A Story About A Small Town's Family Secrets, Now Available on Kindle
Picket fences can enclose not only what seem to be perfect houses and perfect lives but also small-town thinking.
In A Picket Fence in Pawpaw, thirty-six year-old Minnie Mincola takes us to Pawpaw, Pennsylvania, where this tale of the people who were an important part of her childhood plays out in her heart and mind. Known then as "Mouse," she thrived on her special relationship with her grandfather, Raymond "Pawpaw" Prine.
As Minnie looks back on events that shook her world, a child's trust becomes the woman's questions. What she had believed to be the fabric and facts of her life in Pawpaw turn out to be a network of secrets. One day, an exploration by a curious Mouse brings her grandfather, friends and events into sharp focus and sets in motion a harsh flood of reality. Youthful innocence becomes a woman's wisdom as picket fences give way to an understanding of human frailty, forgiveness and love.
Meet "Mouse" Prine
Pawpaw loved bubbles. You know, the liquid soap kind made with a wand. He'd sit with his eight-ounce bottle of bubble stuff for hours at a stretch in the tractor seat, on the tailgate of his pickup, the riverbank or just about anywhere, alone or with just about anybody, and blow. And when he found out about edible bubbles, why, he was head over heels all over again.
It was Grandmaw who introduced him to those when she gave him a bleach jug full of cherry-flavored soap for his seventieth birthday, along with a special new wand that produced gigantic bubbles. Pawpaw was so excited. All of us grandkids and even some of the adults were out on the lawn making bubbles, and Pawpaw was running around eating them. A bite of his chilidog, then a couple of bubbles. Another bite of the dog. More bubbles. He tried to burp a bubble, but it didn't work. Said the burp tasted like a cherry chilidog "gone real bad."
Of all the occasions I could think of, that's the scene that pops into my head whenever I'm reminded of my paternal grandfather. And it's not just the sight of a soap bubble that triggers the vision. It's toffee candy, day-glo orange, reading glasses, metal buckets. Occasionally, cartoons do the trick; they made Pawpaw laugh so hard he'd sometimes cry.
Yes, despite what I discovered in Maxine Waldorf's attic when I was thirteen, I do have many fond memories of my grandfather, and so do a lot of other people. In fact, I knew only one person, good old Boy McGraw, who didn't appear to like him. And the feeling seemed mutual. Those two well-aged men had been arguing and trying to outdo each other for so long, nobody was sure what they were carrying on about. Well, I became as determined to figure it out as Pawpaw was dead-set against telling. He enjoyed keeping secrets as much as they frustrated me to no end.
Indeed, there was a turning point in my young life when I became interested in just about everybody, almost as though I'd never encountered another human being. All those people I'd seen on more days than I hadn't, some of them every day, and I'd never paid much attention to who they were. And there were some very interesting folks where I grew up.
Where that was, was a small, lackluster town in Pennsylvania's Sockdolager River valley. It was a worn-out place where architects had gone to great lengths to design the most uninspiring buildings. Shutters, awnings and arches were nonexistent. Gray must have been the predominant color mixed into most cans of paint. And if you heard someone say, "style," no doubt it was the kind spelled with an i, those ladder-like steps for climbing over a pasture fence. You might say the whole place was extraordinarily bland. At least, at first sight.
Once in a while, a vehicle would roll through that definitely didn't belong to anyone in our town--an SUV perhaps, or some fancy car with a hood ornament, or somebody towing a pop-up camper--and I'd wonder where the unknown occupants were headed. I could always identify travelers, of course either lost or taking the scenic route, by their speed--that constant though uncertain pace, somewhere between a creep and the twenty-five mile per hour limit on the main road through town. I'd often see an open map on the passenger side, with the passenger's head buried in it, and a frown on the driver's face as he or she leaned toward the windshield with both hands gripping the wheel as if navigating in blizzard conditions. Even when there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Perhaps they were worried about breaking down and, God forbid, being stranded in such a backwards place.
The most the majority of those passers-through did besides drive was brake and pause just long enough to roll down a window and request the quickest route back to a highway, or stop for gas if they were desperate. But we didn't have self-serve. No, our town was stuck in the dark ages, when the attendant would put his hand in your window and pass you a greasy pen and tray with the three-part receipt and your then-greased credit card, or your greasy change if you paid in cash. One thing's for sure, though, you'd always get a sincere "Ay, thanks!" and "See you'ns!" from my greasy uncle, Wilson Fink. He pumped the gas and owned the station.
Our outdated town was named after my great, great, great grandfather, Bartholomew Lincoln Prine, and everybody called him Pawpaw, too. That's a family tradition started way back when, though nobody knows when that was. But when one Pawpaw passes, the honorary title is passed on as well. My grandfather inherited the name when his father died at age ninety-five.
The Prines and their extensions have some hearty genes; they each tend to stick around for quite some time. Except Uncle Clive, that is, but his demise was supposedly an accident.
Anyhow, my father became Pawpaw a year and a half ago, when his father handed down the position a few days after his ninety-seventh birthday. But I don't know if I'll ever get used to Dad's inherited title; he doesn't like blowing bubbles.
My grandfather always said it was those edible bubbles that kept him so strong and healthy in his later years, most of all the potent flavor he concocted himself. There was a thriving black market for that so-called Prine Shine "liquid soap," until Chief Hinkey caught wind of it and threatened to turn Pawpaw in to the authorities. Not a week later, my cousin Jeremy and I spied Pawpaw and Chief sitting on the riverbank, eating bubbles together, and, by the looks of their silly grins, we were convinced that wasn't cherry soap they were sucking in.
A Picture-Perfect Pawpaw
Well, I moved away from Pawpaw--the town, of course, although I moved more than two thousand miles from my grandfather and most of the rest of my family at the same time--sixteen years ago. Lately I'm really missing it. A lot. But you can yearn for a place without wanting to live there. Sometimes, the longing is more about feelings you had during a particular period than anything else. Nowadays for me it's business outfits, conference and courtrooms, and clients' legal issues at least five days out of seven, and dwelling on them the entire week. Eleven years ago, John and I relocated from California to just outside of Chicago, but in some ways I moved farther from where I grew up than ever.
My husband has been to Pawpaw several times, and he likes the area well enough. For about forty-eight hours, tops. Then he starts to get antsy and thoroughly annoying. John is from Los Angeles, born, raised and then some, and can handle small-town U.S.A. only in tiny, well-spaced doses. Says a place without traffic lights and fast food is no place for him. Even on road trips, he likes to hit the metropolises where there's a Burger King within a mile of every McDonalds. And I've got to admit, I do like my Wendy's Frosties whenever I get the craving. Which is much too often, I'm afraid.
So here I sit, alone in the study of my chic, contemporary house in the suburbs, surrounded by stacks of files and humorless, plot-free books, because I'm always bringing work home with me. At nine o'clock on this Thursday night, the girls are asleep, John is in his pajamas, probably watching a ballgame, and I'm still dressed for doing business, in the sartorial skirt and silk blouse I wore all day at the office. Although I did leave my blazer and pumps by the front door, the running nylons in the trash compactor, and myself ... well, I don't know where or when I left some of her. But when I think about Pawpaw--the town and my grandfather--I almost forget who I am now and, as my husband would say with a smile and a peck on my cheek, regress a little.
I, however, prefer to think of it as getting in touch with my roots. And I don't mean just family and where I came from. I also mean me. That's Minnie, once much better known as Mouse. "Without them roots," my grandfather told me a number of times, "the rest ain't really alive." Too often these days I've felt like all I am is "the rest." Pawpaw always did prefer analogies.
My given name is Minella. Minella Fanny Prine. Mom liked the sound of it, she said, and Dad always has been far too agreeable to her whims. But when self-consciousness became part of my world, Minnie sufficed as far as I was concerned, and at my insistence did until my older brother, Dirk, started calling me Minnie Mouse. Jeremy was the one who shortened my nickname to Mouse when he was five and I was six, and that's how I was known to almost everyone in Pawpaw from then on. Even my teachers would call, "Mouse Prine!" when taking attendance. I had to retrain myself to answer to "Minnie!" when I moved away, and sign Minella on official documents. I sometimes catch a queer expression when a client notices the diploma on my office wall, but people who don't know me well, which is most people, call me Miss Mincolla, even though I'm married.
Between the times I became just Mouse and then Minnie or Minella again, the way I saw the world and what I wondered about changed significantly. The area in focus expanded, so there was less blur around the edges of what my eyes took in. And I began to notice things beneath the surface of what had seemed so obvious and clear-cut. That's when I started to ask the tougher questions.
It's like when you're very young and you learn that's the sky up there, plain and simple. And you learn your colors, or already have, so then the sky is blue and that's fine. But eventually that's not good enough, and you want to know why the sky is blue. Now, the answer may not be easy to explain, but it is scientific, so it's logical. Right? Or maybe whomever you ask invents an explanation, but it's usually acceptable as long as it's not completely ridiculous. Even then it might be enough to appease you for a while.
Come to think of it, that's not an adequate example, because that's as far as that line of questioning usually goes. And, after all, the sky being blue has nothing to do with people, so it doesn't make my point.
So okay, take pimentos instead. One day when I was, oh, seven maybe, I learned what those red, slimy things inside Mom's olives were called. And, since they were in olives, they were just part of the olive. I mean, I had eyes. And I didn't lose one bit of sleep over it for a long while.
But then, when I was ten--and I remember the day because I crashed my bike on the big hill and ended up with six stitches in my chin--I saw a jar of just pimentos. No olives. So I said to Mom, "Gee, it musta been a lotta work to pick all them pimentos outa the olives," and, after correcting my grammar, she said, "Those are peppers." I gave her the exaggerated huh? look, and she elaborated with, "Pimentos are peppers, not part of the olive."
Well, I pondered this new information for several seconds and then asked, "So why do they put them in olives?"
And she replied, "Because they taste good that way."
I beg to differ, but anyway.
For another long stretch, I was satisfied with where things were at. But around the time I turned twelve, another question popped into my head, just like that, out of nowhere. "So how do they get the pimentos in there?" I wanted to know. I was skeptical about the hybrid olive-pepper tree scenario, but, as usual, Mom seemed sure of herself, and I went along with it.
Not long afterwards, however, I came up with the most perplexing question yet. "Well, if pimentos and olives taste so good together, then why don't people just, you know, eat them at the same time, like mashed potatoes and meatloaf? Why go to all that trouble to stuff a pimento inside every one of those olives?" By then I wanted a straightforward, detailed reply, because the whole thing made no sense. Wasn't reasonable. Of course, that question was much tougher to answer because people often completely defy logic.
Oh, never mind. My grandfather was much better at analogies than I'll ever be. After all, I'm a very different person than my grandfather was.
Anyhow, now that I have two kids of my own, I'm reliving the whole process of curiosity and discovery, and fielding more and more difficult questions. The ones they ask are often very different because so are my girls from each other. Not to mention the four-year age gap. But their ultimate goals are essentially the same. Who are all these people, they wonder but don't verbalize quite that way. And, for that matter, who am I? (No, not me. Them.)
I wish I could answer all their questions, especially the ones they don't yet have the words to express, with something as simple as "because blue light has a short wavelength, and the particles in the air scatter it around, making the sky appear blue." And I wish I could save them all the trouble and possible anguish of solving that other mind-boggling, compound mystery. You know the one: Why am I here, and what the hell am I supposed to do? But perhaps my girls will take after their father and maternal great grandparents instead of their mother, and come up with their answers more easily than most.
Crystal, my eight year-old, is becoming quite the city kid; she already knows the entire Ali Baba's menu by heart. But I'd venture to guess Beth is destined for greatness in a squeedunk town somewhere. Her face just lights up when I tell her we're going to visit Pawpaw. My father is her hero, and she's crazy about the town too. Though she's only been there twice. Beth is always bugging me for bedtime stories about the place I called home for eighteen years until I followed a guy to California and then went to college. First one in my family to do either. And I never did move back.
Recently, I began telling Beth the story about the only white picket fence ever in Pawpaw. Or parts of the story, anyway. I mean, aren't there some things you just don't talk about with your children? Like betrayal, for one. Disillusionment. Or that growing discontent gnawing away deep inside their mother--the feeling that something is missing in her seemingly perfect life.
So when I tell my girls about Pawpaw, I omit some of the following events and details, and certain things about my grandfather, concentrating instead on the fun times and funny tales about the people I knew. Beth sometimes misses the humor--she is only four, after all--and I end up laughing like a loony-bin, while she looks at me like I'm nuts. At other times she worries when I start to well up and can't understand why Mommy's so sad. I blink away the tears and try to tell her it's not unhappiness I'm feeling, but she can't figure out what nostalgic means no matter how I try to explain. To her, things are still exactly as she sees them; the sky is blue, and that's that.
As far as Crystal is concerned, those slimy, red boogers inside her mother's olives have no business being called food in the first place, so who cares? I've been telling her parts of the white picket fence story, too, but what she really wants to know is why I never want to sit on the back steps and blow bubbles with her anymore. And that is a very good question.
Would you like to read an Interview about "A Picket Fence in Pawpaw" and my writing in general, what strange places, situations or people have inspired my novels, how I come up with my characters, my dream author mentor and more? Check out Writer Wednesday Interview with Debra Lauman (<--my maiden name, by the way) on a blog called "This Page Intentionally Blank"