People often ask me if the characters in my stories are based on real people. I can honestly say yes. As the daughter of a Methodist minister, we moved frequently, and every church we served had their own cast of characters.
The characters in Who Killed the Ghost in the Library? are very personal to me. The owners of the coffeehouse, Jim and Charlotte Shaw, are based on my parents, Jim and Charlotte. Mike, the chief of police, is an old friend of mine who is a deputy sheriff in Arizona. And Grandma Alma is my grandmother, Edna (her middle name really is Alma, although she has two middle names, truth be told).
She was born in a small town in Texas, not too far from where I live, the second of four children (two boys, two girls). In every picture I’ve ever seen of her, she always has this cheeky grin, and a mischievous spark in her eyes. Wonder how much trouble she got into as a kid?
During World War II, she was out with some friends when she caught the eye of a handsome young Army soldier named Charlie. He was tall and lanky, and he had a gentle smile. Stationed at a base near her hometown, he came to town when he could, and they spent time together. According to Grandma, he proposed to her in a letter: “Why don’t we get married?” She said yes.
They moved to Roswell, where their only child, a cute little raven-haired beauty named Charlotte, was born. Shortly after her birth, they moved to Artesia. Now, don’t ask me why, but they painted their house pink. I’m talking Pepto Bismol pink. The shutters were black. There was an enormous tree in the small front yard that provided plenty of shade for those hot New Mexico summers.
Shortly before their twentieth wedding anniversary, Charlie suddenly passed away from a heart attack, leaving Grandma a widow at forty-four. I once asked Mother why Grandma never got married again, and she said, “Because she already married the love of her life.”
She came into our lives in the summer of 1975, when her only child married this devilishly handsome young man with two adorable, sweet, angelic daughters. We instantly had great-aunts, great-uncles, and more cousins than you could shake a stick at. Outside of church, I don’t remember seeing so many people in one house at the same time!
My sister and I spent summers at Grandma’s little pink house, where we soon fell into a routine. “The Price is Right” at ten, and when that was over, we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio while we fixed lunch. We made lots of mud pies under that shade tree, and I broke my first bone during one of those summers (hey, this is me we’re talking about here; you had to know a broken bone would be involved somewhere!). My favorite memories are when she would make a pie, because she would take the leftover crust, cut them into long strips, sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on top, and bake them. Those were our afternoon treats.
When Dad would grill, he would ask her how she wanted hers cooked. “Burn it!” she’d say. I’m pretty sure that on more than one occasion, he might have offered to give her a piece of charcoal, because it was pretty much the same thing. A Thanksgiving meal was never complete without her homemade stuffing. She also firmly believed in “dessert first”, and if you got in the way of her dessert, or tried to take it away from her, you ended up being stabbed on the back of your hand with a fork. You took your life in your own hands when you messed with her dessert!
With the birth of my son, James, we had four generations in one family. I have a picture of Grandma, Mother, James and I standing together on the front porch. It’s a picture we all treasure.
When Dad retired, they moved to Missouri, far away from Artesia, where Grandma still lived. But it was evident that she couldn’t stay by herself anymore, so they moved her to Ozark Methodist Manor, not far from where they live right now. Trips to visit them included a couple of trips to the Manor to see Grandma. She was always smiling and laughing. As James noted yesterday, he never remembers a time when she didn’t have a huge smile on her face. Of course, the staff fell in love with her immediately. “She’s so sweet!” We all wondered if they were talking about the same woman we knew (because sometimes she could get really cranky).
When my parents went to the Holy Land, I drove to Missouri to stay at their house, just in case something happened to Grandma. One time, I loaded up some photo albums, and took them to the Manor. Grandma and I spent a couple of hours going through the pictures, and she would tell me stories about the people she knew growing up. It was a visit that I thoroughly enjoyed, and a memory that I greatly cherish.
This past Thanksgiving, we drove to the Manor to have lunch with her. I hadn’t seen her in a year, and she looked tired. The spark that I was used to seeing wasn’t really there, and her smile seemed a bit sad. I spent most of that lunch helping her eat, and watching her eat my fruit salad (as well as her own!). She didn’t eat much, but she did make sure to save room for that pie.
I never told Mother this, but I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that Grandma wasn’t going to be with us much longer. I had planned to be there at Christmas; I wanted to be there because I just knew. But I came down with a horrible cold that turned into the flu, and I didn’t make it. The plan was for me to come up next month for a belated Christmas. I couldn’t wait to see Grandma.
She had other plans, however. Her Charlie was waiting for her; her parents, her brothers and sister. On Wednesday, she had a mini-stroke, but the doctor thought she was doing better by that afternoon. My husband woke me up before six a.m. on Thursday. “Your dad needs you to call,” he said. “It’s your grandmother.”
The nurses at the Manor moved her to a private room, and for the next few hours, most of the staff came to the room to sit with my parents as Grandma slowly slipped away. The beautician who did her hair came; the wonderful lady who was always in the dining room when Mother took Grandma down for a muffin and coffee came in and asked if there was anything they needed. She sent them a couple of breakfast trays. They all came in to say goodbye to this woman who had touched their lives with her smile and her laugh.
I had just gotten off the phone with my great-aunt when I called Dad. Grandma passed away just a few seconds before I called, peaceful and calm. Later that morning, when I talked to Mother, we decided that the first thing Grandma did when she got to Heaven was either gripe about something, or she asked for a piece of pie and a glass of chocolate milk.
I won’t really say goodbye to her. She’ll live through Grandma Alma, having lots of fun and getting into all kinds of trouble. The spark in her eyes and her laughter will be there in my stories. But the special memories, and the love, will live in my heart forever.
This isn’t goodbye. This is “I’ll see ya later. Save a piece of pie for me.”
I love you.