Until it is not.
From My Turn – A Nash Sisters Novel
Annie’s description of the Walsh family tradition of dressing the Christmas tree.
Preparing the tree is the most celebrated activity in our home. Our custom is that Jon did the decorating with the children. I would grab a cup of coffee, sit on the couch and watch father and children bond in a way that’s like no other. Detangling lights would take patience. Stringing them round and round took creativity and planning. Jon was insistent they were spread just right. As the children unwrapped each ornament, they talked about its beauty and significance. This was always the best activity for father and
I suggested we bring that tradition here. Once the tree was up and stable, I called all the men into the room.
“As a new Grand Nash Christmas ritual, the men will dress the tree with the children. We all brought a few ornaments to contribute to this tree. As each ornament is unwrapped, the children from each family can tell us about it before you men
hang it up.”
What is your tradition for getting the holiday decorations out and ready?
I was fortunate to attend the funeral of a wonderful work friend. I was asked to say a few words about Martha at the service. Saying goodbye to loved ones is always tough. I was especially sorrowful because it has been many years since I’d seen her. I did not know she was ill. I felt guilty. Had I not done enough? Why didn’t I reach out more often?
A funeral is a place to feel all of this. To reflect. To remember. As I was preparing my story of Martha, I felt overwhelming gratitude. My words came out this way.
In 1992 I met Martha. I was a regional manager for Bright Horizons Children’s Centers. We were recruiting teachers and staff for the soon-to-open Glaxo Child Development Center in RTP, NC.
We were fortunate to have more than one hundred applicants for the open positions. Someone quickly brought Martha to me for a second interview. It only took a few minutes to understand we must hire her. Her resume showed she was very qualified for a teaching role, probably overqualified. In the next few minutes of the interview, it became clear we needed her intelligence, compassion, and genuine love for children on this very new team.
During orientation of the new employees, Martha’s many talents with her colleagues began to shine within the crowd. People were seeking her advice. Not only about how to work with very young children, but about life in general. There was laughter and encouragement everywhere Martha was.
It wasn’t long before I knew we needed her in more than one classroom. We needed her in all classrooms to influence and coach the teachers. She helped organize the environment to nurture optimal confidence and learning for the children. Patterned after Martha and how she did her job, we created the Program Coordinator position for the Glaxo center. The first at Bright Horizons.
The role, especially the way Martha did it, later served as the model for hundreds more talented teachers in Bright Horizons Children’s Centers all over the United States.
As the number of child development centers grew, I asked her to replicate that success in other centers. She became my educator extraordinaire, for parents, teachers, administrators, and center directors. Martha invented another new Bright Horizons role, that of Education Coordinator supporting multiple early childhood centers.
But more than that, Martha became my friend. She made me laugh or gave a hug when things were not so funny. She shared herself unconditionally. With her beside me, I learned to be a better mother, wife, and leader.
Martha was my counsel in building a wonderfully diverse group of employees. She seemed to have just the right advice for everything. In fact, the regional leadership team recommended we all get bracelets that reminded us WWMD What Would Martha Do.
After she retired from Bright Horizons, I missed her. We all did. But I knew she was out there influencing others. Likely she was spending more time with her family, children, and grands. For certain, she’d be generally helping others become better people.
Today as I say my final goodbye to Martha, I thank you all. For giving me her time, talent, and herself. I am grateful that some of Martha rubbed off on me.
Take one more look at her picture.
Ahh… that Martha Lewis smile. It could make your day.
If it’s been some time since you’ve spoken to someone that had a great impact on you, do so now. Put an appointment in your phone calendar right now to do it. Rather than message or text them, call them. Even better yet, write them a letter they can read and re-read whenever they need your influence and gratitude.
At age 13, Marie Frances Nash was told by her momma that Marie’s first father was Frank Pollard.
Before that it hadn’t mattered to Marie. She had a loving family. There was her best cousin, Suzy, who became her sister. They grew up together in the arms of their aunts, momma Ethel, and papa George.
It was with Suzy that Marie experienced death for the first time. Aunt Dianne, Suzy’s momma, was sick for a long time before dying. Watching someone die and figuring out how to mourn was difficult. It formed the bond that Suzy and Marie never broke.
Frank came out from the shadows asking for forgiveness by sending money, buying Marie a car to drive while at North Carolina State College, and visiting whenever momma would allow.
Marie began having babies. She was good at it. She had three by the age of 26. Her momma was never far from her.
Soon it became Marie’s turn to support momma, Suzy, and Frank when the family foundation needed strengthening.
Get to know Marie more deeply in all three Nash Sisters novels.
The year they will never forget – 1954.
It was one of the hottest summers in history. In North Carolina hot summers mean warm water in the Gulf Stream bringing the powerful hurricanes close. Too close.
Before that there is a horrible car crash. A baby tries to come early. And nobody can find Ethel.
Plans change. Nothing is normal. What will they do?
They step up. They take a turn being what is needed, rather than what is normal.
Revelations come pouring out from all directions.
What a year!
As a child and into my adulthood, my mother would say to me nearly every day, “You are beautiful.” It was never contrived, nor did she have to search for the reason to say it. She never meant it as how you looked when you dolled up for an event or changed your makeup routine. To mom, beauty was the way she felt when seeing or talking to you.
As I age, recognizing beauty becomes easier. I notice more often how people speak to one another, stare longer at beautiful actions, and I listen intently for the goodness in stories. The new generation calls it having all the feels.
Sometimes beauty bursts in front of you. Almost startling you. I am quick to capture it. To hold it. To secure its memory in my brain.
But most of the time beauty evolves slowly. A change in season. I have to be paying attention to notice. Maturity changes the beauty into something even better.
I think that is what my mom wanted. Not only a moment of beauty in nature or her children but noticing how they change and blossom further.
You are not beautiful because you have a new haircut. It is because you love yourself.
You are beautiful because you offered to help, to visit, to spend time with another, corrected a wrong, took responsible for your role in a friendship or family, and much more.
So, when I wore my handmade clothing, added a hand-me-down straw hat, put on somebody’s sunglasses and got my picture taken. Mom said, “you are beautiful”. I wasn’t really. But I was hers.
What does beauty mean to you?
It’s a 1953 Buick Skylark. A real beauty. But not for long. In the third Nash Sisters series, chapter 1, it is demolished in front of Marie’s house. It is not the worst that happens in 1954 to Nash family, but pretty close. Marie tells how it all started.
As my momma would say, “It is hot as hell out here.” And she would be right. I can’t remember a summer like this. The weather guys said we had more days over 100 degrees this summer than any other year on record. I believe it. I looked at the thermometer hanging under the crabapple tree—96 degrees. I looked at my watch to make sure it really was morning. Yep, 96 at 11 o’clock. And that’s in the shade. I am standing under the canopy of the tree, fanning my face with my hand, rocking from side to side trying to create some breeze up my dress. Jimmy, my two-year-old, is pulling at my skirt. My fourth child is in my belly, and it’s a heavy one.
I know we had a record-breaking hot summer two years ago, but I was not pregnant then. Although I seem to always be pregnant here in my adult life. I had Jimmy in June ’52 before the sweltering heat settled over Raleigh. At this time two years ago, I was 20 pounds lighter than I am now. For sure this is the hottest I’ve ever been.
My husband, Al, likes the fact that he has a large family. But he doesn’t have to carry the babies inside ’till he is about to explode. And he doesn’t have to endure the most excruciating pain ever giving birth. We both wanted children, but that was before I understood how much work they were. My friend Susan and Aunt Annie make it look easy. They talk about all the fun they have with their children. Susan says being a mother is a gift from God. Well, after this one, because it is coming whether I like it or not, I have plenty of God’s gifts. He can stop with that bequest.
I’ll call Momma later, as I do every Sunday night. Maybe she can give me some new ideas about enduring this heat. I have tried all of her earlier ideas—put a cold, wet cloth around my neck and drape it down my chest, stick my head in the freezer while fanning with the church fan, drink plenty of cold water, sit down in a chair and stick my feet in the freezer, and never leave the shade during the day.
On our last call she said, “Heavens, Marie, you learned how to make ice cream at the knees of North Carolina’s best ice cream maker. Keep doing it and eat it all the time. It doesn’t matter how fat you get right now, you got three kids and one more coming any day. Nobody’s looking at your figure.”
Oh, gee thanks, Momma.
From the yard, I could hear the radio inside switching from news to songs. “We’re Gonna Rock Around the Clock Tonight!” was playing. It’s depressing. I will never be able to rock around the clock again, unless I am up nursing a baby. I don’t remember the last time I slept all night. Another song comes into my head. One that is more what I want. Doris Day’s song, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Yeah, that’s what I wish for.
I was jerked from my dreams by a thunderous noise. The ground actually shook. It sounded like a tree falling or cars crashing. Or a tree coming down on a car. I grabbed Jimmy’s hand and ran around the house to the front yard. Sure enough, there was a car turned on its side in the deep ditch in front of our house. There was smoke billowing from its hood.
My feet stopped like I had reached the edge of a ravine and if I took one more step we’d fall into a bottomless pit. I jerked Jimmy’s arm swinging him off his feet, propelling him behind my back. Jimmy shrieked, “Momma, no!”
I hoisted Jimmy on my hip and carried him to the front door of the house. Shouting at my children inside, I yelled, “Al! Mary! Come get your brother!”
I could hear the children running toward the front of the house. I opened the door and practically tossed Jimmy inside. “Stay in there, children. You hear?”
Slamming the door behind me, I ran toward the car. The neighbors must have heard the crash or Jimmy’s shout. Half dozen people were sprinting into our yard—mostly women. The men were at work.
Even though I didn’t want to, I ran toward the car. I stopped short. I recognized the car. “Oh my God, no!” I screamed.
I could not make my feet move. The red Buick convertible had its top down. The man in the driver’s seat was slouched forward. His head was on the huge steering wheel. Blood was everywhere—on the dashboard, windshield, and gushing from wounds on his head. I didn’t know for sure who it was because his face was turned away from me. He was not moving. I could not see a rise and fall of his chest. He did not seem to be breathing. I wanted to vomit.
When I began writing my first fiction novel, I was motivated by a dare. And a deadline.
In 2018 I was part of a writing group. The leader of the group Lee Heinrich, an editor and publisher, placed an opportunity in front of us. “We will hold an author meet-and-greet in a few months. Those of you who have published books, choose one to showcase. Each author will have six minutes to read a portion of their book to the audience.”
At that point I had no published book. Just snippets of stories I created from entries in my journals. It felt like a dare. Family and friends had been telling me for years, “you should write a book about that.” I could tell a good story, but I wasn’t sure my writing was audience worthy.
I expressed my mixed emotions to Lee. She dared me, “Show me what you have. Get me a first chapter by next month’s meeting.”
A whole chapter in a month? A first chapter can’t be written without the whole story in mind and flushed out characters. Right? Is that possible in four weeks?
I went straight back to my office, dusted off the white board, and started to plan a novel. The characters had been swimming around in my head for decades. I would use them. My experiences and observations of family, which everyone was telling me to write, were there.
By the end of the week, I had a story of sisters who relied on each other even when life placed challenges in front of them. I now needed to build the characters. Who are they? What was the first tragedy they faced? How could they make it through?
The second week, I began to write. Ethel and Dianne Nash are sisters. Dianne is on her death bed.
Who is most affected? Dianne’s only child, Suzy, whose father previously died.
Who helps her through it? Her cousin Marie, Ethel’s daughter. Suzy’s mother by preparing for the inevitable. Family conversations about the memories.
Why was I doing this? The deadline stared me in the face. I needed to devote more hours to writing this. And most of all, I wanted to get the story on paper.
It was like magic. The characters became real. The story flow was making sense. A favorite quote from a writing course, Show Don’t Tell was my guiding light.
I sent the first chapter to Lee right before our group’s scheduled meeting. Her response was quick. “Wonderful book emerging. I love the way Marie’s is trying to understand death. Powerful.”
There it was. The new motivation to write. The reader.
After The Nash Sisters was published and sold, the reviews were very positive. Readers were moved by it. They couldn’t wait to read the next one.
Wow! I thought it was just me that loved these characters.
I remember well the ornaments on the family Christmas tree growing up. My favorites were the delicate glass ones handed down from my grandma, or new ones bought that looked like grandma’s and great grandma’s collection. I get to revisit them as we decorate our tree each year. The yellow, red, and blue ones pictured here are all that is left from generations gone by.
In doing research for the last chapter of the 3rd Nash Sisters novel, I rediscovered those ornaments and their story. It was a delightful find! Memories and emotion came racing back at seeing the variety from the 20s through the 60s.
I hope you enjoy reading this and uncovering memories of Christmases past.
I am often asked about my motivation to write The Nash Sisters series. Most of the time my answer includes things like:
“I like to tell stories.”
“My family has provided lots of material.”
“I love to explore history.”
“My journals are full of observations of friendship, family, joy, and sadness.”
I recently ran across something Robert Frost said in 1916 about how a poem begins for him.
There it was!
Ethel Nash rose from my wonder of what it might be like to survive as a young single mother in the age of war, poverty, intolerance, and grief. Then came her sisters who would be the best and sometimes only way to hang on.