SOME of you know that I like to use family names in my books. Back when I wrote my first (as yet unpublished) novel, A Certain Kind Of Freedom, I decided, almost on a whim, to select family names for different characters. But, until recently, I didn’t realize the impact this seemingly haphazard choice would have - on me, and on my family members. Maybe this was because I didn’t think family would take any interest in the books – the Drifters series is, after all, women’s fiction with an angsty romantic flair, which isn’t, let’s face it, everyone’s chosen genre. Or maybe the decision to use family names was such a casual thing at the time that I didn’t think much beyond the obvious, which was, ‘oh let’s have fun and throw some family names in there.’
Let me explain further.
My dad moved our family to Prince Edward Island when I was four months old. He was a teacher, and he came in search of a job. We were Mahoneys then; a motley crew of four rambunctious, creative kids and two dedicated parents who carved ourselves a place on our beloved island of red mud and patchwork fields. Our parents came from New Brunswick (I was born in Perth-Andover, a hamlet on the Tobique River that generally floods around the time of my birthday, which explains SO much). My dad spent his childhood in Johnville (near Florenceville, the home of the famous McCains); as a child, my mom raised a passel of soft white bunnies in the rural landscape of Norton, between Sussex and St. John.
As kids, us Mahoneys cherished occasional trips ‘over across’ to the mainland, to hang out in the lands of our parents…in Johnville, where we picked out tunes on the piano, where the old green screen door slammed shut behind us with a springy country twang, where we roamed the fields, went swimming in the pool in nearby Bath, where we went to the white church up the hill on Sundays (it once got hit by lightning while I was in it – that, too, explains a lot, lol). Where I won my very own doll in a raffle at the Johnville Picnic, where we patted the little black dog (what was his name?). In Norton, where we learned about ponies and horses, where we pretended the hay wagon was the saloon, where we cuddled kittens and ate full meals of farm fresh veggies, where we rode atop the hay wagon when it was loaded - nestled amongst cousins while trying to choose bales that weren’t too unstable, lest one fall over, taking a cousin or two with it - where we ran around with Tippy, Grammie’s collie, and where we played hide-and-seek in the hayloft.
So many wonderful memories, about a time of innocence and hope. About places that I don’t think I realized how much I missed until last week, when my sister Kathy and I jumped into her small Mazda and pointed it towards the Confederation Bridge (in the old days, we took the ferry…) so we could make the drive to Norton to attend my aunt’s wake.
It hit me, when I was standing amongst cousins and aunts and uncles I haven’t seen in ages (some I have not seen for decades) that we missed a lot when we grew up isolated on our island, passing holidays with board games and quiet evenings of reading, while our country relatives got together for fiddling concerts (in Johnville) or nights watching Elvis entertain from the TV in my grandparents’ cozy living room (in Norton), with grandkids / cousins flopped around the room on crocheted cushions or leaning happily against the warm oil stove.
I always felt accepted during our visits over across, then, like I belonged somewhere. I was chatty and dreamy, probably annoying and sometimes underfoot. But I was amongst people who kinda had to like me, 'cuz they were family. And they were good family. I still remember Grammie Kelly scooping ice cream for the grandkids out of the big freezer in the sunny porch. Somehow, that ice cream tasted unbelievably good. I think it had to do with the happy light in Grammie Kelly’s eyes as she handed it to me – this woman who wore thick 1940’s stockings and who taught me that kittens really love to be scratched behind the ears (my cat Oliver thanks her daily).
These days, I admit, I feel incredibly disconnected. From everyone. I’ve written about this before, and I think a lot of it has to do with our world today, with this constant stress and preoccupation with ourselves, with our own busy lives, with technology’s insistent demand for our attention. And maybe a lot of it is my fault. But I just don’t feel like any conversations ever go beyond the surface. Even with Steve. We just don’t go there. Life has become surface level and it makes me lonely.
Back to the family names in my books. There was a moment at the wake that crushed me, that made me want to grab my sister’s arm and sink to my knees. It hit me how much I need those roots, those old family roots, so I can feel like I belong somewhere again. It hit me that using those family names in my books was never really a casual thing, will never be a casual thing, and will, forevermore, be something I commit to that receives the respect those names deserve.
We were going through the line of cousins and had stopped in front of my aunt’s coffin. Judy was my mother’s younger brother’s wife. To me, she was strong, kind, caring, tolerant of a constant myriad of busy children nipping at her ankles, and nice to me - that dreamy, probably annoying kid. The kid who had hope that she would one day have a family like Judy’s – a loving husband, four or five kids. Grandkids.
Mike and Judy had each other for 49 years. Take a moment to give that number the respect it deserves. My marriage lasted less than three years. The large family I dreamed about became me as a single mom of one amazing kid. In the Drifters books, Jessie and Josh have kids. They have a network of close friends. I long for what they have. For what my aunt and uncle had. I long for what I missed.
I’m being brutally honest here because, at the moment I turned to my uncle, who was always a quiet man amongst a boisterous crowd of many, I took this in. Their longevity and what it meant, over good times and bad. At the time, I wasn’t making it about me, for what I lost, although obviously I’ve let myself dwell on this since. No, I was seeing his trembling hand on the polished wood of his wife’s coffin. I was seeing the passage of time – I was feeling the scratchy hay under my butt on a wagon being pulled along a country trail by my grampie, whose tired shoulders slumped over his old white plodding David Brown tractor as the hot August sun tanned my outdoor-kid skin.
And what do you suppose my uncle said to me, after I hugged him and mumbled some probably incoherent version of ‘I’m sorry’?
He said, “I read your first book. I hear there’s a Michael Kelly in the books.”
This was after he had to take a moment. After he turned away and more firmly gripped the edge of the coffin. After he looked upon his wife of 49 years as his four children, and some grandchildren, and many loving friends and relatives, buzzed around behind us.
I was humbled. Touched. Floored. He, of course, is named Michael Kelly. And yes, there is a Michael Kelly in my books. In book five, if you haven’t gotten that far yet. The storyline with Michael Kelly and Kelly Reilly came to me in a dream. They were going to star in their own book, but somehow they just fit into Jessie’s story. The dream was the rare kind, where I could see and feel them, as if they were real. I think in the dream I may have been Kelly – I remember sitting in an airplane, on an aisle, and looking back over my shoulder to spy Michael, sitting in the aisle opposite, a few rows back. I recall his hair – the look, the style, the texture. And I remember the feeling that washed over me. The feeling that I loved this man. So lucid, so real. In the dream, he was my manager. Whatever it meant in the dream is not of consequence now, I suppose. Kelly and Michael became fictional characters in book five.
And Michael Kelly, as readers know, is a good man. A man who survived tragedy. A man who found love, who may just get his own book someday because he is an intriguing character who captivates me.
I think he is a man who deserves his own book. And when I write it, I will give him the respect he deserves. The respect the real Michael Kelly deserves.
I pray I get to reconnect with my cousins again. I’m planning to extend an open invitation to the Kelly side to come to Prince Edward Island over a weekend this summer. I need the connection, so I hope they come because, I am guessing, perhaps some of them need the connection too. We need to find our roots again, to plant ourselves more firmly in the here and now, via the past.
Via a time of innocence and childhood wonder and hope, before life took over and left some of us lonely.
I’ll tell you what’s in a name.
Heartache, joy, laughter, love, sadness. Defeat, despair, agony, hope, ecstasy, warmth, kindness. Family. The human experience, with all of its awe and pain.