Wednesday, January 06, 2010

JenniePal WriterPal SkirtPal

Jennie Englund and I met at Noble Coffee last summer. I was working on a new chapter for my novel; she was having coffee with a girlfriend. We started talking about writing and teaching (she teaches English 100s and 200s at Rogue Community College) and we hit it off.

We hit it off to the extent that Jennie suggested we be friends. This was rare, and I quote her: "I don't try to make new friends, do I?" she turns with a nod to her coffee friend. Her friend shakes her head, no. "I can't even be a good enough friend to the friends I have, so I'm never looking for new friends. But I want you to be my friend. It has to happen. We have to write together."

It was the funniest, silliest intro I could've had to a new friend in Ashland, and I was all over it.

My family was headed to King Tut in San Francisco for the weekend, so summer felt busy, but Jennie and I kept in touch via email and finally got together for some serious writing at the beginning of fall. This was a couple weeks after I'd seen her in Albertson's wearing an outfit I didn't realize was a costume. Turns out she was dressed like a pirate for the Tree Frog Trek camp, but I thought she wore ruffly shirts and vests for real.

Here's the beauty of this: I've been wanting a serious writer-friend to write with, revise with, and set goals with. Check. Check. And check.

A few weeks ago, Jennie let me read something she wrote a while back and I suggested she submit it to Chicken Soup for the Soul's Christmas edition; I also suggested she submit it to Skirt magazine's holiday contest.

Guess who won honorable mention in the holiday contest???

Yup, that'd be Jennie. Following is her story in full. You can also link to it here at Skirt! Way to go, Jennie! And I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for Chicken Soup - because we all like a paying market now, don't we?

How Sallie Bowles Saved Christmas

by Jennie Englund

Flames licked the fireplace door as my mom sat on the sofa, cradling her hot cocoa in her hands. Her blonde hair had long since fallen out from relentless rounds of chemotherapy. Instead, a blue handkerchief covered her head, and a reindeer-printed fleece blanket draped her swollen legs. She still wore mascara‚she always wore mascara. But her thin face and tired eyes reflected the battle she was going to lose.

She took it all in: the stories, the drama, even the fighting. She knew this was her last Christmas.

At 27, I knew it was her last Christmas, too. But my seven younger siblings didn't know it. Maybe some of them chose NOT to know it. And the two littlest‚ my ten year-old sister and four year-old brother‚ had absolutely no way of knowing it.

Ribbons, bows and wrapping paper flew around the room. Photo albums and Lego sets were ooo'ed and ahh'ed over, until the next package was ferociously ripped open. That year, we tore into the gifts like lions at their prey. We were looking for the magic gift—the contents of the one box that would make us forget our mom's suffering, and our own.

It never came.

The next Christmas, the reindeer-printed blanket was folded in the corner of the sofa. No one wanted to open any gifts. We wanted our mom.

But Christmas wasn't about wanting. And it wasn't about sorrow. The rest of our Christmases couldn't be this way. As the oldest sibling, I had to do something. We didn't have our mom, but we did have each other. And for the sake of our dad, who had lost his college sweetheart, I had to bring back Christmas.

As we pushed around ham and mashed potatoes with our forks, an idea came to me. Slipping from the table, I rummaged through my teenage sister's room for sequins and baubles. I fastened a too-tight silver bra over my black t-shirt and threw a feather boa over my shoulder.

There was one clear choice. My husband put in the CD we'd brought from our house: the soundtrack to the 1972 musical, "Cabaret." The sole song to which I knew all the words was the title track. As the trumpets began pumping, I slunk sheepishly from the hallway. My dad nodded. My teenage sister stood up on her chair. The four year-old gaped in wonder and surprise.

Like Liza Minnelli in her role as Sallie Bowles, I began singing tentatively at first. I stood motionless at the unplugged microphone, bathed in the beam of a powerful flashlight. Of course I asked myself what I thought I was doing, or even what I was undoing. Was this irreverent? Flat-out blasphemy? I mean, I was the responsible one. And even with all the sequins and baubles and boa and bra, I felt naked, completely naked.

But I could feel the eyes on me‚desperate for the return of holiday folly.

The music picked up pace. Sallie's voice picked up pace. And my confidence somehow adjusted accordingly.

I bumped my hips and twirled my necklaces and wrapped the boa around my brother's neck. My dad was laughing‚really laughing, ├«and every chuckle was melting the previous year of pain. My teenage sister danced on her chair. The four year-old clapped his hands against his thighs.

THEY were inspiring ME.

By the end of the show tune, I was belting out the lyrics, with my legs kicking up in the air:

"Life is a cabaret, Old Chum.

Only a Cabaret, Old Chum.

And I love‚ a cabaret.‚"

I held the last note until the drum stopped.

And then I collapsed forward.

The cheers and whistles were deafening. It had worked. "Cabaret" couldn't bring back our mom, but it could begin to restore a broken family's joy and hope.


Jennie Englund said...


I was blogging, and came over here to get your link --- and, wow!, you and I have the same thing going on!

Except. You have Sallie Bowles.

No one has ever written about me before.

And the runner-up deal never would've happened without choo.

Hope you celebrated Big Time with those spinach cubes.

Anonymous said...

I was very moved by Jennie's story, and thought it was her own?. I could totally(underlined) envision it in a "Chicken Soup" book.
Really neat you are encouraging each other.

anjie said...

Mom, you didn't finish your question, but I'm guessing you wondered whether the story was of Jennie's personal experience? It was/is.

I'm glad you were moved by it. I thought you would be. It's really wonderful, and so is she. You'll like her when you meet her.

Love, Anj

Anonymous said...

So amazing that she could write such an emotional and personal history...yes that was the rest of my question. I must have missed something in your original post that clarified the fact that it was her own story...makes me think I need pay more attention to what I am reading!
I will look forward to meeting her (Jennie).

Anonymous said...

So happy for you and your new FRIEND, JENNY. You'll both be blessed by this friendship.
Jenny, your writing about Christmas without Mom is excellent. Such a writing just won't let the reader stop reading. You kept me on edge. Well written.