It’s been rough, since my Daddy died on March 14, 2017. Not quite four months have passed, but my brother and I have done what we were charged to do, as Co-Trustees of his estate. Soon it will all wrap up.
There are a lot of good things happening in my life, and I will post them here, but I felt since I hadn’t actually dealt with my father’s death here, that I’d better do so.
Chet Cunningham, June 2011. 325+ novels out and counting. He’s as real as it gets.
Boy do I miss him.
I do not think it is his time. But he hurts, and seeing your parent in pain is just as impossibly frustrating and heart-wrenching as seeing your child in pain.
I am here, bearing witness. Talking when he wants to talk, watching over him as he sleeps. Soon I will head for home…but for now, I am here.
Sharing space with him. Guarding his sleep. Watching as his hands work, searching for something that he doesn’t find before coming to a rest.
My heart aches even as I am profoundly grateful for being able to be here with him for the past three days.
Precious Time – photo by Christine Ashworth, image arrangement by Mary Bogue
I’m fully planning on him being around for at least another decade. I just need him to get with that program, too.
My parents bought a cabin in the Laguna Mountains in the winter of 1965-66. It’s in the Cleveland National Forest, and you buy the cabin – but lease the land from the government. They are considered summer homes, and won’t allow you to buy with the intent to live year-round. They won’t even let you buy one if you don’t own another home.
Yesterday, July 30 2016, my father, my oldest brother, and I took the pilgrimage back to the place we were all happiest.
The windows are new. The roof is, too. The paint job looks fresh, and they put skytubes into the kitchen to open it up, as well as the sliding glass door on the right which is new. The place looks well-loved and taken care of.
The cement slab, though, was poured by my father and my brothers. You can still see our names in it.
My mom’s writing.
I won’t lie…this was an emotional day. Before we saw the cabin, we went to Major’s Diner, in Pine Valley, for lunch…the best burger I’ve had in a very long time.
I remember sitting at that counter, 45+ years ago,and feeling like a “big girl” because the counter was the perfect height for littler kids.
And Dad…well, he had a quarter of his waffle. I won’t say he’s getting too thin, but…note the cardboard between the back of his watch and his wrist. (He’s an innovator.)
So, we got to the cabin. I have more photos on my big camera, but these were all taken with my phone and are more readily accessible, so.
My brother Greg parked the car, and I was itching to get outside. Dad wanted to, as well, so we helped him out. Walked up a short hill to within the steps to the slab (top photo). He was dizzy, out of breath, and couldn’t go further.
I left them there, Greg hanging onto Dad, because this hill right here was calling to me.
Up there, along the ridge line, in the summer of 1993, we scattered my brother Scott’s ashes. I was, oh…maybe six months pregnant at the time.
The next time I visited the cabin, it was in the late spring of 2007, when we scattered my mother’s ashes. At the time, I thought the next time I would be there would be to scatter my father’s ashes, but luckily that was not true.
I took many, many photos. I stuck my nose in the bark of the Jeffrey Pine trees and smelled the rich vanilla scent. I laughed at the woodpeckers and the blue jays even as I brushed my tears away. And when I hiked to the top of this hill, my feet sank into gopher tunnels that I had once been able to spot and avoid. Dirt got into my shoes. The air was muggy, and sweat rolled between my shoulder blades as I stocked up on photos and memories.
The outhouse had been taken down; there were only a few bricks left in the soil to mark where it once stood. The big oak tree that my dad had shimmied up (about 30 feet) in the summer of 1966 to tie a rope swing on was also gone; not even a stump remained. We used to swing high and try to push off the outhouse…never quite made it…
This side of the mountains, the trees were lush, and green. The rains had done good here. The oaks and pines both looked amazing. All the ground fifty feet surrounding the cabins had been cleared, as by law. The place looked beautiful.
Going back to the car, I saw Greg helping my dad inside. He laid the seat back and closed his eyes, and a part of me hurt for him…Dad had sawn logs, gone arrowhead hunting, taken us for hikes. He cleared land and created a volleyball court. He brought a litter of puppies up in one box, and a month later had to take them home in two boxes. He strode these lands in the prime of his life…everywhere I looked, I saw that young man who, when he wasn’t working with his hands, was writing novels.
Greg Cunningham and Chet Cunningham, July 30, 2016.
I had an incredible, safe, loving childhood filled with remarkable people and this oh, so amazing place in the mountains. I am blessed.
Dad at the San Diego Book Awards, June 21, 2014 Photo by Greg Cunningham
Today is an important day. It is my father, Chet Cunningham’s birthday. He’s 86 today.
A couple of weeks ago at Thanksgiving dinner, held at my niece & nephew’s house, his face lit up when he saw me and we hugged. He said he can never get enough hugs, and I believe him. As the kids – well, adults and young adults now – gathered in one room, their elders (oh my goodness, I’m an elder…) gathered in another. Dad and I cozied down on a comfy couch and talked about writing. I was having the devil of a time with the book I was currently writing, and he felt he wasn’t writing enough, either.
I need to get to 347 on the wall, he says. When I give him a confused smile, he nods. I’ve got 346 books published, need to get to number 347. Taking a long time. Glad I’m with Wolfpack Publishing, he says.
He says he only gets maybe an hour in the morning, but after lunch he’ll get in a good three hours of writing. After dinner, he will watch football, then head to his office for another hour before watching the ten o’clock news.
Five hours, he says, shaking his head. Not what I used to be able to do.* But I enjoy my naps.
That’s more than I get done, I tell him. His hands are in mine, and they feel so very
The hands that wrote the books. Summer, 2013
precious. The skin is thin, his veins bulge across the back, and his fingers are oddly shaped by arthritis. He catches me looking at them.
This one hurts, he says, rubbing his ring finger on his right hand. These other two, they don’t hurt anymore, but this one does. Except when I’m writing, then I don’t feel them at all. And he shakes his head.
That’s because the story catches you, and you forget about your aches and pains, I say. Me, too, Daddy.
My own fingers have been aching, when I’ve had a long day at work and then go home to write. I kiss his gnarled fingers and wonder if mine will look that way when I’m 85. I can’t even fathom that much time passing from right now.
He puts his forehead against mine. I’m gonna be 86 in a couple of weeks, he says.
I know. I’m so sorry we can’t come down to see you on your birthday, I tell him.
He shakes his head a bit. Both my parents died at 86. Then he gets a twinkle in his eye. I’m gonna beat them, he says.
My heart clutches just a little bit. I know you are, Daddy, I say. You’ve got to make it to at least 350 novels published.
Yeah. That’s the ticket, he says, and we laugh.
Happy birthday, Daddy. Here’s to book number 347, and may they all continue to sell.
A selfie with Dad – May, 2014
*Chet’s schedule, when I was in school, went something like this: write from 9:30am to noon, have lunch. Write from 1:00pm to 4:30pm, then come out and be with the family until after dinner. Write from 6:30pm to 11:00pm, then watch the news and wrap up with Johnny Carson.
He’s my hero.
Find his books…Pony Soldiers
Other books with Wolfpack Publishing
Cartoon done at the ImaJinn A Romance Party.
This Romance Writers of America Conference was a different experience for me. I’ve been going to the RWA National Conference, on and off, since 2002; this one had me in a different zone. A step up in my career. The difference, you ask?
Don’t laugh. For the very first time, building on conferences from the past 3 years, I had people to shmooze with. Relationships to nurture.
I came in 3rd with my guitar book in the ImaJinn A Romance Contest with ImaJinn Books, and got to hang a bit with my editor-crush Brenda Chin. I will most definitely work with her some day. (My chapter mate, Sarah Vance-Tompkins, won the contest and the chance to work with Brenda and I am SO thrilled for her!)
Later on the same evening, I drunk-pitched my young adult novel to a funny, fun and nice editor at a big house and got a request. (Only 2 glasses of wine, but when all you’ve had to eat is the parma ham and the tapenade and toast, that will do it.) And then I drunk-emailed the agent that’s interested in the book. (Luckily it was a clean and clear email. No gushiness nor misspelled words or bad grammar. Sheesh.)
And I hugged people. Two memorable hugs -NYTimes Bestselling Author and my dear friend Tawny Weber, who gave one of the best hugs of conference – she was sharing my joy and I’ve known her since 2003 – and Sharon Sala. If you’re a writer and you’re not following Sharon, she shares a lot about her life with her Little Mama, and usually all I can say on her posts is “sending love and hugs”. So it was beautiful that I could physically hug her (ran into her at the pharmacy in the mall) before she had to leave the conference.
Yeah, so I hugged people. Lots of people. Ran across the room to hug people. Reached over chairs to hug people. Juggled coffee to hug people. It was so cool, getting to touch people that I’ve known and loved online “for reals” and in person. I can’t even mention all of them here because I’ll forget someone and that would be bad, so if I hugged you, consider yourself hugged yet again (!) and if we didn’t connect, I’m SO sorry and please grab me next time for a hug (and I’ll be sure to interrupt your conversation to hug you!). I hugged agents and editors, longtime friends and brand new friends, and every single hug refreshed my spirit and connected me to the world just a little tighter.
Conference is about so much more than going to workshops (though I did some of that) or sitting in the bar (did some of that, too). It’s about forging working relationships and friendships. It’s about letting that agent know that you do think about her even if you didn’t recognize her (sorry, hon! Conference brain.). It’s about turning yourself into a real person for those in the industry. More than that, it’s about giving yourself the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time.
It’s about volunteering to help at the literacy signing. I got to work with Nalini Singh, prep the books for the folks in her line and yes, there were LOTS of folks in her line! Nalini and I had been in a yahoo loop way back when, called the Brainstorming Desireables, so it was terrific to reconnect, plus she’s an awesome writer.
(I can’t tell you the times I went to introduce myself, and was told, “I know who you are.” Always a thrill, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.)
It’s about cramming into someone’s normal-sized room to a party hosted by the Houston RWA chapter, with 50 other conference goers, and giggling and marveling at the intelligence of the woman who used the conference coffee travel mug as a cocktail shaker. Effing brilliant.
It’s about walking for a mile to get to a publisher’s dinner, and laughing, talking, and getting to know the folks sharing that particular journey. (OMG I wouldn’t have missed that walk for the world. The WORLD, I tell you.)
It was also about sharing the whole experience with two roommates, women that I trust and love. About sitting on the balcony at night in the humidity and the wind, drinking beer, and philosophizing about men, the conference, relationships, pain, and turning it around and making ourselves pee with laughing because we also talked about boobs, and menopause, and hair, and the damned humidity. From the early morning flight out to San Antonio on Tuesday, to giving sleepy hugs at 7:30am on Sunday, those two women were (and remain) my touchstones.
Going to RWA National Conference is about writing, yes, but so, so much more. My heart is full and my spirit light as I look forward to the next part of my career. Thanks, Dad, for recommending that I join RWA. Sorry I waited until 2002 to follow your advice.
And, as always, this was my conference experience. Your mileage will vary!
Lynne Marshall and I heading home on the FlyAway Bus from LAX. Blurry and giddy with exhaustion.