Stories from the Past

Edith/Maddie here, writing from my favorite retreat cottage in West Falmouth, with a couple of things to celebrate.

A few years ago, I blogged here about finding my grandmother Dorothy’s travel diary from 1918, and how I felt stories rising up from it.

Second from left: Driver of car #2 Dot Henderson age 17 with her brother, her father, her four younger sisters, my great-aunts, and her mother.

Then I found a picture of my maternal grandmother Ruth as a young woman sitting on a rock in the northwest where she lived while reading a letter with a rifle across her lap, a side of my little grandmother I never knew about.

Ruth Skinner, no older than twenty

I couldn’t help but imagine if the two had met as young women. What if they hadn’t followed the paths they did, but instead formed an investigative agency to help women in need? Petite Ruth Skinner could do anything domestic, never smoked or drank alcohol, and was sweet and open – and apparently she could also shoot. Tall, slender Dot Henderson drove and smoked and imbibed and was more reserved. All that was true and was still true when I knew them in their later years. I invented that Dot could also repair the car she drove, probably a necessity in the early twentieth century. Don’t they sound like quite the pair? And the stories have flowed!

“An Excellent Team,” which tells how Dot and Ruth (fictionally) met in Walla Walla, Washington in 1919, released last week in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

I’m thrilled and honored to have my first short story in that illustrious magazine – and look, my name even made the cover! In the story (not a ghastly tale at all), Dot and Ruth exact justice for an abused and murdered woman. As they hightail it out of town with Dot at the wheel of her automobile, they resolve to head south and become a team. You can read the start of the story on the AHMM web site.

Releasing officially at New England Crime Bake (but already for sale), Bloodroot: Best New England Crime Stories (Crime Spell Books) includes another historical story featuring Dot.

“Dark Corners” brings Dot to Boston in 1926, where she meets a dashing social worker named Amelia Earhart. The two, along with a young gay journalist, catch an arsonist and expose his ruthless boss. I loved learning that Amelia Earhart lived in the Boston suburb of Medford, and of course I made a pilgrimage to her home.

She worked at a settlement house in Boston before she became a famous pilot, and I thought it was a story opportunity not to be missed. (Editor Susan Oleksiw will be in this space next week to present the whole anthology.)

Amelia with Denison Settlement House children and others

Next year AHMM will publish “Peril in Pasadena.” By 1920, Dot and Ruth have set up the HS (Henderson-Skinner) Agency in Pasadena, California (my birthplace). In next year’s story, they solve the murder of a young female astronomer at the new California Institute of Technology. It’s been a delight to research the history of the area of California where I grew up, something I never did when I lived there.

As I started writing these pieces, I was lucky enough to have phone conversations with my uncle Richard Reinhardt, who knew Dot – his mother-in-law – well, and with my mother’s cousin Jack Crump, Ruth’s nephew. Both gentlemen are in their nineties and still clear of mind. They were happy to share memories of Dot and Ruth, which enriched my portrayal of these women who died before I was twenty-five.

I’ve been working on Dot and Ruth (and Amelia) novels set in both Pasadena and Boston, with no news to report. Fingers crossed!

Readers: What did your grandmothers do, or what can you imagine them having done?

46 Thoughts

  1. Congratulations on your short story appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine! Bonnie and Clyde once stopped my grandmother and her husband on the dusty back roads of Oklahoma. An interesting side note in my family’s otherwise uneventful history.

  2. Edith, I glad to see these stories hitting or getting ready to hit publication. As you know, I’ve got my copy of the new AHMM magazine so I’m planning on reading “An Excellent Team” ASAP now that I finished the book I was reading prior to picking up the magazine.

    As for my grandmothers, I don’t have any stories to share there unfortunately.

    I’m looking forward to Bloodroot and next year’s next AHMM short story!

  3. I love your idea of “grandmothers coming together” for your short story and can’t wait to read it.

    I had two very different grandmothers that both exhibited incredible strength of character. My Nana was second generation Irish – an Iowa farmer’s wife of extremely modest means, who raised 10 happy and healthy children through the Depression, yet lost one son in WWII. She was whipsmart and had tough exterior but was soft as butter underneath it all. She died when I was 4 and I have faint memories of her playing “This little piggy..” with my toes.

    My Lola was Filipino, born and raised on the island of Leyte and eventually lived in Manila. Unlike my Nana, Lola came from the privileged class and her father served as mayor of Manila. She was a young married woman with two small children and one on the way during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines when my grandfather was taken prisoner of war. Sunday afternoons, the wives, mothers and daughters of these prisoners would cross a vast field to a fence surrounding the prison camp for chats with their loved ones through the fence. Usually the Japanese soldiers ignored or tolerated these unsanctioned visits. But one Sunday, as my then seven-months-pregnant Lola was visiting my Lolo, the Japanese prison guards, with rifles raised, started chasing the Filipinas away. My poor grandmother could not run and a soldier quickly caught up
    to her and thrust the butt of his gun into the small of her back. She managed to escape but the episode resulted in the premature birth of my uncle who, despite many touch-and-go days, survived. Lola, who became an American citizen in the late 1940s, died when I was 35 but I am so fortunate to have known her.

    And those were my grandmothers – two very different but very strong women.

  4. My grandmother on my Dad’s side died when I was 2. However, stories I’ve heard make her an amazing woman. My grandfather came to the states speaking very little English ending up settling in a little town in Oklahoma to work int he coal mines. It was a little area nicknamed Hunk Hallow because there was a little hunk of just about every country outside the U.S. Seems a deal was made for him to have a wife – my grandmother, with her not having a say in it. Can you imagine folks sitting round your table, eating the food you prepared without modern conveniences and not being able to understand anyone talking around you. Then making ends meet while keeping a home and raising 7 kids back in the day when nothing was easy, just makes me appreciate this woman all the more.

    My grandmother on my Mom’s said was a farmers wife. Being a military kid, I didn’t get to see my grandparents but for about a week every year. When I did see them, chores, crops and canning didn’t stop in the middle of the summer because company had come so I seen hard working folks trying to survive on clay dirt. It wasn’t until after Dad retired and we moved close by that I was able to develop a real relationship with them. Even then, they both died before I was in my mid-20’s. It would have been wonderful to have the kind of grandparents I often hear others speak of, but I’m just glad for the few years we did have together. Honestly experiencing their work ethics and hard working set of mind played a big part in the way I view things and how I attack situations with a can do attitude.

    The Ruth and Dot stories sounds amazing!
    2clowns at arkanas dot net

  5. Congrats on the short stories, Edith! AHMM – wow!

    My maternal grandmother was a Navy nurse during WWII and later became a civilian nurse for a while before children. My paternal grandmother, who is the inspiration for Betty Ahern in my Homefront Mysteries, worked at Bell Aircraft during WWII and went on to work at a high school cafeteria for 30 years. She joked that making planes was easy compared to dealing with teenagers. LOL

    1. Thanks, Liz. Being in AHMM is an honor and a thrill. I know you’ve talked about who inspired Betty. I might agree with her about teenagers!

  6. Amazing stories, Edith. Both the true ones as well as the fictional ones! And three cheers to your story appearing in AHMM. 🙂

  7. My maternal grandmother was a pianist and taught music before she married my farmer grandfather and raised twelve children. And, my paternal grandmother married my Sheriff grandfather and raised ten children. Both of my grandmothers lived into their late 80’s and were feisty women in the good sense of the word who cooked on wood burning stoves elaborate meals that both of my parents raved about all my childhood. They were both voracious readers, so I come by my love of books honestly!
    Best wishes for your stories in publication about Dot and Ruth (and Amelia) and for hopefully future full length novels in a long lasting series! I look forward to reading about Dot and Ruth and their adventures. Fingers crossed for you!

  8. I’m so excited to hear about all of your short stories. My TBR list is just exploding!

  9. Mega congrats, Edith. Can’t wait to meet your grandmothers! By the way, if you ever read any of the Motor Girls books, you might find kindred spirits.

    My grandmothers? My mother’s mother died when my mother was 10 so I never knew her. I did know her grandmother, my French via Canada great-grandmother who survived into her 100s. She was a farmer’s wife and taught me to be independent and a problem solver. She also taught me to cook on a Queen Anne stove, how to live in a house without running water or electricity and thrive in adverse conditions. They lived and farmed in Upstate New York. My dad’s mother was German and earned her passage to the new world by working as a brick maker. No steerage for her, she wanted to enjoy the trip. She taught me the value of hard work, and necessity of maintaining a positive attitude. She could also fix anything mechanical. She’d just roll up her sleeves and get to it!

    1. I was looking for your books on Amazon and can’t find them.Help.

  10. I never knew my father’s mother, she died before my parents met, so I only had one grandmother, Minnie. I knew that she supported the family as a seamstress but not the backstory until many years after she was gone. She and her family were living in Siberia and Minnie’s sister Rose found out about an opening in an atelier creating French fashions. Rose was shy and asked Minnie to go with her for the interview, but when they left it was Minnie who had the job! The skills she learned in this job served her and her family well after her husband, my grandfather, became too ill to work. Through Minnie my mother and I learned to sew, knit and crochet, skills that are very important in my life!

  11. Congratulations on both stories, Edith. Dot and Ruth (and Amelia) are great characters. We’re so proud to have your wonderful story “Dark Corners” in BLOODROOT!

  12. Congratulations! What a great concept to blend the two amazing women into these characters! I read the excerpt for the first story and would like to read more but finances don’t always allow to buy multiple mags or multi author collections to continue a series. Hopefully, somewhere down the road, you will be able to publish a collection of the short stories.

  13. This all makes me wish I knew more of my grandma than baking and crochet, though she was legendary at both. <3
    She did say that as a teen, she was hired by another farm family to help out, and said that was a very common practice, to send nearly grown children to help neighbors whose children were still too young to be of help. She did babysit for select families until very late in her life, with the proviso that the parents make the children understand that they had to mind, as she couldn't go chasing after them. My first summer job was arranged by Grandma talking to one of her babysitting clients, to help me earn cash for college (first in my family to go, with encouragement that I only later fully valued). <3

  14. I really can’t picture either of my grandmothers doing anything like your (fictional) grandmothers. Even fictionally. But it sounds like yours are having some grand adventures, at least fictionally.

  15. What a wonderful story! It must be thrilling to now know things about ypur grandmothers you never knew before. And you have magically crafted a great story using them both as your character

  16. What a wonderful story! It must be thrilling to now know things about your grandmothers you never knew before. And you have magically crafted a great story using them both as your characters.

  17. Congrats on the AHMM inclusion. I haven’t read that magazine in many years, but I guess I better hunt up a copy.

    The grandmother I remember was a cold fish. But the grandmother I wish I remembered died when I was 3. I am told I went into bedroom looking for her for a long time. She must have made a good impression on me at a very young age. She was a very hard working farm wife (grandpa owned and operated a dairy), but made time for her own interests, too. She was a photographer who developed and printed her own pictures. I guess she was pretty adventuresome, too, and a very loving woman.

  18. Wonderful story. I plan to get a copy of the magazine. I get EQ instead. My material grandmother died when my mom was 16 so I never knew her. She immigrated with two daughters to join her husband in small Cole mining town in Western PA. She had my mom,a bother who died young of hydrocephalus and an aunt. She was distant and my mom never remembered getting a hug or kiss from her. Gifts for holidays given to families She ironed for not her kids. My paternal grandma I really got to know when we moved150 miles to live with her. Grandpa died when I was5 and at 7 my dad wanted to help his mom so we moved. It was a primitive place with no central heat, a coal stove to cook on and NO INDOOR PLUMBING. I admire my mother so much for the life change in her 40’s. My dad couldn’t find steady work so it took years to catch up to the 20th century. Got central heat when I was about 11 and finally a bathroom when I was 15. Lots of love no cash.

  19. My paternal grandmother emigrated to the US from Austria. My maternal grandmother had a white horse as a teen that she rode bareback and did circus tricks on, and she could sing.

  20. Wonderful! While gathering information on my own family roots, I am finding there are so many stories that I wished had been shared. How creative of you to use your maternal ancestors characteristics to create a fictionalized duo.
    Love it!

  21. Huge congratulations, Edith. And may I just say how much I adore that photo of your grandmother reading? She looks like you. I love thinking about my grandmothers, and imagining their lives as young women and the choices they made. So glad that you’ve been inspired to write these stories.

    1. Thank you so much, Julie. Of all us four kids, I look the most like my mother, and Ruth was her mother, so the apple (acorn?) clearly didn’t fall far from the tree.

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