Saturday, May 29, 2010

Secrets & Mysteries

The main characters in mystery fiction should have at least three or four secrets that are revealed through the course of the book, according to the instructor of a writing workshop I recently attended.

I've been thinking about this for weeks, both in terms of constructing fiction plots and also how our secrets can change people's lives -- and even history. In this age of instant communication and everything shared on reality TV and through social networking, it's difficult to believe that anyone keeps secrets. But they do.

Not long ago I learned a family secret so shocking that I am still flabbergasted that none of my relatives alive today knew about it either. The entry in the official City of Portsmouth 1886 Death Ledger tells the basic facts:

Margaret Blute: DOD: December 25, 1886; 34 years old 10 months and 28 days; Birthplace: Portsmouth, NH; Father: William Quinn; Mother: Johanna Crowley; Father's Birthplace: Ireland; Mother's Birthplace: Ireland. Cause of Death: Kicking and Bruising.
What the ledger doesn't reveal is the name of the person who inflicted the kicking and bruising: my great-great grandfather. According to newspaper reports from that time, Patrick Blute murdered his wife, Margaret, in a drunken rage on Christmas Day 123 years ago in the presence of their four children, one of whom was my father's grandmother.

My father's half-sister discovered the details while doing genealogical research and handed me copies of the original news stories while I was at her house in search of old family photos.

I called my parents. Neither knew about the murder. Nor did my aunt or their cousins. When I expressed surprise that something like this was kept quiet for so long, my father noted that it isn't exactly the type of information one shares at the dinner table. Perhaps, but you'd think someone might have been whispering about the murder at some point.

Now, the only details we have are from the official death record and the newspaper reports, which are grim but fascinating. “Christmas Revelry Ends in Murder” proclaimed one headline under the heading “Shocking Tragedy.” According to the reports, the “pair have had a reputation of living unhappily together, owing to strong drink.”

Patrick Blute, 42, was described as a strongly built teamster and “valued employee of the Eldredge Brewing Co.” Margaret, 35, weighed about 125 pounds and her body showed scars of “old healed-up wounds.”

The newspapers contain varying accounts of her death, although most indicate she died of her injuries after being beaten and thrown down the stairs. According to one witness, Patrick Blute calmly admitted he had been beating his wife for years and told the marshal: “I don't care what you do with me, I just as soon you'd take me down to the wharf and throw me overboard.”

We also know they had four children, ages 2 to 12. One of them was Julia, my great-grandmother who died a year after I was born. I wonder today who raised her after her mother was murdered and her father sent to prison. There is no one alive to tell us. But we do know her father's fate from this 1891 news report:

"Patrick Blute, who on the night of Christmas day, 1886, murdered his wife by kicking her to death in the most brutal manner in their miserable home at the Creek, and was sentenced to state prison for 20 years for the crime, died in prison on Friday morning. Blute recently petitioned the governor and council for a pardon, on the grounds he was dying of consumption, could not live but a few weeks at the longest, and wished to spare his children the disgrace of having their father die in the penitentiary. His request was very properly refused by the governor and council; his sentence in the first place was ridiculously disproportioned to his offence (sic), and if his innocent children are to bear any disgrace, it was his crime and not its punishment which brought it upon them.”

As a mystery writer, their story intrigues me. But as their descendant, it unnerves me to realize I walk the same streets and their DNA is inside me. I think about them whenever I drive by the location where the murder occurred, although their tenement was replaced by a commercial enterprise years ago.

I also find it interesting that the murderer's grandson later headed the police force in their city, my cousin served as a police officer in the next town, and now my child—their great-great-great grandson—also is a policeman.

In the writing world, we might call that an ironic twist.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

BP, economic rage and -- pancakes

Are you angry at BP and its massive oil disaster destroying our environment?

Day after day, there’s more bad news – and no hope of fixing the problem. We see photographic evidence of the goop and gunk washing up on shore. It scares me to think about the damage going on beneath the water. Can our planet survive this?

Can anyone solve this problem? It’s not like we can trust BP. They’ve lied about everything. So who else can we blame? Wasn’t anyone watching for things like this? Doesn’t anyone have a plan to deal with offshore oil leaks?

From Katrina to people dying from tainted food AGAIN AND AGAIN, to product and vehicle recalls, and now this. The message is clear: The government can’t protect us from everything. Companies are operating in ways that hurt people. They think the risk is worth their bottom line. The truth is we’re on our own, folks.

Some people are talking about boycotting BP. But how do you boycott the fourth-largest corporation on the planet? With $239 billion in annual sales and revenues, this company is mammoth. Its brands include BP, Arco, Amoco, Aral, Castrol, AM/PM, and Wild Bean CafĂ©. It’s into everything – energy, shipping, and even asphalt – and operates in 30 countries. It makes $93 million A DAY in profit. This spill may be killing our planet, but the cleanup cost is not even a “drop” in the bucket for a company like this.

I’m not sure what I’m most angry about – that it happened, that no one can fix it, that the government didn’t protect us or that we can’t do anything to stop it. What about you?

Economic rage
I sense a similar kind of anger out there over the economy. People are so worried that they’re looking for someone else to blame. It’s the banks, says one person. It’s greedy homeowners, says another. The government let us down, others contend. And so on.

The rage is showing up in the voting booth and even on our roadways. We’re angry, we feel helpless, and we want someone else to fix this. But who? Can any group of elected officials really make a difference? Is the problem just too massive?

Are pancakes the answer?
When I get feeling like this, I often find I need something in the food variety to cheer me up so this weekend I persuaded Husband No. 1 and my parents to join my quest to taste the famous pancakes at Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, NH (even Saveur magazine wrote about them).

We were delighted to discover the quaint store on the National Register of Historic Places and its walls are lined with political memorabilia from years of visits from presidential and other state and national candidates.

We weren’t disappointed by the pancakes, either. Although I generally avoid eating things that are bigger than my head, these huge buttermilk pancakes were fabulous: light, fluffy and cooked in lots of butter. Did I mention butter?

And yes, they did make me feel better.

Hooksett (located outside our state's largest city of Manchester) isn't exactly a tourist destination, but I'd make the 50-minute trip to eat breakfast there again. The town is home to what some describe as a "consolation Old Man of the Mountain" replica of our most famous natural landmark that collapsed a few years ago. The Hooksett version is located outside a place called Profile Storage. I'll admit we actually went out of our way to find it, but it made me wonder if we should stopped instead at the other "attraction" (and I use the word loosely) I found in my research about Hooksett -- the X-ray of Muhammad Ali's broken jaw that apparently resides with other memorabilia related to the boxer in a car dealership there.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Crossing the Thin Blue Line

In the past two months, I've seen the inside of the county jail, holding cells in four police stations, the district courthouse and a police cruiser.

I've become familiar with TASERS, trafic radar, illegal narcotics, SWAT teams and K-9 dogs.

I've had a taste of what it's like to be so drunk you can't walk in a straight line, along with the adrenaline rush and fear of facing someone who might want to kill you.

I've learned everyone knows a victim of domestic violence, seatbelts save lives, that being a judge can be heart-wrenchingly difficult work, and only a select few men and women survive the arduous process of becoming a police officer -- and once they do, they undergo extensive and rigorous training to learn how to do their jobs even better.

But now the Citizen Police Academy is over and I'm sorry to see it end. It's been an eye-opening experience with fascinating, behind-the-scenes access to law enforcement. It's made me a better citizen, I hope it's making me a better crime writer, and it's given me a better understanding of No. 1 son's new life as a policeman. The Citizen Police Academy also showed me how much I didn't know about law enforcement.

The nonprofit Seacoast Crime Stoppers organization funded this experience for me and 32 others from the area. Our class represented a wide variety of ages, backgrounds, education levels, and financial means. Our motives for showing up every Wednesday night for at least three hours of instruction, demonstrations and tours varied, but I believe we were united in our gratitude for the opportunity.

When I look back on the past eight weeks, a couple of things strike me. One is the amount of latitude police officers have in their job. Other than cases of domestic violence, which require an automatic arrest, there are many areas of law enforcement where a police officer is expected to use his or her judgment.

For example, last year police officers in my city made 9,544 motor vehicle stops -- but wrote only 1,387 traffic citations. The officers say they make these stops to try to keep everyone safe, not because they like writing tickets. I believe them --though I certainly would have argued the point before the CPA, given how many times I've been pulled over for speeding.

Police officers also belong to one of the few professions where decisions can have life or death -- and often life-altering -- repercussions. Their lives are at risk every day they show up for work. These men and women who are so well-trained to keep us and themselves safe would tell you two common police activities are considered the most dangerous: motor vehicle stops and domestic disturbance calls. That's because they have no idea how the subjects involved will react -- or what weapons they're willing to use.

I have concluded that being a police officer requires great courage. Not only in facing down the bad guys or risking their lives to save the rest of us, but also because they encounter people at the worst moments of their lives. They see things we never want to. They also spend most of their time dealing with people who are uncooperative or combative, and far from your average law-abiding citizens. So much of what a police officer does on a daily basis never ends up in the public view and some of it involves things most of us would rather not know about.

We should all be greatful there are men and women out there who take pride in being part of such a difficult profession and strive to uphold its ethics and standards. Imagine what our lives would be like if they didn't have the courage to go to work every day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mothers Day

I've worried many times whether I am a good mother or if my failures will lead to years of therapy for my children. As I write this on Mothers Day 2010, I know how blessed I am to have two wonderful sons who tolerate me with humor, patience and love despite my many failings.

I'm glad they don't remember the day I got so angry that I threatened to leave one of them at the store -- and nearly did. Or the time my hair-trimming got too close to the scalp and I had to try to convince my child I intended to make an Easter egg shape in his hair. There also were more than a few times when the Tooth Fairy forgot her task. And they will readily tell you that instead of milk and cookies waiting after school, they were greeted with "the interrogation." I also have no doubt that the many times I've embarrassed them will become the subject of a best-selling memoir by at least one of them someday (and possibly both PLUS years of therapy).

But through it all, especially when things seemed really difficult, I figured that if I could keep them alive until the end of the day, I'd done my job. I want to believe I am at least a "good enough" mother. And I am inordinately proud of the men my sons have become despite years with a crazy woman who calls herself their mom.

During the past week I've had some experiences that helped reinforce how fortunate I am -- but made my heart ache for other mothers and their children.

As we toured the Rockingham County Jail and walked through a cellblock amid the prisoners as part of the Citizen Police Academy, I wondered how their mothers feel about them being in such a place. I thought about the mother of another inmate at the facility who was part of a group of teenagers that brutally murdered a woman sleeping in her bed, and nearly killed her daughter, because they wanted to commit a home invasion and kill whomever they found inside. How does that mother reconcile herself to the reality that her son became a cold-blooded killer for fun? Does she still love him the same?

I also spent a few hours observing Family Court to fulfill my Citizen Police Academy requirements. In one case, a pre-teen was about to be placed in a group home and the unmarried and beyond-estranged parents will soon face neglect charges. It didn't take long to get a fairly good idea of why the child had behavior issues.

In another case, a young teenager's placement was reviewed and as she left the courtroom so custody issues could be discussed, she quietly said "Hi Mom" to a young woman seated in the back who didn't look much older than her. The woman ignored her. A short time later, when the mother tried to explain herself to the judge, it was clear she lacked parenting skills and probably was in need of a mother's guidance, herself.

I suspect the children in these cases face difficult years ahead. Do their mothers ever wonder -- or care -- if they are "good enough" moms? What will become of the kids? I don't know how the judge or the Division of Children and Youth Services workers deal with cases like these day after day, year after year, without becoming incredibly sad. And yet, the judge said that in her 20 years on the bench, she had only one case where the child did not want to be returned to the mother.

I suppose this speaks to the bond that exists between children and their mothers, whether they are mothers by birth or circumstances. Most of us want to believe there is always enough love in that bond to keep a child on a path to a good and happy life. But sometimes there isn't. And a great many parents and children struggle as a result. The rest of us should count our blessings and hope those children find someone to guide them to become happy adults and "good enough" mothers/parents themselves.