About ETHEL BOOKS
and the next books to come
My mother, ETHEL TRESSA O’LEARY PELLETIER, was a major influence in my life. I was the youngest child in a family of six children. Almost six years separated me from the next sibling, so I had Mama all to myself until I started school with the others. She and I had a lot of fun from Monday to Friday, days filled with imagination and poetry recitals, even as she did her housework and cooked pastries, and bread, and big meals for the family.
I have often said in interviews that there were no books in our home when we were growing up, except for our schoolbooks and a set of Childcraft books my parents bought for the family when I was still very young. They believed in education at a time when few families in my hometown sent their children on to college. So those Childcraft books were very important. Volume II, Storytelling and Other Poems (1949) had Paul Revere on its cover, in the midst of his famous ride. It had wonderfully colored pictures for every story and poem. It soon became fat from my constant turning of the pages, even before I could read the words. I still have that precious book. Because of it, I learned to love colored illustrations that accompanied text. The colors seemed to give the words even more life and vitality. That early experience I had with Volume II helped shape my concept for Ethel Books.
But that was basically it for books in the house until I started ordering twenty-five-cent paperbacks that were advertised in my Weekly Reader. Sometimes, Mama and Daddy could spare $2.50 so that I could order ten of them at once. Waiting for them to arrive by mail was excruciatingly painful. (As a matter of fact, the whole world seemed to arrive by the mailman back in those days, and to this very remote area. Anyone who has read my novels knows how important the mail car and a mailbox are to my characters!) One of those books, The Mystery of the Old Violin, is a title that has stayed with me over the years. I am a very visual person and can still see an old man on the cover holding a violin in his hands. I doubt a cover like that would sell in New York today. Where’s the excitement? Where are the vampires? This was in Mrs. Jonah Hafford’s third-grade class, and that was the year I started writing my own stories, with her encouragement. (Thanks to google.com, I am just now looking at that cover again for the first time in fifty-two years. Oh my gosh, the “old man” looks to be about fifty years old!)
Remembering those days at home alone with Mama, I grew to realize that I had a lot of books. Hell, I had “audiobooks,” because Mama could recite poetry for an hour and never repeat a poem. This is where I learned to love and memorize such poems as “In School-days,” “The Village Blacksmith,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Children’s Hour,” “Snowbound,” “Hiawatha,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Highwayman,” “The Raven,” “The Road Not Taken,” “If,” by Kipling, and so on. The elitists would ask, “Where were Whitman and Eliot? Where were Stevens and Pound and Arnold and Dickinson?” No matter. I wouldn’t have loved those poets then as I do now. Instead, what I got from those sweet and easy poems my mother recited was a deep sense of rhythm, a cadence that has followed me over the years of my writing. Ezra Pound once said, “Without music, the poetry withers and dies.” I got music from Mama’s words as she made the beds, did the dishes, and watered her geraniums in the sunny windows.
Sometimes, I’d go into her bedroom (the room I was born in) and put on her shoes with the sensible heels, one of her dresses, and any hat or scarf I might find. Then I’d come to the kitchen and knock on the door leading in. She’d turn and say, “Why, Mrs. Jones, you’re all dressed up. Where have you been? Come in and have a cup of tea.” I’d sit at the table in my get-up and tell her all about my travels. She told me later how she wished she had a video camera back then, and that it was difficult not to laugh at how serious my face was as I told her of the places I’d visited. “Sometimes,” she said, “you mentioned the names of countries and cities that made me wonder where you had even heard them.” I’d drink my cup of milk and then recite for her the few lines of poetry I had learned. “Still sits the schoolhouse by the road, a ragged beggar sunning, around it still the sumac grows, and blackberry-vines are running.” (Although the official version of the poem has the beggar sleeping, and blackberry vines creeping, the version Mama learned had sunning and running.) So I had a library of books in my first years of life, those very important formative years. I had Ethel Tressa O’Leary Pelletier, with her two years of high school (all there was back then, in St. John, Maine) and her learning that most college students don’t have today. We weren’t perfect, Mama and I. We locked horns often when I became a teenager and older. I was rebellious and she was a very shy and modest stage mother. But in the later years, she loved knowing everything about my career. I called her from every single airport when I was on book tour, without fail. How she would have loved Facebook!
When her cancer came back in 2000, I came home for three months to be with her, here in this Allagash house, the house where I was born. That’s when she revealed a secret to me that explained a lot about our relationship. “Remember that typewriter I bought when you were kids?” she asked. Of course I remembered. At age seven, I got to type on it first, the older kids behind me waiting their turns. I typed a few lines on a paper that is now in my archives at the University of New England because Mama saved everything I wrote, even school math papers. “I really bought that typewriter for myself,” she said, “because I always wanted to be a writer.” I was stunned. Those few words helped me to somewhat untangle what had often been a complicated mother-daughter relationship.
On a snowy and blustery December afternoon, a few days before she died, we discussed the fence for the family graveyard, a cemetery that would commence with her death. (She’s still the only tenant.) I showed her the school paper on which she’d written the lines to one of her favorite poems. “Let me see if I can remember it,” she said, giving the paper back to me. I had heard her recite it many times over the years, but now it had special meaning to her. “I shall not pass this way again, although it bordered be with flowers, although I rest in fragrant bowers, and hear the singing, of song-birds winging…” As she recited the entire thing, her memory sharp as ever, I was thinking that it would be a good message to put on a plaque at the graveyard. That’s when she said, “Cathie, that would be a good poem to put in the graveyard.”
Looking at her many school papers and drawings, I was always amazed at what high school students in 1934 and 1935 were expected to learn. Once, she looked up from a crossword puzzle and said, “Oberon was the king of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wasn’t he?” Who needed books as a child with a mother like that? I’ve never forgotten Oberon, thanks to that conversation. Her school drawings for biology class always fascinated me. She kept them in a bottom drawer of the dresser in her bedroom. As a small child, I’d sit and touch them lovingly, and ask all kinds of questions about the plants and animals. I put those drawings and her other school papers in a nice scrapbook so she could look at them again before she died. (I guess this was just as she had saved and kept all my school papers.) When I decided to start this small “boutique” book company, I remembered the beautiful fern Mama had drawn in 1934. So I used that drawing as the colophon you will see on the books. But mostly, I remembered Mama, and coming to visit her in the kitchen to tell her of my many travels. “Why, Mrs. Jones, where have you been? Come in and have a cup of tea.” I think she would like the idea of Ethel Books, and that I’m still telling her my stories.
FUTURE BOOKS. All the books for this small company will have a special look. They will be 64 to 168 pages, hardback, full-color, with a still life painting for the cover art, and colored illustrations to begin each chapter. I have already written four such “niche” books over the years. Our second release will be GOOD NIGHT, GUS: A Storybook for Grown-Ups, also a K. C. McKinnon book. Written many years ago, it has to do with a long-term relationship breaking up, whether it’s a marriage or just many years together as a couple. In other words, it will be the perfect gift for the brokenhearted! And someday, down the road, will be Evangeline, my prose version of the Longfellow poem, another tribute to my mother. Thank you for reading.
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