Can she make a cherry pie Billy Boy and other brain chatter

For years I have attested to never experiencing writer’s block. I should know better than to tempt the old adage: never say never! For the last few months, although I have had bits of success writing a blog here or there, I have experienced a profound writing block. This in itself has had an adverse impact on my own well-being: so many of us write to feed our souls. Writing is the powerful well-being activity for me that it is for so many others. It isn’t so much about completing more pages for a ‘to be’ published book, as much as processing and harnessing the depth of what I am feeling; my real being.

Earlier this week I realized I’m stuck because of what is happening in another part of my life: yet I should know as well as anyone how connected all parts of our psyche and health are. This ‘being stuck’ bottles up what I need to get out, enabling it to dry up and wither away. In itself this is a vicious cycle. In a decision made this week I finally feel free, which consequently frees my writing.

Recently, the lyrics from the folk tune “Billy Boy” have been circling in my brain. You know those times when some popular ditty simply won’t leave you? I suspect music lovers have this happen more than others, but maybe those who watch a lot of TV experience it too with obnoxious jingles. I can’t remember if I first heard this song at Camp Fire camp or later in high school choir: regardless, I do recall most of the lyrics. Can she make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Can she make a cherry pie Charming Billy? As I slowly traveled through the pages of Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, I simply couldn’t not hum the song. And after I put the book down the lyrics continued in my brain. Perhaps it was a bit like, though far more pleasant, the chatter that has been blocking my creative self. Today, I feel as if I am moving to address the “chatter” and allow myself to move on, and simultaneously, release this blog that has been building in me since finishing McDermott’s Charming Billy.

Sometimes I experience imposter syndrome as a writer. Yes, reading has been my favorite activity my entire life. And yet, I’ve never felt that I have a critical enough eye to provide a powerful book review. The good thing about being the age I am? It simply doesn’t matter whether I critically review things as others might. How I feel about a given book reflects me: a me that holds beliefs and experiences unique only to me. How freeing is this, don’t you think? And it is of course how I have reflected far more than once: we all can feel differently about books – there’s more than enough variety to suit each of us and to open a space for the stories we may share.

It is a gift of discovery to unveil books that I might have read earlier but never got to. I’m quite glad that I didn’t read Charming Billy a first time in my twenties or even thirties. For, the connections to my own family and life might not have been as pronounced then. More importantly, I might not then have felt the gratitude I feel reading it now. A gratitude that the alcoholic closest to my life found recovery when he did. That he did not experience an end of life like Billy.

Charming Billy too reminds me of a couple characters: one a family member, and one from my most recent book Humanity’s Grace. My great grandfather Ard Haradon was a drinker until his death. Yes, most certainly an alcoholic – would say Dad. He too was a jovial, story teller. In My Music Man, I share this:

“On these weekend visits, Dad would eat breakfast with his Pop-Ard before his grandfather left for work, first as a sheet metal laborer during the war and later as a Northwest Portland candy factory owner. Pop-Ard was a joker and storyteller with an occasional lesson for Dad. “Don’t forget, Dickie. A truly accomplished man can do two things: bake bread and build a fence.” Dad followed half of thatadvice; fences he built…”

“…In addition to introducing Dad to the Willamette, Pop-Ard fostered Dad’s love of railroads….But the deal was already sealed: Dad was in love with the river. In
this way, Pop-Ard introduced Dad to this greatest joy, our winding Willamette. But Pop-Ard also introduced Dad to his greatest life challenge. Before and after the move back to Portland, Pop-Ard would sit with Dad, sharing sips of Old Crow as he vivaciously told stories…

My Music Man, Chapter 7: Dangerous Living

Charming Billy is also illustrative of how we behave after people we love die. How we remember seeing them, how time changes things, even distorting the reality of how it really was. I suspect we have all experienced this, whether it is us doing the sharing or someone close to us. Think of memorial services, wakes, the after stories. Think about how our stories change over the days and years since someone dies.

So too, it was impossible for me not to think about character Frank from both Beyond the Ripples and Humanity’s Grace. In his last evening of life, knowing he has a chronic, significant health condition caused by alcohol, he grabs a beer to enjoy while he watches the sun set over Astoria’s Columbia River. Months later, after his death, his ex-wife Monica (Anne’s mom) reminiscences while retracing old steps at Portland’s Oak’s Park

“Yes, she had first felt an odd sense of relief when she heard Frank had died, and it wasn’t until driving home from the memorial service that she sensed a stab of guilt. The next day she felt sad. It wasn’t until this past week that, for the first time, she didn’t feel angry about all the things he never did, or sad about never reconciling like the kids wanted when they were younger. The cleverly wrapped packages of frustration and anger, sealed and piling up for years, were strangely, slowly dissolving. Part of her wanted them back: it was easier to be angry than sad. Was she downhearted because she didn’t know what his life was at its end? Monica wondered if Annie knew, but she hadn’t been able to ask her youngest daughter this question. She and Annie had their own troubles…”

“…Monica dropped her purse and sweater to the ground, and pulled her hair back with her hands as she bent slightly backward and looked to the sky. Maybe she could have done something different to have kept that bit of love and the beginnings of that first sense of family alive. Where did it go? For the first time since learning about Frank’s death Monica fully grieved. She grieved that he had met the end of his life. This man, the only man who had known her through those
years was gone. Through all the sadness and anger, she felt only now that a bit of her died with him—this little piece that nobody else knew…”

“…She grabbed onto the bar with both hands. A memory returned to her about the time she and Frank had returned to the park when the kids were little. The two older kids rode together in one seat and she and Frank had tucked little Annie in between them. Annie had insisted on wearing her favorite red dress, and her skirt billowed in the gust created by the wheel. But now, as the Ferris wheel gently lifted Monica up into the air, warm tears dripped down her cheeks.
“Oh, Frank, you devil!” Monica yelled. Then, she laughed out loud, silencing her tears. There were no people around to hear. As the car thrust upward, she gazed first across, “Oh, Frank,” she said, quietly this time. She began to cry again. The Ferris wheel continued its path upward, and she again grabbed the bar in front of her tightly, her chest thumping as if she was riding for the first time. The clouds billowed fluffy and white above her in the softening daylight. “I know,” she heard. Monica was certain of the voice. The car crested at the top of the wheel, and her stomach tickled as it dropped her softly back down toward the ground. Her tears dried during the next wheel revolution, new sensations of tranquility seeping into her heart. Finally, the chair clunked to a stop, and the young man unfastened the bar. Distracted, she nodded in thanks and walked toward the parking lot.”

Humanity’s Grace, Lost Opportunities

And in to gratefulness. Though I could dwell on regrets of the years of damage caused by Dad’s drinking, I instead jump to the gratefulness of the recovery that Dad not only found, but embraced and lived in fully l until his death ~35 years later.

“OF ALL GOOD things Dad did in his life, becoming alcohol free was the one of the biggest gifts he gave to himself, and everyone to whom he spoke or wrote, everyone he mentored and loved. He
wasn’t private about his losses. If he could help one more person in recovery, he would. And that he did through calls, visits, and letters to others new to the journey. He told his story so many times at AA meetings, that late in life upon being reminded how many times others had heard his story, he realized he no longer needed this weekly community sharing. It is only now, after Dad’s passing, that I seem to be able to fully realize the depth of his struggle: its toll on his relationships, and the acceptance and profound gratefulness he found through his recovery. Dad’s belief in the Big Book and its Twelve Steps permeated his existence. Not until after his passing did I learn of Dad’s favorite passage: “The greatest sin in the world is standing in the way of another’s growth. The second is standing in the way of your own growth.””

My Music Man, Chapter 18: My Titan

For this I am eternally grateful. Grateful that Dad’s last years were not like Billy’s. And now, though I really prefer blackberry, I am leaving the heart of Flathead Valley cherry orchards and might just have to conclude this thought with a piece of cherry pie, instead of the usual St. Regis huckleberry shake. On second thought, nope.

Dick Montgomery, 1930-2014

2 thoughts on “Can she make a cherry pie Billy Boy and other brain chatter

  1. Lump in my throat.. again.
    You weren’t blocked, maybe, so much as you were refueling. Now with a fuller tank you’re cruising again and. Thankfully taking us with you, Dede. ❤️


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