish.

This is a family that finds parking spaces by praying to Saint Anthony and fights communism by reciting the rosary; a family ruled by a Navy Commander armed with a belt and wielding phrases ‘Rank has its privileges’ and ‘Bombs over Tokyo!’ A family full of quirky characters each with his/her own unique method of survival. The only time the Mother can be alone is in the bathroom, and Annie often sits outside the door, desperate to be noticed.

March on Washington

1963 is the year of the first woman cosmonaut, bomb shelters, desegregation and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. With a Catholic president in the White House, every family owns a car and a black and white tv. The Baby Boom is in full swing and women who get pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ are routinely sent away in secret to give up their babies.

In the second half of 1963, Annie begins to observe and question (often hilariously) everything she has been taught. Frequently in trouble for her outspoken challenges to family wisdom and constantly diminished for being ‘dramatic’ Annie struggles to please. But puberty descends, to her embarrassment and shame.  Added to the mystery of her changing body, ‘The Hands’ visit her late at night.

This and the scandal of her sister’s illegitimate pregnancy threaten to kibosh her Catholic family’s stellar reputation in the parish, something Annie’s father will do almost anything to uphold. At a time when sexual abuse isn’t even acknowledged, Annie tries to keep herself awake to catch her night-time tormenter. Her parents refuse to acknowledge the problem, and Annie runs away from home to be with her pregnant sister, Clare, who is in active labor.

When Clare boards a bus instead of admitting herself into the hospital,  Annie realizes her sister’s profound vulnerability and her own inexperience. In spite of her age, she wrests salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’  betrayal.

In the six months between the pope’s death, the birth of the civil rights movement, the assassination of President Kennedy and New Year’s Eve, Annie’s irrepressible spirit passes into adolescence testing  the military mindset, the logic of Catholicism, — and her own Theory of Expanded  Love.

 

 

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ABOUT PLACE. From Sydney Avey’s blog

Writing California: Pasadena

courtesy www.homeworkshop.com275 Madeline house pic #2

sydneyavey.com/blog/

You have to love Pasadena to appreciate the special burn of sun, brand of smog and desire to be part of something beautiful it offers–and Caitlin Hicks does.  Caitlin set her story, A Theory of Expanded Love, in the Sixties in the Southern California town she lived in during her formative years.

In Caitlin’s words

We attended St. Andrew’s Catholic school with the big red bell tower, right on the edge of a sketchy inner-city section of town. I remember the warm, sometimes smoggy nights, the quality of the early morning light in Southern California. The smell of eucalyptus, the dry, crackly oak leaves that covered the ground in summer.

Family excursions to Santa Monica Beach under brilliant, bright sunlight were always preceded by a long ride in thesunbather back of the VW bus on the sinuous freeways of Pasadena and Santa Monica. The white sand on the beach was so hot you had to run to the water so as not to burn your feet.  The waves crashed into the shore and there was a lot of screaming and squealing with delight as we learned to body surf. Of course the sun was unforgiving: by the end of the day I could feel the tightness in my skin across my back and slept on my stomach to keep from touching my red hot sunburned skin. We called it ‘baking’.

More than anything, the memory of the softness of the air and the warmth resonate with me – we were always outside concocting adventures; playing football on our brownish lawn, or Swamp Fox at the vacant lot during endless, hot smoggy days. There was a place called Camel’s Hump, a hill with caves we climbed up and scampered through. Even the smog had a personality – it filled our lungs after an afternoon of swimming at the Pasadena Athletic Club.

1963

Caitlin Hicks

Caitlin Hicks

Caitlin’s  coming-of-age story features feisty yet gullible Annie Shea, trapped in her enormous Catholic family  in the six months of 1963 between June and December. It begins on the June day that Pope John the 23rd dies and ends on New Year’s Eve in a warehouse where  Annie  is a volunteer, pasting flowers on USC float for the Rose Parade.

Why 1963? So much happened then, Caitlin says.

“It was the year of the first woman cosmonaut, bomb shelters, the hotline to Russia, the nuclear test ban treaty, and desegregation of schools in the south. A Catholic president was in the White House and every family owned a car and a black and white TV. It was the year that Dr. Martin Luther King rallied hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., for his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Barbara Streisand was still a teenager when she made her debut; the Beatles were rocking the UK, zip codes were introduced to U.S.mail, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas and our innocence as a nation ended. Then The Sixties, as we now remember it, really began. ”

Fertile ground for a story

Pasadena provides the  perfect setting for  audacious Annie to see her chance for glory. When the pope dies,  family friend Cardinal Stefanucci is  shortlisted to be elected the first American pope. Annie begins a hilarious campaign of lies-by-association with the Cardinal to elevate her tribe to the holiest of holy rollers in her parish. But when one of her brothers gets left behind at Disneyland, and ‘The Hands’ visit her that night, when her sister becomes pregnant ‘out of wedlock’, Annie discovers her parents will do almost anything to uphold their Catholic reputation. Questioning all she has believed, and torn between her own gut instinct and years of Catholic guilt, Annie takes courageous risks to wrest salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

A Theory of Expanded Love  features the balmy weather, spring, and fertility:

            “My dog Lucky went sniffing around the neighborhood as far as the vacant lot to the north and South Pasadena Avenue to the east and Orange Grove Boulevard to the west. These excursions produced litters of his pups, who were born more deeply mutt than he was. We only knew they were his offspring because there was always one who was his spitting image: short and squat, black and white, a bib around the neck and a striped tail that curled up over the rump. Nowadays, people would think to spay or neuter, but in those days, his prancing manliness was considered a gift. My Lucky would return from these excursions trotting proudly, his tongue hanging out, panting in quick puffs, later exhausted and spent as he lay down at the side of the house in the sun and napped the rest of the day.

            School was out for summer.” 

About Caitlin Hicks

A graduate of Loyola Marymount University with a BFA double degree in English (Writing) and French, Caitlin has published short stories, non-fiction, radio, theatre and film. She has worked as a writer for The Los Angeles Times, Mattel Toy Company, NBC and CBS radio. She has toured internationally as a playwright and performer and seen one of her theatre plays  adapted to a feature film called Singing the Bones .

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November 22, 1963 – President Kennedy has been shot

Announcement from the principal’s office

“Something is wrong, something is terribly wrong.”

 Dear Blessed Mother, How did you let this happen? Please pass along the message to Jesus, Have mercy on all of us!

            You couldn’t have suspected it, especially if you based your suspicions on the kind of day it was. A sunny day after the rain, everything crisp and shiny. Even in Pasadena, there were a few trees whose leaves changed to yellow and orange, reminding you that it was fall. Later on, as the sun beat down, the smog stretched its fuzzy dirt across the horizon and made the sky whitish, but right then, it was perfect.

I couldn’t wait for recess. All our 7th grade heads were bent over our shiny beige desktops, penciling in a Geography assignment. Mrs. Parry walked up and down the aisles checking on us like inmates. Static scratched the wall to the right next to the clock. I heard fumbling. Someone cleared her throat.

“This is an announcement from the Principal’s office. We have been informed that President Kennedy has been shot. It is not known if he will live. Please pray for his recovery.”

Mrs. Parry marched to the front and put the pointer on the ledge next to the chalk.             “Continue with the assignment, boys and girls.”  Then she opened the door and let the steel grasshopper leg on the top corner of the door pull it shut.  A murmur rose up from all of us. Who would that be, I wondered, the person who continued with the geography assignment after the announcement that the President has been shot?

At recess, Sister Everista stood on the cracked asphalt near the lunch tables, in her black robes and thick rosary jangling from her leather belt. Her eyes were red from crying. I walked past her, thinking that her face would somehow answer some of my questions. What did she know about the President that made her cry? I’m pretty sure she never met him. I was sorry he died because he was a Catholic, but I wasn’t sorry because he was a Democrat. Sister Everista obviously couldn’t see through Kennedy’s Catholicism to the truth of his political mistakes. I wondered if God considers being a Democrat a sin.  Maybe it’s a big sin, and maybe the President was being punished.

After recess we processed into the cool church, single file, all the grades, from first grade to eighth grade for a mandatory student body noon Mass. We were going to storm heaven with our prayers and we had to get the weather up there going.  All four grades of St. Andrew’s High School joined us. It wasn’t long before Monsignor came to the pulpit and we heard that ‘shot’ had been changed to ‘assassinated’. President Kennedy was really dead, and we were all let out to go home. It was hard to understand. Since he was a Catholic, he would be up in heaven right now, enjoying the big pay-off. But the shock of his death was much more real. Everyone was talking about it. On the radio, in the newspapers, on television, everywhere. Nobody said anything about heaven in the world outside our parish.

I was perplexed and a little bit frightened that in the clutch, not only did our prayers fail, but the doctors couldn’t save him either. The doctors were so smart. They had drugs and they could operate. Their machines could keep you going when you were just lying there not even breathing. Why couldn’t they put him back together again, with stitches and somebody else’s blood flowing through his veins? He was the most famous man in the land. Our country was the luckiest in the world. What happened?

I felt guilty; could it have been my fault? That the president of the United States was lying on his back in a box with a lid on? Madcap was going out at night and sneaking back in at all hours, and sometimes, I had to cover for her. Which meant that I was committing venial sins every time anybody asked where she was.  I always said she was in her room, doing her homework. I didn’t even know where she went. Sometimes she ditched school; she’d duck out of line when the student body filed into the church on special days for noon mass. Aaron Soloman usually picked her up. And sometimes, she didn’t get back until after everyone else had gone to bed. I don’t know how she got away with it, except I was part of it. Sometimes when she came in, waking me up by throwing seed pods at my window, she seemed silly and talkative and sleepy at the same time and her breath smelled like Daddy’s breath just before dinner, after Mother and Daddy had their martinis. I sat in Madcap’s room at times like this, trying to stay awake, while getting information from her about what she had been doing. Just in case. I was afraid for her. If anything happened, how would we ever know where to look?

Wanda told fibs to her parents, too. Like the time we both went to the store to get Abba Zabbas instead of making her bed and arranging her dolls with real glass eyes and fancy costumes on the pillows.

Her mom pounded on the door, ‘Is your room cleaned up?’

‘Spic and Span! Wanda had said, as we chomped down on the chewey taffy, giggling. ‘And no, you can’t come in!’

Wanda thought confession was embarrassing, so she never went, and I felt scared for her soul, just like I did for Madcap. What if Wanda died without getting the chance to wipe the slate clean? But she had a point – the priests could recognize our voices, we were both sure, or maybe they could see us through the screen. We both hated the idea that they had all the nasty details to our personal lives. When you have to tell private sins like, even thoughts to a man, and you’re a girl, well, that’s why they put the confessional in the dark. I myself have to close my eyes and say it. I usually rehearse my sins so I don’t chicken out. I say them in a list, trying to sound very matter-of-fact about it. I hit my sister, I told a small lie, I borrowed a red scarf from my other sister without permission. Then, once it’s done you can muss up your soul a little by saying something that isn’t totally true, and it doesn’t look so bad to God, ‘cause your soul is like the blackboard and confession is the eraser. Actually lately, I relied on this one eraser loophole to be able to carry on with my lies about Father Stefanucci, back when he was going to be Pope.

Lying seems like a necessary thing, an unavoidable consequence of being in the world where there are so many rules. It’s bad enough that God can spy on your every thought. There’s no privacy at all, once you figure in the church and confession, and your parents knowing where you are at every minute.  Other people had to be doing it too, and if everyone else is telling stories, it wasn’t just me – how could President Kennedy’s death be punishment for my sins?

But there was some good news on the horizon –Cardinal Stefanucci was coming to visit on Thanksgiving. We were all given extra chores to tidy up the house before he got there. I had to wipe off the smudgies and boogers on all the doors and walls. It took a few hours, but when the stuff came off, the doors around the handles seemed to glow, and kept looking at them every time I passed, feeling like I had accomplished something.

Because the Cardinal was coming on the Thursday of the Thanksgiving weekend, we would be the first in the parish to see him. But it wasn’t the same; everyone was thinking and talking about The President.

_______________________________________

On Monday, November 25th, televisions glowed out of all the houses on our street. Schools all over the country were closed to observe the state funeral. The branches of the redwood tree reflected through the picture window and it was hard to see the tv screen because there was so much light.

Jacqueline Kennedy walked bravely between her brothers-in-law, Robert and Edward, down the street towards St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral mass. She wore a black hat and I could see the breath in front of her in white clouds under her black veil. I was afraid someone was going to shoot her out in the open like that.

The coffin was draped with the American flag and I imagined the President’s body inside, stiff yet jiggling in the dark under the lid, rolling along behind magnificent white horses, with men in dark uniforms sort of bouncing atop their backs. The hush of the huge crowd staring in silence could almost be heard through the television. On the steps outside the cathedral, Jackie leaned over and whispered something to John-John. And then the little boy saluted. He was only three, a year younger than the twins.

Mother sat watching on the couch in her apron, wearing the usual thick-soled shoes and tensor stockings, sighing. Maybe I was too young to notice the last time, but I can’t remember her ever being this tired. Drums and bagpipes floated their squeaky, sorrowful music all the way out to California from Washington, D. C. The guns went off; soldiers stood at attention in white gloves, the eternal flame was lit and we heard the final lonely notes of a bugle playing “Taps.”  I held my hand over the hard surface of Mother’s tummy to feel the baby kicking and I thought how Jackie is like the Blessed Mother. She is the woman who loves the most important man in our country, but who has to suffer while everybody else watches her.

From “A Theory of Expanded Love” a novel by Caitlin Hicks

Fourteen, The Theory of Expanded Love is a coming-of-age story featuring the quirky, unflinching voice of Annie Shea, baptized Catholic and gullible skeptic, number six in a family of thirteen children in the last six months of 1963.

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Polishing the gem

A Theory of Expanded Love, a hilarious novel about a young girl coming of age whose quirky main character Annie Shea is caught in her enormous Catholic family between belief, reality and the seismic social events of 1963.

97 words

A Theory of Expanded Love is a 1963 coming-of-age story featuring the quirky, adolescent voice of Annie Shea, a gullible skeptic trapped in an enormous military, Catholic family. This lovable, odd-ball character, discoverer of family secrets and desperate for attention in the swarm of her clan, tells fantastic lies to elevate her tribe to the holiest of the holy rollers in her parish. When “The Hands” visit her late at night and her sister becomes pregnant ‘out of wedlock’, Annie courageously wrests salvation from the 
tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

382 words:

A Theory of Expanded Love is a coming-of-age story featuring an unflinching, gullible skeptic, trapped in an enormous Catholic family in Pasadena, California, in 1963.

Tired of the ramshackle low-status life in her huge family, Annie sees her chance to raise their rank closer to heaven when a family friend is shortlisted to become the first American pope. Number six of thirteen children and frantic for attention in the swarm of her boisterous clan, Annie tells fantastic lies to elevate herself — and her tribe  — to the holiest of holy rollers in her parish.

This is a family that finds parking spaces by praying to Saint Anthony and fights communism by reciting the rosary; a family ruled by a Navy Commander armed with a belt and wielding phrases ‘Rank has its privileges’ & ‘Bombs over Tokyo!’ A family full of quirky characters each with his/her own unique method of survival.

1963 is the year of bomb shelters, desegregation and Martin Luther King. With a Catholic president in the White House, every family owns a car and a black & white tv. The Baby Boom is in full swing; women  who get pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ are routinely sent away in secret to give up their babies.

This is the year Annie begins to observe and question (often hilariously) everything she has been taught. Frequently diminished for being ‘dramatic’ Annie is punished when she discovers family secrets and abandoned when ‘The Hands’ visit her late at night.  This and the scandal of her sister’s illegitimate pregnancy threaten to kibosh her Catholic family’s stellar reputation, something Annie’s father will do almost anything to uphold. Annie plots to catch her night-time tormenter herself, but her bold confrontations lead to more punishment and she runs away from home to be with her pregnant sister,  Aggie, who is now in active labor at The Mission, and still determined to save her baby from forced adoption.

When Aggie boards a bus instead of admitting herself into the hospital for her labor and birth, (where her baby can be taken from her) Annie realizes her sister’s profound vulnerability and her own inexperience.  In spite of her age, Annie courageously wrests salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

Between the pope’s death, the birth of the civil rights movement, the assassination of President Kennedy and New Year’s Eve, Annie grapples  with the bewildering logic of Catholicism, the military mindset, the meaning of loyalty — and her own Theory of Expanded  Love.

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March on Washington, 50 years later

August 28, 1963 Dear Diary, On the television we watched a lot of negroes marching in Washington, D.C., until Daddy turned it off, saying “Propaganda”. Tons of people as far as the eye could see with signs about freedom and a negro named Martin Luther King who was speaking into a microphone sounding all dramatic, his deep voice going up and down in a barrel, like he was telling a scary story at Halloween. Daddy said he was rabble-rousing the negroes. The sun was bleach-hot . . . 

-From Fourteen, A Theory of Expanded Love

 

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This moment, July 15, 2013

A Monday. Summer sun rises above the trees, dapples the burnt grass, begins to pour its heat over the pond. A perceptible silence but if you listen, tinny blinds flap against wood framed windows as a breeze moves gently around. Springy and lightweight, the claw-like curved ends of Hemlock branches,  bob up and down with the cool air’s movement. And now I hear the caw caw of the blackbird. A truck in the distance on the highway. I’m sitting in my office on the second floor, a huge bank of windows behind me with a stunning view of the trees.

Business of the day: A guest checking in this afternoon at 5:30 with her husband and daughter. Then tomorrow we go to Seattle to see Lori and her family. So much will get in the way today. Making beds, planting bulbs. Sending out Fourteen, my novel.

Continue reading

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I really am a writer

My husband had this blown up and framed, so I wouldn’t forget. Today the agent got back to me and requested a full manuscript.

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