CROSSING THE RIVER; on Christmas, Community, and the Writing Process

Chandelier in the home of Steve S.

As we move towards the winter solstice it's time to mark the shortening days and freezing nights with the ancient traditions of bringing light outdoors and gathering evergreens into our homes.  As the point of greatest darkness approaches, we also gather instinctively together: friends and family assembling at the hearth, our identity as a community enhanced by candles and cookies.  On a sunny, cool Sunday afternoon my husband and I join others for a walking tour of old homes in a neighboring town, taking part in what has long been referred to in Tomahawk County* as "crossing the river" because the county's two main settlements are separated by a broad, beautiful channel that runs diagonally across the state, from the mountains to the sea.

Exterior of Gettys home

In our case, we "cross the river" to experience the more civilized of those settlements from the one where we live, one with museums, a courthouse and stately old homes ranged along a tree-lined avenue west of the Baptist college that was once the southern leg of a racetrack. (Touring the local history museum on this trip I learn about racehorse breeder and Civil War veteran, Colonel Jefferies, who owned a stallion named Caesar in the 1890s.  Caesar was renowned for a stunt Jefferies regularly performed with the horse: outrunning the train from Unionville to Jonesville in Union County, a twelve-mile journey.)

Stag centerpiece

There are no horses on College Street today -- just a pair of goats and one black-bellied Syrian lamb assembled for the nativity in front of the Episcopal church.  Congregants are singing as we pass by on our way to the turn-of-the-century homes renovated and decorated for the day. One of the homes is the project of our former neighbor and valued friend, Steve S., who had lived decades in the same house in Traveler's Joy,* raising a daughter with wife Margaret and developing an extraordinary garden before 'crossing the river' two years ago in search of change and challenge. (See post from 1-27-13, "The Best Gardener in Traveler's Joy.")

Restored home of Steve S. 'across the river' from Traveler's Joy

He found both in the 100 year old home he bought, a bungalow with a wide central hall designed for maximum ventilation in the summer, as so many southern homes are (including ours).  It has original mantels, window glass, and transoms with the hardware intact.  While the house was sound it suffered from neglect and had been saddled with a few modern 'improvements' that needed to be replaced, like a collapsing porch and deteriorating columns. There is no garden to speak of at the new home, so Steve will certainly have a clean slate to work with, although the home's backyard contains two of the largest (and ostensibly, the oldest) oak trees I have ever seen outside a forest preserve.  However, on this day the focus was all on the interior, where we gathered with the town mayor and others to appreciate and enjoy our friend's restorative efforts and his unerring eye for design.


Crystal tree

This outing also marks the start of my hiatus from work for a couple of priceless weeks.  What the semester break means for me is time to write, and not just for an hour I've squeezed out of essay-grading while watching the clock over my shoulder, but hours of immersion in characters and settings as I pull weeds in the garden or walk to the post office in the fresh air or pull ingredients from the shelves of the pantry preparatory to baking something that requires slow, deliberate, mind-freeing labor. One of the reasons I've resisted owning a smart-phone or learning to navigate social media is because I treasure this state of solitary disconnection, so essential to productive thought. My family members and some friends already complain that I often fail to answer my 'dumb' phone.  The simple truth is that I don't hear it ringing in my purse or in noisy grocery stores, but the more complicated truth is that I didn't grow up with a communication device strapped to my body at all times and at my age I'm not convinced that I should become the sort of person who does.  

This most certainly qualifies me as a dinosaur; however, I'm inclined to credit long periods of uninterrupted 'wool-gathering' during semester breaks as supporting the completion of a novel in 2014, written during the spring break and the brief intervals before and after summer school this year.  Change and challenge now appear to be in the wind for me, as I recently received the happy news that this novel,

The Second Mrs. Hockaday

, will be published by Algonquin in 2016. 

Window in Gettys house

This book was much shorter and faster-paced than my first one, no doubt dictated by the brief duration of the breaks during which I wrote it and inspired by the compelling event it is based upon.  (See mention of this incident in a previous post from 10-07-14, "Trampling Out the Vintage.") 

In September I was speaking by phone with my literary agent about the protagonist, a 17 year-old upstate girl who impulsively marries a Confederate major home on leave from the 13th SC Volunteers.  Susan had read the manuscript and wanted me to describe the process that went into crafting that character, but all I could say was that the heroine sprang full-blown from my imagination, speaking to me in a distinctive voice and tapping some deeply emotional place in my psyche.  A couple weeks later Susan let me know she was preparing to send the novel out to editors at several publishing houses; as I dressed for work that day I went to my jewelry drawer to find a crystal pendant I had always considered good luck.  I didn't find the pendant.  Instead, I came across a small box I hadn't opened in years and inside it I discovered a gold lavalier on a chain.  (A lavalier is a kind of pendant that was popular among Edwardian ladies.)

Lavalier belonging to Louise Rausch Rivers

This small gold oblong with a single pearl set in the center had been given to me by my spinster Aunt Helene years earlier when she was doling out family keepsakes.  At the time, my own mother told me the story attached to it, as she was a far better curator of family history than my father was, even when it came to


history.  She told me it was a gift from my great-grandfather Walter Rivers, an Englishman who immigrated to this country when he was twenty years old in the spring of 1861 or '62, for his young wife, my great-grandmother Louise.  Soon after arriving in New York City, Walter enlisted in the Union army in place of a wealthy industrialist's son (typically, men like Walter were paid about $300 for substituting as soldiers.)  He could ride, so he was drafted into the cavalry and was apparently wounded fighting at the Battle of Monocacy on July 9, 1864.  In that dramatic conflict 6,000 hastily assembled Union troops under General Lew Wallace tried to halt Jubal Early's advance towards Washington.

Walter Rivers, detail from portrait

The bluecoats were forced to retreat by day's end after suffering close to 1,300 casualties in brutally close combat; my great-grandfather's pension application claims that his horse was shot out from under him and that he was shot in one arm, a leg, and bayoneted in the neck.  However, he and the rest of Wallace's inexperienced troops managed to delay Early's much larger, battle-hardened force of Rebs by a day -- long enough to allow time for Grant to send reinforcements to Fort Stevens.  It's said that Early got close enough to D.C. to see the Capitol dome through his field glasses, but it was too late for an attack. Washington (and the Union) had been saved. That's why Grant later wrote of Monocacy in his memoirs: "

General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory"


Walter Rivers and child (possibly Walter Jr?  My great-grandfather's frock coat,

top hat and ascot tie were fashionable in the 1880s -- Walter Jr. was born in 1886)

Unfortunately, Walter Rivers was not successful in winning a pension, something he put a great deal of effort into near the end of his life for the sake of his wife and three young sons, the problem being that he had enlisted under another man's name and his substitution could not be confirmed.  We know the manner of Walter Rivers' death: morphine addiction due to the meds he received while recovering from his battle wounds, but not much is known about his life after the war, except that he lived and worked in Indianapolis before meeting my great-grandmother Louise.  She was 21, a headstrong redhead, and he was 44 or 45 when they eloped in 1885.  My grandfather Walter Junior was born less than a year later in Terre Haute.  What my mother didn't know but I have since discovered is that my great-grandfather appears in the 1880 census in Indianapolis as being married to another woman and having two small daughters, so it is likely he abandoned that family when he ran off with Lou.  He and his new wife and their baby son -- my ancestors -- shortly thereafter pulled up stakes in the Midwest and chose as their destination the city where all disreputable people ended up in 1886: San Francisco. The lavalier was supposedly purchased in Germany around 1900 when Walter and Lou left their children at home in S. F. to make a whirlwind tour of Europe.  As my mother, who reveled in narrating the profligate ways and impractical eccentricities of her in-laws told me, the European tour was bankrolled by Walter's inheritance upon his father's death back in London, an event Walter celebrated by blowing the entire fortune on his travels with Lou. 

Louise in 1905; detail of group shot below. She was a widow by then,

 aged 42

If that's true, it gives credence to the related story about Walter having been the ostracized black sheep in a respectable and affluent family; however, it's just as likely that a scalawag like Walter, a man who clearly excelled at reinventing himself when it suited his purpose, may have come upon a windfall through less honest means.  We shall never know. 

What I do know is that as I stood at my bureau that day in September stringing the lavalier around my neck, it became quite clear to me what characters I had been channeling from my subconscious when I wrote

The Second Mrs. Hockaday

-- two lovers who flouted convention, tempted fate, and conducted their lives outside the comfortable limits of respectability.  And yet my paternal great-grandparents were people I hadn't thought of consciously for years.  As my writing instructor at Queens used to say,

"Writing is tricky and mysterious shit."

  I'm seriously tempted to tattoo that on my right arm. (Maybe once the book comes out.)


The drama club in San Francisco where my grandparents met and where my great-grandmother met her 2nd husband. Eva Graf, my grandmother, stands next to her future husband Walter Rivers Jr., top row far left. He was 19, she was 21.   Her brother Edward Graf kneels below.  Edward scandalized his family by falling in love with and marrying his sister's mother-in-law, Louise Rivers, sitting beside him in the tartan dress.  She was 20 years older -- the same age difference between her and her 1st husband.  The club was photographed less than 6 mos. before the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.


In the short term there is Christmas to work toward and to savor, although I usually feel that this holiday involves too much work for too little savoring.  What I anticipate with greater pleasure is 'crossing the river' from the hectic obligations of work and constant interaction with students requiring my focus to the midwinter landscape of silence, darkness, and unscheduled hours.  This is the territory where


reigns, in other words.  It is both a gift and a destination, but you must travel there by yourself -- and leave the cell phone behind.

The battlefield on the Monocacy River, MD, is a National Parks Service Historic Site.  For information and links, go to: