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Children of Parents with Unusual Careers
Book Review: 'The Undertaker’s Daughter'
You are a chip off the old block.
You’re just like your father. Just like your mother. Cut from the same cloth and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – which was okay when you were a kid. Back then, you wanted to grow up just like them anyhow.
Or not. When you’re the child of a parent with an unusual career – for instance, if you’re “The Undertaker’s Daughter” – you might, as did Kate Mayfield, pick another path.
Kate Mayfield spent most of her young life surrounded by death.
Just after she was born in the late 1950s, her parents moved the family to tiny Jubilee, Kentucky , where Mayfield’s father had decided to open a funeral home. There were two funeral homes there – one for Jubilee’s black residents and one for whites – but he reasoned that there was room for competition.
He didn’t reckon on the town’s Old Guard, which closed ranks among themselves and almost stopped the newcomer in his tracks.
Slowly, though, and with the help of one of the town’s most eccentric and forward-thinking residents, Mayfield’s father was accepted in the small town and his business thrived. He hired a few locals for help when times were busy and, as was the norm then, he also ran one of the town’s ambulances. The family lived in an apartment above the coffins and embalming room, Mayfield’s mother worked her way into the town’s social life, the Mayfield children settled into Jubilee’s schools, and the dead came and went at Mayfield and Son Funeral Home.
But Jubilee was no Mayberry.
Racism was a way of life there and, though Mayfield says that the family maid was sometimes her only friend, there was an otherwise strict separation of black and white. As time passed, life in the small-town became a cauldron of gossip and sniping; Mayfield was reprimanded by teachers and taunted by schoolmates for liking a black boy; and The Old Guard continued to plague her father, whose secrets began to affect everyone around him. Mayfield, a teenager by then, knew her family would never leave Jubilee…. but she couldn’t wait to go.
Have you ever gotten a gift that was different – and better – than you expected? That’s what happens when you open “The Undertaker’s Daughter.”
You might think, for example, that the title indicates a tale of living with a funeral director, but you’d only be partially correct. Author Kate Mayfield includes plenty of funny, heartfelt, sad memories of life above death, though she starts her book with a game of bridge and a love letter to small town life, a lifetime ago.
And yet – we see the dark spots, and the love letter soon becomes a Dear John letter. For that, I buried myself in this book.
While you may (rightly) see comparisons to a couple of popular works of fiction, remember that this book is a memoir - and a good one at that. Look for “The Undertaker’s Daughter” and you’ll be glad to block off your time for it.
A Good Fairy Tale Begins
Book Review: 'While Beauty Slept' by Elizabeth Blackwell
Once upon a time…
Everybody knows that’s how a good fairy tale begins. Once upon a time – and then the evil witch arrives, chaos ensues, horses and carriages, something-something, the prince whisks in and saves the princess, The End.
Everyone knows that’s how it goes. But it doesn’t – and in the book “While Beauty Slept” by Elizabeth Blackwell, the truth is finally told.
Elise Dalriss was quite dismayed.
Her beloved great-granddaughter, Raimy, was surely entertaining, acting out all the parts of a fairy tale for her young siblings, and the children were simply enthralled. Someday, Raimy would be a great actress but Elise was troubled.
The girl had the story all wrong.
Once upon a time, as Elise knew was true, a handsome king and his beautiful queen lived inside a grand fortress surrounded by the village of St. Elsip . The castle was large in young Elise’s imagination then but, as the daughter of peasants, she seldom ventured into the village and had never been inside castle walls - though she knew her mother had, long ago.
What was it like in the castle? Elise pestered her mother for an answer, never believing she’d see it herself. She knew a secret about her own birth, but she also knew that peasant girls didn’t mix with royalty. Still, when her mother died of the pox, Elise heeded her last words and went in search of work in the castle.
To her surprise, she was hired immediately.
For many months, she worked diligently, absorbing all she could about life devoted to the Royal Family. She also learned that Queen Lenore cried almost every morning, and that gossip spread quickly behind castle walls, so she kept mum - a discretion that garnered the trust of the Queen, who requested Elise as a personal attendant. As the years passed, Elise proved herself essential to the Queen’s court.
She had so many memories of her time behind castle walls: special friendships, the birth of Princess Rose, falling in love. Her loyalty had kept her at the Queen’s side. Her wits kept little Rose safe. But when war broke out in a faraway land and evil strode across the drawbridge, could she protect the kingdom?
Happily ever after? Once upon a time, that was possible but the story’s a little different in “While Beauty Slept.”
Author Elizabeth Blackwell takes a classic fairy tale, gives it new characters with rich lives inside a bustling castle, and then she delivers a fierce twist with lightly-modern touches. That may sound like too much of a departure from the story we’ve all grown up with but Blackwell surely makes it work, managing to keep it all within the very basic confines of the Grimm Brothers’ original.
That kept my pages turning, and I think it’ll satisfy you ever-after, too. So grab “While Beauty Slept” but don’t wait – if you’ve wanted to be a princess, if you love a good jousting tale, or crave a very well-done Medieval-ish novel, then your Once Upon a Time is now.
An Interest Six Feet Under
Book Review: 'Working Stiff'
Everybody’s good at something.
You may have an aptitude for numbers. You might be a master at chess, multitasking, organizing, or people skills. Your real talents could be hidden, or maybe the whole world knows how good you are.
Author Judy Melinek, M.D. loved doing surgery, but it had its drawbacks. And besides, as you’ll see in “Working Stiff” (with T.J. Mitchell), her real interest lay just this side of six feet under…
From the time she was very small, Judy Melinek’s father shared with her a fascination with the human body. He was a doctor; Melinek dreamed of becoming a doctor, too, and making him proud but she “never got the chance.” He committed suicide when she was just thirteen.
Still, she forged ahead and, upon graduation from UCLA medical school, she decided to become a surgeon. That specialty turned out to be a bad fit for Melinek, so she resigned from her residency position and turned instead to a medical branch that also intrigued her: forensic pathology.
Forensic pathologists, she says, investigate “sudden, unexpected, or violent deaths by visiting the scene, reviewing medical records, and performing an autopsy” while gathering evidence for possible legal reasons. You learn a lot about the human body when you’re a forensic pathologist and if “you knew how much hardware some of your fellow citizens are toting around in their knickers, you might see the world as a stranger… place.”
Forensic pathology only barely resembles what you see on TV. “Everyone thinks ‘murder’ when you say you work as a medical examiner,” she says, “but homicides are rare.” Still, in her career, she discovered evidence of them.
She also investigated overdoses and mis-doses, though “alcohol is the deadliest drug.” She helped police solve a crime in which a driver swore he didn’t hit-and-run. She gave comfort to the loved ones of the deceased she autopsied, and she learned why you want to brew coffee when investigating a long-dead body.
And on September 11, 2001, she got a call to help investigate “the largest mass murder in United States history.”
Visit your local library or bookstore and you’ll find a very long, long shelf of books by medical examiners. “Working Stiff” is one of the better ones.
Part of the reason for that, I think, is what you won’t see in this book: author Judy Melinek, M.D. doesn’t write about celebrities’ deaths. Her work was performed on regular people who likely would’ve lived long, anonymous lives but who died under circumstances that needed investigation.
The other appeal here is what you will see: interesting stories of crime, death, the human body, and the ways they might intersect. Melinek (with T.J. Mitchell) is perfectly willing to share stories of that intersection, which is exactly why I loved this book.
Be aware that this is probably not something you’ll want to read at lunch. It can be gruesome and detailed but oh-so-fascinating, so if you’re strong-stomached and up for a slice-of-life book on slicing at death, then “Working Stiff” is a good one.
One syllable, easy to pronounce, with a satisfying purse of the lips in the beginning and a drawn out middle
It’s such a basic word. One syllable, easy to pronounce, with a satisfying purse of the lips in the beginning and a drawn out middle that makes you smile if you stretch it out. As your mother might’ve once said, it is, indeed, a “Magic Word.”
So why is it so difficult for your child to say?
There could be a scientific answer to that aggravation. In the book “Parentology” by Dalton Conley, you’ll see how manners and more are now coming from the lab.
From the moment a dad- or mom-to-be announces they’re expecting, they usually receive overwhelming amounts of parenting advice. That’s because, says Conley, we lack a “common culture,” and we’re “constantly improvising” on child-raising.
To counteract that childrearing willy-nilliness, Conley says that he raised his kids with “parentology,” a method which “involves first and foremost reading and deciphering the scientific literature… and applying them to your kids.”
When he and his then-wife were expecting their firstborn, for instance, he says they carefully researched how birth weight affects a fetus – not just immediately, but in decades to come: their daughter E was born prematurely, which could have affected her likelihood of graduating high school. Maternal experiences also matter; pregnant mothers living near the epicenter of Chilean earthquakes birthed children who “suffered in their reading and math scores later on.”
A kid born in the fall does “best,” says Conley, and what you name that kid really does matter. Siblings (and space between them) might make a difference in a child’s future socioeconomic success, perhaps because they affect parental involvement. And talking to your kids as babies – even if it’s just narrating your day or reading aloud – can be a major key in development.
Know the statistics about schools and homework, and don’t worry about the former too much. Let your kids have “a healthy dose of germs” and be open to having pets; both might help boost immune systems. Insist that manners extend to people in all walks of life, and teach the difference between “front stage and backstage.” And don’t sweat it if you make a mistake: parental actions mean a lot, but so does your child’s DNA.
If you’re a parent, you may take away a lot of information in “Parentology.” Or, on the flip-side, you might also rear up in horror.
As for me, I liked this book. Author and social scientist Dalton Conley meshes parenting with science quite nicely but it’s important to note that, in the beginning, he says one of the hallmarks of Parentology is “drawing your own conclusions…” That might not include allowing your child to aim profanity at you (as Conley does) or co-sleeping well into childhood (ditto) but, as he indicates, it worked for his family. Go back and read that again: “drawing your own conclusions…”
In other words, like with most parenting books, use what you can here and throw out the rest. You might be happy with your own parenting style, but what you’ll find in “Parentology” may also make you pleased.
If you’re a parent, you know by now that a sense of humor is imperative – which is why you may also want to look at “How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane” by Johanna Stein. No, it won’t teach you how to put a baby down for a nap or how to lose those last 10 pounds of baby weight… but it will teach you how to laugh about both.
More Than a Home
Creating the place called home
Remodeling never ends.
That’s a fact when you’re a homeowner. There’s always something to do, something to upgrade, some way to make a house your own. New flooring, paint, move the fixtures, add another room, and, well, you know where this is going.
But where did it begin? Who created the place you call home? Author Henry Petroski decided to find out, and in “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors,” he embarks on a hunt inside his summer residence…
Henry Petroski and his wife, Catherine, had spent many a happy summer in Maine , far from their house in North Carolina . So when they decided to buy a vacation home-away-from-home, New England was where they started looking.
Petroski said they agreed that they “would happily look at any nice small… house on a nice quiet street in a nice quiet town available for a nice affordable price.”
And that nicely described the property just off Spinney Mill Road near Arrowsic.
Sitting next to the Kennebec River , the compound included a garage and a guest house. The main house had two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a large living room and a huge fireplace. The view from its windows was incredible – but it had its quirks.
Ever a curious man, Petroski “became determined to uncover… elements of the original” house and to “glimpse the intent of its maker…” Who, for instance, created handmade doors that graced the house? Why were so many boards fastened with four nails, when two would do?
He couldn’t ask the home’s builder. Bob Phinney had been dead for years.
Still, the clues were there: Petroski found cleverly engineered windows, craftily hidden nails, and walls that defied drafts. He marveled at the massive stone fireplace, and the work it took to make it. He wondered why the home’s roof was flat, in an area where heavy snow was common. He became delighted by the personality that Phinney left behind in the home.
Says Petroski, “A Mainer might say he made a wicked good house…”
Let me start by saying that I liked “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors.” But…
But there’s a lot of detail inside author Henry Petroski’s house and inside this book and that could be confusing for anybody who’s not a carpenter by trade or hobby. Petroski’s sleuthing is a pleasure and his glee becomes ours, too, but his use of terms without explanation seemed to assume a lot; namely, that we’d always know what he’s talking about. Yes, that’s informative – but maybe too much so.
What kept me around here was watching Petroski make friends with the long-dead Phinney and his methods. Yes, Phinney used building-overkill, but I enjoyed Petroski’s joy in finding examples of it and the respect that those findings led to.
Decorators and breezy homeowners may like this book, but I really think builders, remodelers, and fixer-upper-owners will get so much more out of it. If a house, for you, is more than just a home, then find “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors” and make it your own.
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