When I left for college in Tucson, Bisbee was only a hundred miles away, but still, I was homesick. My mother still had four children at home and lots to do—clothes to wash, hang, and iron, meals to cook, chauffeuring, and paper routes to manage, but once a week she took the time to sit down at the Formica table in the kitchen and write me a letter. She had only a seventh grade formal education, but her penmanship was beautiful and her grammar impeccable. In her letters, she kept me up to date on what was happening back home with the family and the neighbors, including her forenoon coffee pals—Harriet Smith, Verna Dunkerson, and Lilyan Weatherford. It was all ordinary, everyday stuff, but oh how I welcomed seeing that small envelope in my mail box behind the front desk at Pima Hall.
And that’s how I view writing the blog each week—as a letter from home to my readers. For instance this week I got to go to SAFEWAY!! That doesn’t sound like much of a treat, but it was. With Bill’s health issues, we’ve had someone else doing our shopping throughout the pandemic. Our personal shopper is very good about bringing home everything on the list. What he doesn’t bring home are the things that aren’t on the list because I didn’t realize I wanted them. So on my first trip to a grocery store in a year and a half, I was lost. I didn’t know where anything was. And I came home with a bounty of grapes, peaches, and berries—because I had to see them in person to know how much I was missing them.
Each Friday morning, after the blog is posted, one of my weekly treats is to go through the comments one by one. Sometimes I reply; sometimes I don’t, but I read them all. Bill calls it my “psychological income” from writing. And during this time of isolation, how I relish seeing those comments, the ones from my regulars and from may irregulars as well! And ditto for reading my email every day first thing in the morning because I never know what might be hiding there. Today, for instance, I received a note from a woman who had attended a baby shower earlier this summer where the prize gift of all was a set of six pairs of baby socks. Then yesterday, as she was reading Fire and Ice, she read about Butch explaining to Joanna that their washing machine had come to grief due to swallowing a stray baby sock. My reader has now presented the new parents with their very own net lingerie washing bag. I love it when people glean helpful household hints from their friendly neighborhood murder mystery writer.
On Sunday morning I received a treasure, a long letter from a woman named Robin. She’s my age and a retired school psychologist from New York City. She wrote to say how much she loved my books. Because of the Joanna Brady books, she and her husband had actually visited Bisbee. She loved Ali Reynolds’s Sedona, and she’s hoping that some day she’ll be able to visit J.P. Beaumont’s Seattle. She said she also really liked the way my books approached social issues. The things she had to say were so complimentary that they made my head swell a bit, but then I noticed something. She hadn’t mentioned a word about the Walker Family books, my least read series. So I sent her a letter of introduction to those. I’m going to post it here. It’s a story I may have told before, but that’s the thing about stories—some of them improve with age. If you’re not interested, you’re welcome to stop reading at this point, but here’s the reply I sent her:
Thank you so much for writing, and I’m going to tell you why.
In the late sixties and early seventies, I was a K-12 librarian on the Tohono O’odham Reservation west of Tucson. Almost thirty years after leaving there, I sat down to write the first of my five Walker Family books. Since you didn’t mention them in your note to me, you may not be familiar with them, but in writing them, I put the stories and legends of the Desert People, ones I had learned as a storyteller on the reservation, into the background of the books. As I was writing the first one of those, a book called Hour of the Hunter, I remember telling someone that I hoped to make life on the reservation come alive for the “little old lady from upstate New York who would never visit Arizona.” (Please remember I was a lot younger then than I am now! ?)
The book came out in the early nineties to no great acclaim, but it remains one of my favorites,. Years passed, and I ended up writing four more books in that series. Shortly after the fourth one, Queen of the Night, was published in 2010, I was invited back to the reservation to do a book signing at the tribal museum in Topawa. I agreed, but I was very nervous. By then I had been away from there for decade I felt my books had been true fo the Desert People and their traditions, but I had no idea how the Tohono O’odham themselves felt about them.
When we pulled into the museum parking lot on a cold, blustery Saturday morning, I was astonished to see that the parking lot was studded by cars with out-of- state license plates, because my snowbird fans had seen the event posted on my website and had made the 150 mile round trip to see what it was all about.
At the beginning fo the event, after the Medicine Man’s invocation, a group of young people came out to do a circle dance. The emcee noted that, because the circle dance is a sacred one, we were advised to not take any photos, but, he added, once it was open to social dancing, we were welcome to join in. As a tall, blonde, Anglo woman, I had always felt like an outsider on the reservation, but as I watched the circle dance I felt I was truly accepted. When the emcee announced the social dancing, I stood up and went down to join the circle. As I did so, and to my utter amazement, the Desert People gathered there gave me a standing ovation. Joining hands with the other dancers in the circle was the high point of my writing career, and the thought in my head at the time was that it couldn’t get any better, but then is did because all those Milgham women there, the snowbird Anglos from those out-of-state cars, came down and danced in the circle, too. As I wrote those words just now, a wave of gooseflesh went down both my legs! Because I had done it. I really did make reservation life come alive for people who, otherwise, would never have known anything about it.
Your letter today made me realize that, without being consciously aware of it, I’ve instinctively done the same thing in my other books as well, bringing to life what I learned by living and growing up in Arizona—in Joanna Brady’s Cochise County, in Ali’s Sedona, and in J.P. Beaumont’s Seattle. Thank you for doing that. It means more than I can say.
I hope you will come to Seattle to visit some day. September is usually glorious, although I’ve never seen the leaves in New England in the fall. And this summer, when it was 108 in the shade of our back porch at 6 PM, it was a real shock to the system. Fortunately for us, only a week and a half earlier, we’d had our twenty year old heating and cooling system complexly replaced.
So thank you for being that eponymous “little old lady (LOL wasn’t a thing back then) from upstate New York” even though you clearly live in New York City. And thank you even more for writing such a lovely letter to tell me so.
And thank you, too, for talking about my treatment of troubled children and marginalized people. Yes, there are bad people in the world, but even in writing murder mysteries, it’s important to focus on the good.
With grateful regards,
This should be proof positive that I really do answer my emails!
That’s what I sent, and it worked like a charm—she’s now ordered the Walker Family books.
And that’s why this blog is entitled The Rhinestone Cowboy, because that’s what I feel like when I read those comments on the blog or the emails people send.— like Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know. And offers coming over the phone.”
Believe me, some of them are real treasures.