A Love Story by Karen Shughart

“He alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.” Khalil Gibran

In the fall of 2016 my mother suffered a series of strokes and went into a nursing home in Pittsburgh, where she lived. My father had died; I became her power of attorney and had her mail forwarded to me here in New York. That December she received a letter with a return name and address that I vaguely recognized. I opened it.

It was letter from a man named Norge Santin, who was inquiring after my mother, our family, and Leonard, my mother’s brother. Then I remembered that Norge was a childhood friend of theirs when they were growing up in Ohio.

My uncle had died earlier that month; after reading the letter I wrote back, apprising Norge of his passing and my mother’s health issues. He responded quickly, saddened by my news. He knew who I was, he wrote, we’d met when my parents lived in Ohio shortly after I was born.

What ensued was a friendship between us, for a time through letters, then by email and phone. Norge grieved with me when my mother passed three years ago and comforted me when one of my brothers died last summer. Each time we made contact, he ended by offering prayers and blessings for my uncle and mother and sending love to me and my family.

He filled in some blanks. I learned that he and my uncle were not just friends, but best friends, starting in third grade. When the two young men graduated from high school they were drafted, it was World War II, and their college plans were placed on hold. Norge returned from the war, got his degrees, married, and had children.

Leonard was not so lucky. Suffering a breakdown during the war from which he would never recover, he spent his remaining years in and out of VA hospitals and group homes. My siblings and I knew his tragic story; our parents made sure he was always part of our lives. What I hadn’t known was that Norge remained a devoted friend to Leonard throughout his life. During visits when Leonard was withdrawn and unresponsive, he’d sit quietly with him, holding his hand.

Eventually our family moved Leonard to Pittsburgh. Norge, despite living in Ohio, continued visiting my uncle until Leonard decided that he no longer wished to see him. Maybe it was too painful to be with Norge, we’ll never know. Norge respected his wishes and never contacted him again, but his love for his friend never ceased; he contacted my mother to receive updates, up until the time when I opened that letter.

By 2019 Norge’s health had declined, he had trouble reading emails and spoke haltingly over the phone. I wanted to meet this man I’d grown so fond of, so that October my husband and I drove to Ohio to visit Norge and his wife, Therese. We were warmly welcomed and spent a lovely afternoon; all of us feeling as though we’d known one another forever.

Because of Covid there were no return visits, but we talked regularly, most recently just before Thanksgiving when I promised to call again before Christmas. Before we ended that conversation, Norge confided he thought his time was near. I told him I loved him, he said he loved me back.

Two weeks ago, I received a call from one of Norge and Therese’s daughters that broke my heart. This tender, humble, gentle and honorable man had passed and Therese, despite her own grief (they were married for 68 years), wanted to make sure I knew. His death, at 94, occurred almost four years to the day of the death of my uncle.

I’m so glad I decided to open that letter, my life is immeasurably enriched because of it. Therese and I share a strong bond; I’ll keep in touch with her and visit when it’s safe. And I miss Norge already. Rest in peace, dear friend.

Gratitude and Poetry by Karen Shughart

For many years the poetry books I collected, starting in my teens, sat on our bookshelves untouched. I have no idea why I stopped reading poetry, but I did.

Then, one cold and rainy afternoon last month, I made myself a cup of tea and after pulling several books off  a shelf, curled up on the loveseat in front of the fire and began to flip through the pages. I intended to find poems of gratitude to be used for this blog, but I got off track, delighting in rediscovering poems I had loved and admired regardless of topic.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

In high school,  I was introduced to the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Byron, and Blake; whose works beckoned me to understand the world through nature, imagination, revolution and those marginalized in society. I memorized stanzas that I can still recite because they so filled my heart.

Later, still in my teens, I was drawn to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a lyric poem that presents deep feelings and emotions on subjects such as life, death, love, and religion. Did it help clarify or shape my own identity? Probably not, as my own experiences and travels unfolded in their own unique way, but at the time, I was entranced by it.

As an English major in college, I read and discussed the works, both in and out of the classroom, of  contemporary poets like John Barth, who was in residence at my university; Laurence Ferlinghetti;  Karl Shapiro; Leonard Cohen; and  Wallace Stevens, who, in 1955, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems. To me, his poems resonate like verbal music and his perfect control of language evokes a myriad of complex feelings.

Throughout my college years and beyond, I discovered, read, and admired the works of many more poets, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot among those, but also the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

My father, who was born in 1919, graduated college and then went to serve our country during World War II.  One of George Patton’s scouts, he received two bronze stars. He was a fierce man: in his morals, ethics, and values; his love for his family and for his country. Towards the end, his fierceness continued as he battled serious health issues that never seemed to daunt or derail him from living the remainder of his life to the fullest.

The eldest of his four children, I was the first to read a eulogy at his funeral. I never could have  expressed what I knew of my father’s spirit better than Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, written for his dying father in 1947, the year I was born.

So, I guess this blog really is about both poetry and gratitude. Gratitude that I had a family that encouraged education, an education that exposed me to poetry, and a family that embodied and still does today, the meaning and actions of love.

October by Karen Shughart

The leaves have turned, some fallen, and walking through the village our feet trample upon a carpet of brilliant colors. Stacks of pumpkins: pale green, yellow, orange, and white, are artfully arranged on steps leading up to front porches or peek out among decaying flowers. Wreaths rimmed with leaves of every shape and color, small green and white gourds, slender wheat stalks and delicate twigs adorn doorways, some homemade; others purchased at local craft shows.    Artfully placed wicker or galvanized metal baskets filled with pinecones are redolent with cinnamon and cloves.

On a cool morning, just after the rising of the sun, small herds of deer congregate in yards, nibbling away at their morning libations, white-tipped tails pointed straight up, in case of danger. But in our village there’s no need to fret;  instead early walkers pull out cell-phone cameras to capture the moment and the deer, with their soulful eyes alert, continue their task once they realize they are safe.

A block away our neighbors turn their yard into a ghoulish graveyard with tombstones covered in spidery cobwebs indicating those who are buried there:  Barry DaLive; Emma Goner; Ima Rotten, Ben Better, Anita Moore-Tishan, Berry D. Hatchet. Here and there, skeletons sway from the ghoulish branches of trees, some with limbs now barren, and you’ll see hay bales made to look like Minions, courtesy of the Neighborhood Association.

The screech owls, quiet during most of the summer and through September, now make their presence known. Their eerie sounds, terrifying at best, can be heard after most have of us have gone to bed, reminding us that something, soon, will be afoot. It’s called Halloween.

Halloween, here in our village on the south shore of Lake Ontario, when the nights are cold and an occasional early snowfall adds to the mood, is really a season. You can feel and see its presence starting not too long after Labor Day. Everyone is excited about Halloween: the children, most of all, and their parents who help them with their costumes, but also adults whose children have grown. There used to be house parties, and parties at restaurants and pubs, a time to let loose, enjoy the season, some folks in costume; others, not. This year will be different.

Here the celebration of Halloween is a throwback to earlier and safer times. Parents accompany the younger ones, who knock on our door yelling “trick or treat”, then reach out with their plastic pumpkins, open at the top, for the treats. It’s safe enough for the older ones to travel by themselves in groups. In our village, we all look after them. Well-trained in niceties, they remember to say “thank-you”, tiny ones urged on by their elders lest they forget. People in this village understand the concept of gratitude.

October is a time of transition. With its deep brilliancy it reminds us that slowly creeping stealthily in behind it is winter, a time of white silence and shadows.

The Year of Uncertainty by Karen Shughart

For many of us this has been a year of uncertainty, a difficult year, and a year we could never have imagined, one that took us completely by surprise and rocked our universe. For my husband and me it has meant almost no in-person contact with our children. Our son and daughter-in-law live on the West Coast, my husband and I live north of the Finger Lakes on Lake Ontario,  and although we spent time over the summer with our daughter who lives in New Jersey, she’s started back teaching. We have no idea when we’ll be able to visit with any of them again.

Zoom meetings have become part of our lives. Truth be told, it’s not a great way to mourn the death of a beloved sibling, celebrate several new births, or the milestone of a cousin’s 70th birthday.  We do it; we have no choice, but it’s been much harder than giving up dining out at restaurants or attending live cultural performances.

On the professional end, book talks and signings, and a conference for readers of mysteries where I was to be a panelist, were all canceled because of Covid-19, shortly after my second mystery was launched. Appointments for yearly check-ups and screenings have also been canceled and rescheduled, more than once.

But despite the uncertainty and sadness, there have been bright spots: The babies and birthday mentioned above, the support of friends when we were mourning the death of my sibling; the outdoor, safe distancing gatherings of a small group of us who are bonded not by blood but by heart; a cooking video on YouTube with me preparing a recipe from one of my books. And we do get to speak with and see our children on FaceTime and at family Zoom gatherings.

In early April we adopted Nova, a tiny Blue Tick Beagle, who captured our hearts from the moment we saw her photo at the shelter. A gentle, easy going and loving dog, she also is spunky and stubborn, qualities that have stood her in good stead, given the horrible neglect and abuse she suffered before becoming part of our family. Five months have passed, and Nova is a happy, healthy, increasingly confident and secure dog, just as we had hoped. It was the virus that brought us together.

To deal with the anxiety I feel because of these surreal times, I’ve been listening to guided meditation CDs, about 20 minutes daily; it’s helped. As has writing in a journal, giving voice to thoughts and feelings about all the chaos in our world. But I also write down ten things each day for which I’m grateful. Poetry and classical music, always part of my life, have assumed a greater role, calming and centering me.

Most of us have heard the old saw, “this too shall pass,” but sometimes it’s not all that easy to believe. I think it will happen, eventually, but our world, both big and small, will be changed forever.  Hopefully, when it does, we’ll find strength to pick up the pieces and move on.

August by Karen Shughart

Here up at the lake we’re surrounded by orchards, vineyards and farmland; gently rolling hills and meandering streams with an abundance of fish. It’s a beautiful place any time of the year, but the end of summer, the month of August, is special in so many ways.

Sunrise is a little later this time of year, we can hear the morning songs of birds at around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. rather than 3:30 or 4:00 as in June. There’s something peaceful and magical about waking early in August to see the sun rise, it’s rose-gold rays streaking the water with brilliant light.

Warm days are the norm; some days the humidity rises, but on others bright blue skies, lazy white clouds, and a lake sluggishly rolling its waves onto the shore are a welcome change to the previously fetid air.  Sailboats dot the horizon, pontoons chug lazily about and motorboats slice through the undulating sea. Families play on the beach and picnic under a pavilion where laughing children used to ride a carousel.

A cornucopia of fresh produce offers up its bounty at a multitude of farm stands and markets. Lovely squashes, tomatoes, blueberries, cherries, corn, beans, and herbs create a riot of color far more beautiful than any still life painting.  And the fecund ripening of the fruit on trees in the orchards, especially the apples, the first of which will soon be ready for harvest, remind us that fall is on its way. The green, green grass of past months starts to brown, the flowers lose some of their bloom, and the limbs on deciduous trees, with their dark, heavy leaves, droop with anticipation as they begin to fade. In a month or so, their bright, warm hues will beckon an onslaught of sightseers.

The days are getting shorter, but still, because we are so far north, it stays light until  after 9 p.m. and the cicadas, dormant since last year, add a soft, musical background to the fireflies that sparkle and dance their way across our yard . On clear nights, when humidity is low, the sky is awash in stars so dense to appear as a carpet covering an inky background.  Unlike earlier, warmer summer evenings, we can now, more frequently, sleep with the windows open.

Photo by Karen Shughart

Something about the light and the air bring visions of fall: bright, sunny days as crisp as biting into a just-picked apple.  It smells different, too. The air is perfumed, but in August, with a rich, heavy ripeness and the beginnings of the decay that precedes fall and winter.

Later in the month, when the tourists and those who spend their summers at simple cottages here have gone, there’s a quiet  interrupted only by the occasional droning of a lawn mower,  the buzz of insects, the bark of a dog or a the quiet chatter of friends and neighbors passing by.

August by Karen Shughart

Here up at the lake we’re surrounded by orchards, vineyards and farmland; gently rolling hills and meandering streams with an abundance of fish. It’s a beautiful place any time of the year, but the end of summer, the month of August, is special in so many ways.

Sunrise is a little later this time of year, we can hear the morning music of birds at around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. rather than 3:30 or 4:00 as in June. There’s something peaceful and magical about waking early in August to see the sun rise, it’s rose-gold rays casting brilliant diamond-like shards across the water. It’s a quiet time.

Warm days are the norm; some days the humidity rises, but on others bright blue skies, lazy white clouds, and a lake sluggishly rolling its waves onto the shore are a welcome change to the previously fetid air.  Sailboats dot the horizon, pontoons chug lazily about and motorboats slice through the undulating sea. Families play on the beach and picnic under a pavilion where long ago children laughed with delight as they rode a carousel.

A cornucopia of fresh produce offers up its bounty at a multitude of farm stands and markets. Lovely squashes, tomatoes, blueberries, cherries, corn, beans, and herbs create a riot of color far more beautiful than any still life painting.  And the fecund ripening of the fruit on trees in the orchards, especially the apples, the first of which will soon be ready for harvest, remind us that fall is on its way. The green, green grass of past months starts to brown, the flowers lose some of their bloom, and the limbs on deciduous trees, with their lush dark leaves, droop with anticipation as they begin to fade. In a month or two, their bright, warm hues will beckon an onslaught of sightseers.

Photo by Karen Shughart

Something about the light and the air bring visions of fall: bright, sunny days as crisp as biting into a just-picked apple.  It smells different, too. The air is perfumed, but in August, with a rich, heavy sweetness mingled with the beginnings of the decay that precedes fall and winter.

Later in the month, when the tourists and those who spend their summers at simple cottages here have gone, there’s silence  interrupted only by the occasional droning of a lawn mower,  the buzz of insects, the bark of a dog or the subdued chatter of friends and neighbors who pass by.

What Goes Around… by Karen Shughart

I grew up in the 1950s, a time shortly after the end of World War II when all most people wanted was a simple life that included a modest home, food on the table and a little bit of money for extras. We had one TV, a black and white at first, and sometimes we ate TV dinners, prepackaged with meat loaf and macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie, as we sat on chairs in the living room and watched the evening news.

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Our recreational activities were, for the most part, ones that cost little money. Our family had picnics with neighbors, relatives, or friends at a local park. One of my friend’s dad had a pick-up truck and on a summer evening he’d pile 6-8 of us into the back of it and take us for ice cream, which we ate standing around the truck or sitting at a picnic table. We played hide-and-seek outside when the sun set late, board games with our parents on cold or rainy days, or put together jig saw puzzles. Sometimes we went to movies; in the summer to drive-ins in our pjs; or to a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. At least once a year we had a family outing to an amusement park with a wooden Ferris wheel and penny arcade.

One vivid detail that stands out is how bright the sky was then and how clear the air. When we couldn’t go to the community pool my mom turned the sprinkler on, and I remember loving the rainbows and diamond-like sparkles that were created by the sun hitting the water as we jumped and danced through the ephemeral spray. I remember, too, looking up at night and marveling at the carpet of twinkling stars that covered the sky.

Each July or August we went to the Jersey Shore, an eight-hour driving trip from Pittsburgh, where we lived.  All six of us (four kids and two parents) piled into our car, leaving at 2 a.m. so we could get to the beach by mid-morning, thus extending our week-long vacation by a day. My mother packed breakfast, small foil-lined boxes of Kellogg’s assorted cereals and a cooler filled with milk and fruit, and we stopped on the shoulder of the highway to eat it. Once there we played on the beach, body surfed in the ocean, ate bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread, and at night walked the boardwalk.

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Photo by Karen Shughart

We were fortunate. For many, life wasn’t so blissful. There were scares and concerns. The Korean Conflict. The Cold War.There was no pandemic, but the epidemic of polio shattered a multitude of families, closed swimming pools, movie theatres and religious services; instead of ventilators there were iron lungs. The Salk vaccine, and then the Sabin, helped alleviate some of the concerns, but even so fears lingered, there were no vaccines for measles and mumps or other disabling childhood diseases.  Despite so-called prosperity many still struggled; there was rampant discrimination, and gross inequality. During this time a pot simmered slowly, but it wasn’t until the 60s that the pot boiled over, paving the way for the beginnings of change. Perhaps, though, not enough and it appears the pot’s boiled over again, as it should.

As we’ve woven our way through and around COVID 19, it’s been feeling a bit like the 50s to me, and, because of the recent protests that have occurred here and around the world, reminiscent of the 60s, too. Isn’t it odd how things that go around come around?

Why Cozies by Karen Shughart

 

Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1)Whew! Haven’t these past several months been surreal? Did you ever think a year ago that your life would change in ways that you probably never could have imagined? Before COVID-19, we expected that there would be ups and downs, but in most cases our daily routines were pretty much the same. And then BOOM! In a period of weeks, we’re wearing masks and gloves, ordering online more frequently, having our groceries delivered or picking them up curbside and enjoying happy hours with our friends, neighbors and family members on Zoom or by standing across the street from each other for a shout-out while we walk our dogs. That is, for those of us who have stayed healthy.

So, what does this have to do with the title of this blog? Plenty. I did a search on Google to see if I could find the definition of a Cozy mystery and this is what I found:

“(A) Cozy mystery is the gentlest subset of the broad genre of crime writing. As its name suggests, it’s a comfort read that leaves you satisfied and at one with the world, rather than scared to sleep alone with the lights out.” Source: Debbie Young, Cozy author and blogger http://www.authordebbieyoung.com/

“Cozies are a subgenre of crime ficiton in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” Source: Wikipedia

“The small size of the setting makes it believable that all suspects know each other. The sleuth is usually a very likeable person who encourage(s) community members to talk freely about each other. There is usually at least one knowledgeable, nosy (and of course, … reliable!) character in the book who is able to fill in all the blanks, thus enabling the sleuth to solve the case.” Source:  Cozy Mystery List.

I’m not sure about you, but for me the global pandemic and its consequences have been a bit unnerving, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, I count my blessings and have a lot to be thankful for. But could any of us have imagined that when we turned on the TV, the news would almost completely be about a virus that was infecting and killing masses of people? That schools, non-essential businesses, cultural and sports venues would be closed? The world changed in an instant and we had to adapt to it without any time to prepare.MurderintheCemeteryfrontlarge - Copy

So, getting back to the title of the blog: Why Cozies? While this hiatus may have encouraged some of  us to take an online class or catch up on the classics, stimulating non-fiction or that documentary we’ve always planned to watch; truth be told, many of us want to be transported to a time, place and setting where we can escape for a while and read a great story with lots of twists, turns and sometimes surprise endings. In short, something fun. Cozy mysteries can provide just that. And what’s wrong with sitting by the fire or on your front porch, cup of tea in hand, whiling away the hours being transported to a place where you know the horrors of our world won’t encroach?

 

Family of the Heart by Karen Shughart

At the beginning of each year I create a list of the blogs I intend to write for Ladies of Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1).jpgMystery. This month I had planned to write about choosing seasons as setting in a book.

But that’s not going to happen.  As COVID-19 continues to shatter many of our communities and insert itself into our lives regardless of whether we remain healthy or not, I decided that  the topic didn’t feel right. Instead, this blog is called Family of the Heart.

Let me explain: My husband and I live in a small village on Lake Ontario in New York state. Our nearest relatives live in Buffalo, about a two-hour drive away; siblings live in Pennsylvania and Florida and our children in New Jersey and California. Trips we’d planned to visit them were cancelled, and now of course, for several weeks we’ve been sheltering in place. One would assume, then, that we are isolated, but the good news is that we are not.

My next door neighbor, Bonnie, called one morning. She was heading to the grocery store and wanted to know if we needed anything. This week, I’ll call and ask her. On  several occasions we’ve participated in Zoom happy hours with friends who we have not seen for ages even though we live within walking distance, and with friends from far away. One evening several of us texted, it was a venting session to be sure, but it felt good to know we weren’t alone in our fear and apprehension.  There’s also been lots of sharing of funny videos and jokes via email and Facebook, and we’re talking on the phone more frequently with those we love.Nova.jpg

Two of our friends adopted dogs; we did, too.  Nova, a beagle, came to us from a no-kill shelter, and we were advised she had some potentially life-threatening health challenges, the result of being neglected and abused in an earlier life.  We decided to adopt her anyway.  She’s lovely and sweet, but we were anxious to see our vet. When we called, she never hesitated, and we took Nova for an office visit after hours, a necessary precaution these days.The good news is that Nova is far healthier than we believed.  We’ve had so much support through this process. Not only from our vet, but also from friends and neighbors who have provided us with items we needed for her care that we were unable to purchase for a multitude of reasons.

These are indeed difficult and stressful times. But we are not alone. We not only have ties to our biological families who may  living far away, but also to those in our community who are helping us get through this. Both are our families of the heart.

 

Creating Characters by Karen Shughart

Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1)If you think about it, creating characters is sort of like painting. I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve taken some lessons, and there are real similarities between the two. In both, you start with a blank canvas. You might have an idea of what you want to do, but the trick will be to get to the point where, whether with paint or with words, you end up with something recognizable, even in the abstract.

Suppose you want to paint a tree. You outline the tree with the brush, just the bare bones of it, but then you start to add layers of color and texture to make the tree look authentically, well, like a tree. For starters, you’ll probably paint the trunk, then the limbs, then the branches and finally the leaves.  By then, it looks like a tree, but it might be kind of flat, which is fine if you like that type of painting, but what if you want the tree to really look like the maple that stands in your front yard? A brush stroke here, a brush stroke there, perhaps a bit of canvas showing through,  and the trunk and the limbs and the branches start to really look alive, to take shape, to become the tree you view every day from your front porch.

worms eyeview of green trees

Then it’s time to think about the leaves. This is where you get to decide the season of that tree’s life. If it’s winter, the tree, if you live in the north where I do, will be barren of leaves, but with its own stark and weathered beauty. If it’s spring, then you will need to shape the leaves and possibly add some shades of yellow or red to the tips or add white or ivory to the green to give them a fresh, young feel. Summer leaves might include some black or brown strokes mixed into the green, that rich dark color that sends the message that the days are hot and heavy and bright.  If you’re painting a tree in mid-fall, you’ll think about foregoing most of the green and use lots of warm reds, deep yellows, oranges and ochre, what a lovely time in the life of that tree. In later fall the leaves turn brown, but if you look at them closely you’ll see that as with the other seasons of that tree’s life, there are many blended colors you’ll need to use to give the tree character.

Character.  Now that’s an interesting word, isn’t it? According to one of my dictionaries, those three-syllables  can mean many different things:  the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual;  a feature used to separate distinguishable things into categories; a graphic symbol or style of writing or printing; reputation or position; a person in a novel, play or movie. As I think about it, those definitions fit, whether you’re painting a tree on canvas or giving spirit, personality and dimension to the characters who live in your books.