It is a testament to my parents' wit and wisdom and they did not panic the day I introduced them to my new best friend. I was about three years old when I asked them to warmly welcome my pal, Squawky, who, as it turned out, was nothing more than a figment of my imagination (in the photo, I am in glasses with my big sis, Lori).
They accepted him/it/vaporous cloud with quiet nods and gracious tones. Although, later my mom confessed she did casually bring up the subject with our family doctor at my next check-up and was assured that an invisible friend is a normal part of childhood development (my mom says Doc told her it demonstrated high cognitive function and creativity, but I think he just told her that so she’d worry less when her daughter swapped jellybeans with thin air).
For the next few weeks, Squawky and I went everywhere and did everything together. We had deep conversations over cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. We danced in the backyard to music only we could hear. We read books. Well, my mom and dad read the books aloud. Squawky and I listened intently.
I can’t remember a time when reading wasn’t a part of my life. If one of my parents wasn’t reading to me before bed, I was reading to them, myself, or my brother or sister. The library was my favorite place to go in the world. Reading sparked my imagination to create stories of my own, and the day my kindergarten teacher put a crayon in my hand there was no stopping me.
Along with a love of the written word, my parents gave me one more gift that has served me well - the gift of trying. When I was young, almost everything I wanted to try, from the ukulele to sewing to cake decorating, they let me take a whack at. When I found something I loved to do, like writing, they didn’t tell me I couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t. And with nobody telling me I couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t, I simply did. I wrote. I wrote plays in the fourth-grade. I wrote newspaper articles for my hometown newspaper in the eighth grade. I wrote debate speeches in high school. I wrote (and reported) TV news as an adult. And, as you can see, I am still writing.
Parents tend to play a key role in my middle grade books, because I know how much Mom and Dad's encouragement shaped me. But in fiction, it's conflict, not support, that spurs the protagonist to action. In my novel, Julep O'Toole: Miss Independent, Julep and her mom tussle at every turn, fighting about clothes, make-up, cell phones, etc. It was important to me not to put the burden on the parent to solve the problem. I wanted Julep to find a creative way to connect with her mother. And she does! Instead of talking, which always seemed to end in an argument, Julep gives her mom a friendship journal. They pass the journal between them, expressing the things on paper they cannot seem to say face to face.
"My mother wasn't going to call me back. Not tomorrow her time. Or my time. Or any time. Some gripping experience like zip-lining across a giant canyon or cooking octopus with a world-class chef would come up and she would 'forget.' In a week or so, she might send me a text. And in six months I would get something nice in the mail. The text would be short and unapologetic. The something nice would be unique and completely wrong for me. What was I thinking? I shouldn't have called her."
Parents have so much power. To lift you up. Or bring you down. To open the world up to you. Or to close it off.
I am so grateful to my parents for instilling in me the joy of reading, for nurturing my passion for writing, and for giving me the gift of trying. More than anything, I am grateful to have had in abundance the one thing every child wants from their mom and dad. Love. Pure love.
Here they are: my parents, Dean and Shirley Strain. They just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Still happy. Still in love. Still inspiring their daughter.
Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!