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.

Hilltown Postcards

All the News Fit to Print

It was by chance I became a journalist — a career that lasted 35 years. I saw an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette for a correspondent to cover Worthington, the hilltown in Western Massachusetts where I lived. I had never taken a journalism course or worked for a newspaper except for writing a goofy column in my college’s newspaper. But I was a big newspaper reader, so I believed I understood what constitutes a solid news story. And somehow I convinced Mike Evans, the editor overseeing the hilltowns, to hire me.

In those days, the Gazette had freelancers covering the small towns in its coverage area. Often they lived in the town they covered and like me, had no reporting experience. I recall Mike telling me to choose someone in my town and report what that person would want to know. I chose a smart, older woman who lived on Witt Hill Road. It worked.

It was definitely on me to get the story rightAfter all, most likely I would run into the people I quoted at the town’s only store the next day. But I was up for it. 

I figure those early years reporting were the equivalent of a BA in journalism.

That was 1985. We were living in a dumpy house we rented in the Ringville section of town. If we wanted to get ahead and hopefully, have our own home, I needed to bring in an income. Getting paid by the inch wasn’t going to make a whole lot of money, but it would be a start. Oh, I also got the paper delivered free to my home.

I remember the first meeting I covered. The Board of Selectmen, as it was called in those days, met in the town’s elementary school because the student population had dwindled and the town had yet to build an addition onto Town Hall for offices. The board, which consisted of Julia Sharron, Bert Nugent, and Steve Kulik, who later would become a long-serving State Representative, was very welcoming.

When I first started, I had to write my story that night on the typewriter I used in college and the next morning after the kids got on the school bus, I drove it to the newsroom in Northampton, where one of the staff would type my story into the system. Usually, I had the youngest of our then-five kids with me. Zack would bring a box of Matchbox cars and play while I tended to business. I was fascinated by the newsroom’s hustle and bustle during these visits.

Many months later, the paper gave me a Radio Shack laptop that showed seven lines of copy on its screen. That’s all the computer could do, plus send the story electronically over my phone line to the newsroom. I used the laptop many years until I got my own computer.

So what kinds of news did I find? Local government meetings of course. My favorite was the venerable Annual Town Meeting although a Worthington Board of Health meeting about pigs was a close second. Definitely, the most contentious were dog and junkyard hearings. I wrote features about people and the things they did. I had a column. Occasionally, there was breaking news, typically a house fire or accident. Big weather events, winter storms especially, were on my beat.

Eventually, I took on two more towns: Chesterfield and Cummington. I also got big stories to cover like the closing of a nuclear power plant in Rowe, tax-war resisters in Colrain, and a tornado that touched down in Great Barrington. I even went to the White House to interview Tony Lake, who was national security adviser during Bill Clinton’s first term and a Worthington resident.

Eventually, I was hired full-time as the hilltown reporter, then a line and copy editor during my first 21 years at the GazetteI went on to be editor-in-chief of The Taos News in New Mexico and then came full circle back to Massachusetts to hold that position at the Gazette and its sibling papers, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News. Not bad for a person who never took a journalism course.

As part of these Hilltown Postcards, I will share some of the experiences I had as the Worthington correspondent. I am grateful for that opportunity as it immersed me in the hilltowns more than if I just lived there. I had to listen carefully to what people said and watch what they did. That inspired me to write novels with that setting. Ah, yes, to be continued….


Know When to Fold ‘Em

Undoubtedly you’ve heard the Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler, in which the singer encounters a seasoned card player who gives him advice while on “a train bound for nowhere.” On the surface, the gambler talks about playing cards but the words could apply to other experiences. Certainly that was true this week for a book I was writing. 

For the past few months, I’ve been writing a sequel to my book The Sacred Dog. No spoilers but I wanted to write how the people living in a small town couldn’t bring themselves to forgive a man who committed a horrible crime. I call it The Unforgiving Town.

The Sacred Dog was released last Dec. 27. Ah, but I wrote that novel over twenty years ago, the first one I completed, and despite my efforts and those of a former agent to get it published, that didn’t happen until my publisher, darkstroke books, agreed to take it on. The Sacred Dog is not part of my mystery series, but it has the same setting — the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. This book is about a feud between two men destined for an ugly reckoning. (The Sacred Dog is the name of the bar one of them owns.)

So I decided to dive into what might happen to one of the characters after he did time in prison. The story flowed pretty easily for weeks. And then at 25,000 words or so, I realized I had reached an impasse. Huh? This wasn’t a writer’s block. I had one of those that lasted 25 years earlier in my life, so I know what that’s about. Instead, here was my realization: My head simply wasn’t in the same place as it was when I wrote The Sacred Dog. It is a well-written book, but I have gone onto other books, other stories, other styles. I wasn’t the same writer.

These words by Kenny Rogers made absolute sense: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/  Know when to fold ’em/ Know when to walk away.”

Yes, indeed.

So earlier this week, I walked away from The Unforgiving Town

I saved the document for on my computer, and moments later, I started a new book — the eighth in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. This one is tentatively called Finding the Source. The victim this time? The town busybody. Certainly every small town has at least one. 

I am a few thousand into Finding the Source, and so far, so good. 

MORE BOOK NEWS: Missing the Deadline, no. 7, has a Dec. 21 release on Kindle. In that one, Isabel Long is called upon to investigate the case of a literary agent who was shot and left to die outside his country home. 

Hilltown Postcards

Two Stories: Lester and Mary

In this postcard, I jump ahead a few years to write about two very interesting people I met in Worthington when we lived there. One story leads to another.

My Worthington neighbor, Maura, and I once had a very good idea. We wanted to start a radio station just for the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. We had it all planned except for the money. Maura, who worked in television news, said we needed about a million dollars. Too bad. Of course, this was before podcasts.

What would we broadcast? We’d ask the road bosses to call in reports on road conditions during winter storms. They’d tell us when the sand trucks were heading down Mason or West Chesterfield hills, and whether they were keeping up with the ice on the roads. They could warn which roads were impassable during mud season and save people a lot of trouble.

The maple sugarers could talk about how strong the sap is running. The man in town who kept track of the weather could keep us in the know.

We’d cover school events, ball games, and town meetings, where everything in the hilltowns is settled. We would record local concerts and “man on the road” interviews about local politics and other hot issues.

We’d inform anyone who listened about which residents had died and which ones were just born. We’d brag about the kids who were graduating from high school.

If there were a Fourth of July Parade, a truck pull, or a pig roast at the Rod and Gun Club, we’d be there as well.

And every day we’d have a program called “Fifteen Minutes with Lester.”

When my family moved to Worthington, Lester Champion had lived there for over 40 years. He had a kind, round face, and an old-fashioned way of putting things. He and his wife, Mary, lived in a humble home of stone on the edge of a potato field at Old Post Road.

I did a story about his truck farm when I was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He told me the earth was so hard he could bend a crowbar beating on it.

And Lester, who was in his 70s, could talk, talk, and talk about most everything — gardening, weather, nature, Cape Cod where he grew up, or being a glider pilot in World War II — in his slow, deliberate way. If I ran into him, usually outside the town’s general store, I counted on losing at least 15 minutes that day but he always had something worth listening to. Others were not so patient and went out of their way to avoid him.

So here was our idea. Maura and I would give Lester free choice on any topic. He’d get 15 minutes to say it. Only 15 minutes. And, we’d all get to listen on the radio.

Lester Champion was the one who told me about Mary Kartashevich and her pet porcupine. Call her, he told me over the phone. You’ll get a good story.

I was a reporter then covering three small towns and more. I had a biweekly column in which I wrote about people and things unique to the hill towns of western Massachusetts. Mary’s porcupine sounded like a good fit.

I drove to the outer fringes of Worthington where Mary lived alone in a farmhouse built when the center of this town was much farther west.

Mary was friendly and happy to see me. And, there was the small porcupine hanging out with some of her cats. Before I got close, it waddled off to hide between some rusted farm equipment and boards near a shed.

Mary begged the animal to stay, but gave up. “He senses there is someone strange,” she says.

She told me it showed up mid-winter, an orphan she believed of the porcupines that took over a nearby orchard. Mary cut up apples to feed the baby, and eventually it would take a piece from her hand. When spring came, the porcupine turned to grass shoots and buds on maple trees.

The animal stuck around and even napped in the sun with her black and white cats. Skunk cats, she told me they’re called. She had a dozen.

Mary said the porcupine followed her around the yard and would go inside her house if she let it. She said it came when she called, “where’s my little baby porcy?”

But like so many stories, you go to the scene expecting one and come back with more.

We walked around the farm, and I marveled when Mary, who was 71, leaped over a stone wall like a young girl. She told me she moved here from Connecticut nearly five decades ago with her father and two brothers. They bought the farm for $4,400.

Her father always wanted a farm but he wasn’t successful with it, He tried cows for milk and then chickens for meat and eggs, but neither panned out. So the family found work off the farm.

Mary said after they got through another winter, the family would vow to sell the farm, but then summer came and they forgot about it.

She and her brothers never married. She was the last one left in her family.

I saw Mary a couple of weeks later in the general store. She was pleased I said hello. Many people don’t, she told me. And, she said, one day the porcupine went away and didn’t come back.

Last I heard Mary sold the house and acreage to a neighbor. I hope she got a good price and went some place where life was a little easier.

Remembering Mom

Eulogy for My Mother

My mother, Algerina Medeiros, left this world Aug. 26 at age 99. For two days, family and people who knew her gathered in her hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts to celebrate her life. Here is the eulogy I wrote and gave at her funeral Mass. It will tell you some about this inspiring woman.

We’re here today to celebrate the life of Algerina Medeiros, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, and to many people in town, “Mrs. Hawk.”

Our mother had a humble beginning, growing up in Acushnet with parents who had emigrated from Madeira and grew or made everything they needed. She loved school, wanted to be a nurse, but as was common then, had to drop out of high school to work as a stitcher in one of the textile mills to help out the family. 

At age 24, Mom met Antone Medeiros on a blind date, they fell in love, and the two were married six weeks later. They were together 67 years until our father’s passing in 2015. Ever the practical person, Mom had instructed to put in her obit that the best years of her life were the ones in which she was married. 

Mom and Dad were indeed partners, raising four children in the home they built in North Fairhaven. Mom was proud she laid the wooden floors, but that wasn’t her only contribution. Over the years, she used her talents to create braided rugs, paintings, artfully finished furniture, and more, taking night classes at New Bedford Vocational. Then there was the large vegetable garden they grew.

She was a stay-at-home mother until we were school age. Then she worked as one of the cafeteria ladies for Fairhaven’s schools until she retired as supervisor. 

Family was important with frequent visits to our extended relatives and helping out with the grandkids. She was the humble mother who wanted her offspring to do better than her. And she stuck by us no matter what.

Mom was a person interested in life. She loved being involved with Dad’s many pursuits. You would find her on the sidelines watching and keeping score for any team he played or coached. Then there were the Portuguese feasts, especially Our Lady of Angels, and town celebrations. I can recall her and Dad spending hours digging for quahogs and clams in West Island.

For many years, they were involved in the shows put on by St. Mary’s. Dad along with our brother, Tony, were among the headliners. Mom, who had a good singing voice, was in the chorus. She also used her amazing skills as a seamstress to create costumes without a pattern. Her costume creations continued for our father’s appearances during town events. The upstairs in their home is filled with them.

Mom was an inspiring role model, as shown by the many family members who express themselves creatively. For me, she became one of the characters in the mystery series I write.

Mom was a person who enjoyed games of chance and frankly, she was lucky at them. She went to Bingo games when that was popular. She loved taking the bus with our father to play the slots at the casinos in Rhode Island. Of course, there were trips to Las Vegas, as well as other places such as Hawaii, the Azores, and Madeira. Mom was a curious traveler who kept diaries about their trips.

She was a voracious reader, stocking up on books at the Millicent Library and tag sales. She stayed up late with the TV on, keeping up with the news and her favorite shows, but usually working on a puzzle like Sudoku or playing solitaire on her tablet, perhaps with a cat on her lap. She was likely one of the Standard Time’s most devoted readers.

I mentioned earlier our mother was a practical person. That meant we had to be extra early at any event to get a good seat. She was also the ultimate bargain hunter. When driving in her later years, she would only take right-hand turns. Besides Tony’s house and visits to her sister, Ernestina, she had three destinations: Wendy’s, Wal-Mart, and Market Basket. 

And I have yet to meet a person who loves lobster as much as Mom. 

A few years ago, Mom entered a convalescent home when she could no longer live on her own. Now she was more of an observer than a doer. We family members who lived far away missed our weekly phone calls. But she got pleasure from her visitors and from reading her newspaper. And she still maintained her smile and keen sense of humor. 

I could tell you more about our mother who lived to be 99. I am sure you have your own stories.

Algerina Medeiros showed that you don’t have to be rich or famous to live a full creative life. She will be missed.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: My mother holds me when I was just a little bitty baby.