Thursday Book Feature: The Imortalists

The Immortalists
Benjamin, Chloe.
Copyright 2018.

In 1969, four Jewish children in New York City visit a psychic who tells each one of them the day he or she will die. These children grow up, all the while aware of their predicted death dates. The two youngest, Simon and Clara, move to San Francisco, where Simon, who is gay, becomes a dancer, and Clara becomes a magician, marries, and has a child. The next youngest, Daniel, marries and becomes a doctor, and the oldest, Varia, becomes a scientist.

I read about this book on an email list. One thing I didn’t like was the author’s shift between present and past tense. She uses past tense mostly for flashbacks, but at times, I wasn’t sure if she was flashing back or in the present. As a writer myself, I prefer the use of past tense only with flashbacks perhaps told in the past imperfect tense.

Otherwise, I found this book fascinating. I like the way the author explores the question of to know or not to know when you’ll die. It also makes you wonder if those children’s lives would have been different if they hadn’t visited that psychic and heard her predictions of when they would die.

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Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
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Memoir Portrays Unconditional Love Between Human and Wild Bird

Wesley the Owl: A Remarkable Love Story Between an Owl and His Girl

by Stacy O’Brien

Copyright 2008

This is a true story of how a California wildlife biologist adopted a baby barn owl she called Wesley and raised him for nineteen years during the 1980’s and 90’s. Most rescued owls are sent to rehabilitation facilities and eventually released back into the wild. However, Wesley had an injured wing and probably wouldn’t have survived if he were released.

Stacy O’Brien, who’s grandfather was a traveling musician, became a child actress, singing in commercials, movies, and television as well as with John Denver, The Carpenters, and other artists. As a child, she screamed when her mother swept a spider off the wall and flushed it down the toilet. Because of this and her overall interest in and love of animals, it was only fitting that, after her career in show business, she receive a biology degree and a job at a California lab.

She explains how she made a nest for Wesley from blankets and other materials and placed it next to her in bed at night so she could train him to sleep when she did. He spent most of his days on perches she adapted for him. She describes how she killed mice and fed them to him and explains why mice are an important part of an owl’s diet. After Wesley turned a year old, she tried encouraging him to kill his own mice, but it never worked out.

She describes how, as a toddler, Wesley took an interest in water while watching her brush her teeth and wash her face at night before going to bed. He enjoyed washing his own face under the faucet while she did this. When he grew older, he liked taking baths in the tub, even though owls aren’t usually water birds.

She explains that since day care and baby-sitters were out of the question during Wesley’s infancy and toddler stages, she took him to work and everywhere else she went, including on a date, which was a disaster. There were several men in Stacy’s life, but relationships didn’t last long once they found out she was raising a barn owl.

She describes how Wesley taught himself to fly, his embarrassment when he crash landed, and his pride when he finally mastered the skill. She describes what are called owl no nos, when an owl turns his head from side to side to indicate that he’s about to attack something or someone. She explains that because birds of prey perceive aggression as a threat, Wesley could never be disciplined like a child because he would never trust her, even if she only raised her voice to him.

She explains how Wesley developed mating instincts, even though he wasn’t in the wild with other owls. One night when a female owl appeared at her window, Stacy was tempted to either let Wesley out or the other owl in so they could do their business. She realized though, that she would never have been able to tame the female owl, and Wesley couldn’t have survived in the wild, even with a mate.

Because of a criminal movement to free animals in captivity and leave them to fend for themselves, resulting in these animals’ deaths, Stacy felt she couldn’t tell anyone about Wesley except her close family and the men with whom she developed relationships. She learned later, after her grandmother’s passing, that she, too, raised a barn owl.

She explains how she changed jobs and locations and how Wesley adapted to these moves. She describes how she discovered a family of barn owls on a roof and tracked their movements and recorded their vocalizations. She discusses how she battled a serious illness as a result of an inoperable brain tumor, how Wesley sustained her, and how she recovered, though not completely. In the end, she explains how Wesley, like any other species, aged and eventually passed. She then discusses her process of writing this book, which includes photographs of Wesley.

I loved her description of how the father owl feeds his family. When baby owls are older, he hovers over the nest, dumps his payload of dead mice, and zooms off, just like a fighter plane. I also chuckled at her explanations of Wesley’s bodily fluids. When she explained that owls aren’t water birds, I remembered a stuffed owl I had as a kid when I was hospitalized for pneumonia and how it fell off my bed and into a pale of water that was part of my oxygen apparatus. At least Oliver, my owl, was easier to dry off.

Wesley the Owl is similar to my own memoir, which was published last year. My Ideal Partner is about how I met, married, and cared for my late husband Bill until he passed. It describes the trials and tribulations of being a caregiver, as does Stacy’s book. At the end of Wesley the Owl, Stacy describes the guilt she felt, thinking she could have done more for Wesley when he went downhill, and I felt the same way when Bill passed. Stacy and I have one other thing in common. My grandfather was also a traveling musician. If you enjoy heartwarming stories of unconditional love, you should read both books.

 

 

Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

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How Mother Influenced My Writing

The year is 1975. We’re living in Sheridan, Wyoming. At the age of thirteen, I insert a piece of paper into the typewriter and turn it on. Its hum fills the living room and mingles with the whine of the electric mixer in the adjacent kitchen. While Mother prepares cake frosting, I type the assignment for my seventh grade creative writing class. When I’m done, I remove the sheet from the typewriter and carry it into the kitchen where Mother has just finished decorating the cake. With my limited vision, I admire her handywork while she scans my story.

The prompt is to write about someone who walks by a door in a wall that is usually closed but now open. Out of curiosity, my character steps through the open doorway. It is dark, and all of a sudden, a green monster jumps out. That is as far as Mother gets before saying, “Oh, you don’t want a green monster here. Let’s see…”

She strolls back into the living room, sits down at the typewriter, and inserts a clean sheet of paper. She verbalizes what she is typing since I can’t read print that small. When she’s done, my ugly story of a little girl attacked by a green monster and then waking up in  her own bed is transformed into a wondrous tale of a child who discovers a new world after walking through an open door in a wall. Why didn’t I think of that? A day or so later, the teacher hands me back this story with an A+.

***

Fast forward a year later. In the eighth grade, I’m assigned to write an essay about cancer for Science. We’ve moved to a bigger house with a study upstairs where I can work in peace and quiet. This time, I sit and listen while Mother reads me the research material from the public library and types the essay, again verbalizing each word or phrase as it appears on the page.

As the deadline looms, she keeps me home from school one day so “we” can finish it. This is great fun, I think, as I listen to her read and type. Fascinated by the topic, I realize that Mother could get cancer if she doesn’t stop smoking. When I point this out to her, she says, “Oh hush. I’m trying to write this for you.” I receive another A+.

***

Fast forward to high school. As a junior, I’m taking another creative writing class. Too busy teaching English and communications and directing plays at Sheridan College, Mother leaves me to my own devices until one night when I can’t think of anything to write. “Let’s see,” she says, sitting down at the typewriter.00

A while later, she has produced a thought provoking tale about an old man in New York City and how badly others treat him. “This is better than anything you’ve written before,” says my teacher.

***

Two years later, as a freshman at Sheridan College, I’m taking an English class from one of Mother’s colleagues where I’m assigned to write a paper on Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” This time, I’m determined to do it myself. With the help of the college’s work study program, I find a student willing to accompany me to the library and read material on tape. When I get home, I type the paper which mostly consists of a description of the story, some background information on Shirley Jackson, and what reviewers say about her work. When I finish, I show it to Mother. “Well, it’s nice, but I think we can do better,” she says.

She sits down at the typewriter, inserts a blank sheet of paper, and in a matter of hours, my basic English 101 paper is transformed into a scholarly essay. Her colleague loves it. From that moment on, I don’t even try to write papers myself.

***

Fast forward another two years. I’ve gone away to school, to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where Mother doesn’t know any of the faculty. Late one night, I’m sitting in my dorm room, staring at a blank sheet of paper in my own electric typewriter. I’m supposed to write a paper about Duke Ellington for a jazz appreciation class. After listening to material another student recorded and making notes in Braille, I haven’t a clue where to start. Mother’s not here, and the paper must be turned in the next day. What do I do?

Then it comes to me. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I type it in quotation marks and then continue. Duke Ellington’s life, his music, dates of publication and performances, his style, my impressions, all flow out of my fingers. It’s as if Mother was writing this paper, but she’s not. She’s 150 miles away, snug in her bed with Dad. The paper comes back a couple of days later with an A+.

I mail it home to my parents. Dad, a jazz enthusiast, gives it a rave review. Mother says nothing. I don’t care. I can write my own papers and still get good grades.

***

Fast forward again. In 1999, Mother has been diagnosed with cancer. On a hot summer day, I sit at my Mac computer in my air conditioned apartment. For the past ten years, I’ve been living independently and working as an activities assistant in a nursing home. I’ve just been bitten by the writing bug.

I’m crafting a piece that I’ll send to a contest. It’s a personal essay about how one of my sixth grade teachers who threatened me with an eighteen-inch ruler saw the error of his ways and wrote me years later to apologize. I know better than to show this to Mother. Instead, after proofreading it a million times, printing it, then reading it again with my closed-circuit television magnification system to be sure there are no mistakes, I mail it off. Six months later, Mother’s gone. My essay wins second place in the contest and is published a year later in SageScript, Sheridan College’s literary journal, with a note dedicating it in loving memory of my mother, Joan H. Johnson.

***

Looking back, I realize that in her own way, Mother was teaching me how to write. While she wrote my papers, I couldn’t go outside or listen to music in my room. I had to sit quietly and listen so that when I grew up and she was no longer around, I could do my own writing. She also wanted to be a writer, but family and other obligations kept her from pursuing her dream. Now that I’ve published three books and am working on a fourth, she can live that dream vicariously through me.

***

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author

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Why Not Medical School

Today’s poem was inspired by Robert Lee Brewer’s prompt at http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2015-april-pad-challenge-day-16 .

 

WHY I NEVER WENT TO MEDICAL SCHOOL

 

“Ug, this is gross,” I say,

as my fingers glide over the slimy innards.

In eighth grade science class,

we’re dissecting frogs, some of us willingly,

others like me disgusted. “Here’s his stomach,”

my partner says, handing it to me.

Does my stomach look like this, I wonder,

as I hold the oblong object.

It feels squishy–Was it empty?

If not, what did the frog eat before dying?

“Here, hold this part while I cut it,”

Says my partner. I can’t see–

she places my hand where she wants it.

By this time, I’ve had about enough.

My own stomach threatens to divulge its contents.

Without bothering to ask for permission,

I rush from the room, hope never to return.

 

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15213189/why%20never%20medical%20school.mp3

 

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author

 

Order That’s Life from Finishing Line Press.

 

Order That’s Life from Amazon.

 

Vote for my new book idea.