When One Mother Inspires Another

Many sleuths have a sidekick. When I chose one for Isabel Long, the protagonist in my mystery series, I went for someone unusual — her 93-year-old mother, Maria Ferreira. Yeah, she’s Isabel’s “Watson.” And though nearly all of the characters I create are purely fictional, when I write about Maria, I’m inspired by my own mother.

Well, it being Mother’s Day, why not give some shine on this important character in my Isabel Long Mystery Series — and a real person in my life.

Interestingly, I have heard numerous readers say they don’t want me to ever lose Isabel’s mother. I am not planning on it, I say to their relief. I can see why they like Maria. She is smart and spunky at age 93.

So is the person who inspired her — my own mother, Algerina Medeiros, who left us last September at age 99. I can think of many adjectives to describe Mom although being curious, involved, and creative come quickly to mind. She had a long and enjoyable marriage with my father, who she met on a blind date. Being a big reader and a fan of my books, my mother gave her approval when I started the series.

Using her as an inspiration for Isabel’s mother came easy.

And now that my own mother is no longer with us, I feel I keep her going if only through my imagination and the words I write.

In my mystery series, both Isabel and her mother are widows. Maria came to live with her in the fictional hilltown of Conwell in Western Massachusetts after both were tired of living alone. Also, Isabel has the most space of her siblings. (My own mother preferred living by herself.)

It’s been a bit of an adjustment for Maria living with her daughter and moving to the sticks, as she calls it, from the state’s seacoast. But the town has a library that supplies her with those mysteries and smutty romances she likes. And she’s found a whole different culture in country living. She’s also a big fan of Isabel’s guy, Jack, who owns the town’s only bar.

Maria likes to stay up late reading, doing puzzles in the newspaper, and watching TV. Being Portuguese, she makes family favorites like kale soup. So did my mother.

She’s also got a lead foot when she’s driving, or as Isabel says, it’s like her mother is driving the getaway car in a bank robbery. Actually, I stole that line from my husband, Hank, when he commented about my mother’s driving after she gave us a ride. Once when I was with her, I told her she was driving a little too fast. She laughed and said it was the car. Of course, I used that in a book. I believe she drove until she was 95 or so.

Isabel often takes her mother when she interviews potential clients and even persons of interest, if there’s no danger involved. She counts on Ma’s observations. I bet my own mother would have been great at that.

And Ma encourages Isabel to continue being a private investigator. Actually, she is just as excited as Isabel about finding new cases to solve. She says it is boring without one. I could hear my mother saying that.

Here is an excerpt from Missing the Deadline, no. 7, in which Isabel and her mother are at the home of Cyrus Nilsson, a noted poet who wants her to investigate the shooting of his first literary agent. They meet outside the home of the Big Shot Poet, Isabel’s secret nickname for him, and then shoo him inside so they can weigh the merits of the case. It’s a typical conversation between the two.

“What do you think, Ma? Should we take this case?”

“This would be more different than your others. This Gerald is alive, but we don’t know how bad off he is. He might not be very helpful at all. Or maybe he would be.” She pauses. “I would just insist on the usual list of people to interview. At the top should be this sister, Wendy. Without her, we won’t have much to go on.”

“I agree. And that guy Cole. Plus anyone Gerald might have crossed.” I think about my conversation with Cyrus and what I read online. “I wonder how long that list would be.”

“You’re the one who does the heavy lifting on these cases. What’s your gut feeling?”

“My gut feeling? How different is this to my other cases? I didn’t have a lot to go on at first, but I worked it out. The last one was nearly fifty years old. This one is a lot more recent, only three.”

“Plus, there are no guarantees you will find the culprit. You should remind Cyrus that. This man could have indeed tried to off himself.”

I smile hearing my mystery-loving mother use the words “culprit” and “off.” Yes, there are no guarantees I will be successful although I’d like to keep my winning streak going.

“Okay, let’s do it.”

My mother laughs. “Oh, boy, a new case. This will be good practice for the big one.”

“Yes, it would be nice to finally give Patsy some justice,” I say.

For those of you wondering, Patsy was my cousin who was kidnapped in my hometown when I was a kid. Her body was found buried years later when a wooded area was being cleared for a subdivision. Her killer was never found. It is a tragedy that still haunts our family. Do I have the P.I. smarts to solve it? I’m working on it.

I glance toward the house, where Cyrus hovers behind that window.

“Shall we keep him waiting longer?” I joke.

“Isabel,” my mother says in a voice I remember from my childhood that I may be pushing it.

“Oh, alright.”

Yes, that’s a photo of my mother above. And here’s the link to Missing the Deadline in case you are interested.


Please and Thank You

This post is inspired by friend Amy who one complained on social media that the habit of sending a formal thank-you note is growing extinct. Here was her take on the likelihood of getting one: from the Greatest Generation, absolutely; Boomers, probably; Gen X, might hit it lucky; Gen Y and beyond, don’t hold your breath.

Never mind getting a note. I’d like to hear the words “thank you” more often. While we are at it, “please,” too.

I recall my parents, who are from the Greatest Generation, insisting we say please and thank you. We grew up in a household so modest, it was not a given we would ever get anything extra. When we did, we made sure to thank our parents or whoever was being generous.

Frankly, I like the reaction when I tell a stranger, say a store clerk or someone who holds the door, thank you. I always give a thankful wave when a driver lets me in line or cross a busy road on foot. (Thank you to the people who lived long before us who planted that lovely azalea bush you see above in our side yard.)

Please? It’s a word that sweetens any request.

We made a strong effort to teach our children to have good manners. Once when the two youngest were older teenagers, we stopped for ice cream. They said “thank you” after I handed them their cones. The woman behind the counter, from the Greatest Generation, praised my kids for their good manners. She said she never hears “thank you” very often.

My former newspaper once sent me to a management workshop. The most valuable lesson I learned was that of all things employees want is to feel appreciated. I tried to remember that with my staff at the newsrooms where I worked by saying thank you for the hard work they do. I meant it, too.

So in keeping with this practice, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you for reading whatever I write — my books and posts. And thank you, Amy, for the inspiration.

Hilltown Postcards

Hilltown Postcard: A Potato Farm Goes Barren

For decades, the town of Worthington could set its calendar by what was happening at Albert Farms. In the spring, when the ground was warm and dry enough, seed potatoes were planted in its fields. The plants sprouted, grew, and blossomed. In summer the farmworkers cultivated the fields and later in the season, sprayed a chemical to kill the vines that left a stink in the air.

Then, in September, harvesters, large and ship-like, crisscrossed the fields for weeks. Women keeping mother’s hours, teenagers after school, and those working full-time hours did the dirty job separating rocks and potatoes aboard the shaking machines. I learned that firsthand because when I was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, I went on one for a feature story.

Migrant workers brought up from the South used to do the work. Until the harvest got mechanized, they dug potatoes by hand. The workers lived in a camp with Quonset huts on Prentice Road, near the farm’s highest field called the Old Smith Farm.

According to news sources, one man died of pneumonia and dysentery from the unsanitary conditions, and the state closed the camp after a fire destroyed the quarters where the women and children lived, so the workers were located elsewhere. Health officials said the farm would have to put in flush toilets and make other improvements. Instead, the farm began hiring local people.

When we moved to town, Ben Albert, the second generation, ran the farm although several family members worked with him. His father Alberie Albert founded it in the twenties.

After the state, Ben was the town’s biggest landowner. He also owned acreage elsewhere in the hilltowns. That status carries a certain weight in a small town. I once heard an old-timer say at a hearing she trusted Ben to do what’s best for his land. We newcomers who had seen the places we once lived damaged by that sort of thinking were skeptical. Anyway that kind of influence was waning in the eighties. So was Ben Albert’s business.

A couple of years after we moved to town, Ben’s massive warehouse burned in an early morning blaze, so out of control by time the volunteer firefighters arrived, the flames could be seen in the next town. Faulty wiring was likely to blame, the state fire marshal said.

The damages amounted to about a half-million, including the loss of seed potatoes for that spring’s planting and farm equipment. Worse, the water used by firefighters to douse the flaming mess unknowingly released nearly a ton of pesticide, Temik, from its barrels. The chemical flowed downhill, contaminating the wells of several homes, but the state bailed out Ben and the town by paying to extend a town water line.

Ben tried making money off his land in another way. He wanted to put in a subdivision of luxury homes clustered in one of the farm’s prettiest fields, across the road from the warehouse, which he never rebuilt. People in town joked Ben should call it Temik Acres. But the town told him no.

He also tried, twice, to build homes near the old airstrip, the one he used to launch planes for crop-dusting. Each house would have a hangar and the road would double as a runway. The people living nearby weren’t crazy about small planes flying in and out of their neighborhood. The town said no, twice, to that idea, too.

One morning in 1990, around 6 a.m., I got a call from Ben. He didn’t identify himself, but I recognized his voice. He wanted me to know about his case in federal court against Frito-Lay. I was a reporter then, covering a bunch of small towns for the Gazette, working out of my home, which I called the Hilltown bureau.

Ben was always the source I couldn’t get on the phone. “Sorry, don’t know when he’ll be back,” the woman who answered the office phone would say although I suspected he was sitting in the same room. Once, to get his comment for a story, about Temik Acres, incidentally, I drove around town in the rain until I spotted him in a field, and he was surprised when I walked, notebook in hand, toward him.

But Ben wanted to talk now. He had done business for 20 years with Frito-Lay, but he said the chip giant reneged on a shipment of seed potatoes, 17,700-hundredweight bags, for the 1985 growing season and a contract to buy part of his harvest. By that time, it was too late for him to find other seed to plant. It was a blow to the farm, and Ben had to sell pieces of his land to pay his creditors.

I went to the federal courthouse in Springfield a couple of times for his case. Frito-Lay’s take was that it didn’t have to give Ben the seed or buy his potatoes. Its lawyers said the farm had already been losing money. Ben sued for $1.1 million, and after a month of tedious testimony about potato farming, he was awarded $248,000.

Also that year, the state bought the development rights to the Jones Lot, the largest of the farm’s fields, 286 acres in the Four Corners section. It meant the parcel would be preserved as farmland. He got a half-million from the state, but that wasn’t enough money to fix his problems.

Six years later, Ben filed for bankruptcy after racking up over four million in debt, about half of that owed to the federal government. Albert Farms owed the town more back taxes than anyone.

Ben Albert told me he would never plant potatoes again. “Let it all go to weeds,” he said, but he did try growing soybeans and sunflowers.

The following year, he lost the field on Prentice Road, the Old Smith Farm, to a fertilizer company he owed a half-million. That company sold it to a cattle farmer.

The roof on the potato storage barn caved in and the Environmental Protection Agency oversaw a cleanup of pesticides and asbestos found at the farm. A third generation would not be taking over. Ben died in 2011. His wife, Frances, passed before him.

The last year we lived in Worthington, that is 2006, someone grew squash at the Jones Lot and in September a team of migrant workers picked most of the crop by hand. Now, I hear other farmers are trying to make a living off the land once owned by Albert Farms.


My Grandmother Learns to Read

As a girl in the Portuguese island of Madeira, my grandmother Angela Ferreira was a companion to the child of a wealthy family. Her older sister was a servant in the household. My grandmother or Avó was the youngest of a large, poor family. I am guessing her parents didn’t mind having one less child to feed at home.

My grandmother’s job was to play with the little girl and carry her books to and from school. While the girl was in class, she sat in the back of the room until it was time to return home.

One day, the teacher caught my grandmother trying to read with the rest of the class. But instead of getting her into trouble, the teacher approached the wealthy parents, who consented to let her attend the school. That was how my grandmother learned to read when so few did then.

When she was 16, Avó left with the same sister, Maria, to live in the U.S., and never saw her family in Madeira again. I heard the story of the large storm their ship encountered in the Atlantic, how people were swept overboard and everyone prayed to get through it. My grandmother and her sister stayed mostly below. The photo on this post shows my grandmother Angela, on the right, and Maria shortly after they arrived in the U.S.

My grandmother settled in New Bedford, Mass., where she worked as a weaver in a textile mill when that industry was booming there. She married a man, Manuel, from her village in Madeira and raised three daughters, and later a grandson.

She and my grandfather moved to a small town where they lived off the land while they continued to work in the mills. They took classes to learn English. It was not a happy marriage, however, due to my grandfather’s problems. I am surmising it was a struggle for him to adjust to life in a new country. There’s more to that story, but this one is about my grandmother.

We called her Vovó out of affection. She was an interesting grandmother, with a goat barn, grape arbor, a field for ballgames, and interesting nooks in her home. We saw her almost every weekend. She baked us chocolate chip cookies, always enough to take home when we were done visiting. However, I can’t say my sisters and I enjoyed her main dishes, which always had an odd flavor. We used to say it had “grandma’s secret spice.”

Avó had a poodle named Sonny Bono, a series of shelter mutts called Lassie, and a bird named Bobby Vinton. She loved TV wrestling, Elvis, and because she could read, the National Enquirer. She saved the copies for me since she knew I loved reading about celebrities.

It’s been many years since Avó left us, but I am still inspired by her quest to read.

Life lessons

Hello Old Friend

Years ago, Jeff found me on I only registered on the website, but he paid money to contact the people he knew. I hadn’t seen Jeff since we were 14 and freshmen in high school.

I was happily married with a large family. He was married with kids of his own. This wasn’t that kind of a thing anyway.

We emailed back and forth, catching up what we had done with our lives via long messages. He had done well with his. And then, he hit me with this revelation, “I have cancer.” Jeff wrote he had cancer before and now it was back. The prognosis was not good. Jeff told me his parents and brother all died from it. He said it was his family’s curse.

When Jeff was a boy, he had polio. He wore metal braces on his legs, and at times, used a wheeled chair he propelled by hand.

I first met him in fifth grade when I and other kids attended advanced classes in one of the town’s schools for science and writing on Wednesday afternoons. Then, I got to know him better in seventh grade when we were in the same classes at the town’s junior high.

When it came to Jeff, I didn’t hold back, joking with him about silly stuff. I remember once when he was teasing me, I hit him over the head with my books. Not hard, of course. But he laughed his head off. He liked that I didn’t treat him with kid gloves.

Once, I even got him to dance semi-fast with me at a school event.

Yes, I had a crush on Jeff. I knew he liked me. But coming from an overly protective family, I was timid to act on it. One time, when a group of us had gathered at a pizza place, I didn’t realize he had begun following me as I walked home. After all, we both lived on opposite ends of the town. But he fell. I honestly had no idea that happened. He and my classmates misunderstood. I felt so badly.

Jeff ended up going to a private boarding school his sophomore year. We lost track of each other until decades later.

After Jeff found me on that website, we emailed back and forth for a couple of years. He spent time in South America. He kept bees. He was interested that I was a newspaper editor, and that I wrote fiction, so I mailed him the manuscript of the first novel my then-agent was trying to sell. For Christmas, he sent me a package of grapefruit from Florida, where he and his wife had moved. I still have the special knife that came with it.

Then, he wrote his health was declining.

We spoke on the phone only once. By then, Jeff was bedridden. Although it was February, I stepped outside the newsroom so I wouldn’t be interrupted. For that hour, we shared our old and familiar connections. I tried to offer him words of comfort and to make him laugh. He told me he kept my manuscript beside his bed.

I didn’t talk with Jeff again. When I searched the internet, I found his obit. He had died a few days after we had spoken. He was only 53.

Good-bye old friend.