Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Keeping Memories Alive

Jenn McKinlay: In my late twenties, my entire life imploded. I lost my first literary agent, I ended a nine year relationship which included a three years long engagement, and I moved into a new place. It was a duplex in central Phoenix and it was 830 square feet that was mine all mine! Well, I did share with my cat, Chubby, but he was a fairly chill roommate so no complaints from me. My address was on small side street that was quiet, despite being in the thick of the Biltmore area, and my half of the duplex looked across a wide lawn that boasted citrus trees.

My neighbor directly across the way was a charmer of Irish descent named Howard Adams. A couple of things about Howard -- he was the state liquor commissioner, his best friends were a pack of rowdy firefighters, and he was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down with limited use of his arms and hands. 

You would think his disability would have slowed Howard down. No. If anything, he gained speed. The man was simply a force of nature. In addition to being the state liquor commissioner, he'd been a Phoenix City Councilman and he was appointed by presidents Reagan and Bush as a member of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, meaning he helped with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

This photo is from the The Arizona Republic archives as my personal photos of
Howie (far right) are in an album in my storage unit, because of course they are.

But when I met Howie, he was in charge of the booze licensing for the state and he had quite the liquor cabinet -- because that was all anyone could ever think to gift him. He and I enjoyed many a happy hour that usually ended with me singing Ave Maria (in Latin) much to his former Pittsburgh altar boy delight. Naturally, this became his nickname for me. On Sunday mornings after a rough night with Howie and the firefighters, he would motor his wheelchair over to my bedroom window and yell, "Ave Maria, wake up. Coffee's on. You need to come over and fix the eggs." Of course, I went because you just didn't say no to Howard.

Why am I telling you about my friend? Because when the idea of my book Wait For It (which comes out in three weeks!!!) came to me, Howie was front and center in my mind as a person who'd enlightened me in so many ways about life and hardship and coping. I knew my hero needed a hero's journey much like Howard's, so I dusted off my memories and spent some time in my past. Unexpectedly, the more I thought about Howard and our ridiculous times together the more memories resurfaced. Stuff I hadn't thought about in years, like how I had to watch the X-Files with him because he loved it but he also got scared. As we watched, he'd slowly lower his newsboy cap until it covered his eyes. I'd squawk, "Howie, you're not even watching!" And he'd yell back, "I can hear it. It's fine."  

Recipient of a starred review from Booklist!

I realized as I worked on the manuscript, that by revisiting my time with Howie and using bits and pieces of those days for the book, I was keeping those memories alive. Memories for which I am so very grateful.

I have a million more stories I could share about Howard, but I'll leave it with this one. He and I were reclined in his study, listening to Irish music (of course) and after a whiskey or three, I asked him if he was ever bitter about being in a wheelchair. He said, "No, I was on my way to becoming a real assh*le, and I think this was the big guy's way of keeping me humble." I've never forgotten that and it became a central characteristic of Nick Daire, the hero in Wait For It, who also relies on a wheelchair.

Howard passed away twenty years ago in 2001 but the impact he had on my life will forever remain. So, here's to you, Howard. Thanks for being my friend, thanks for the laughs, the booze, the songs, and even the stinky cigars. 

Red and Readers, chime in! Who was a person in your life that made such an impact that their memory resonates many years later?





49 comments:

  1. What a touching story, Jenn . . . we all need a friend like Howard.

    I’ve had the privilege of having a similar friend, a special friend . . . we both taught in the same school. Most days, we just put our two classes together for part of the day. We were best of friends, in and out of school . . . sad to say, she’s been gone for several years, but we are blessed to have our friends live on in memories . . . .

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    1. I'm so sorry for your loss, Joan. A friend like yours is a gift, indeed.

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  2. Mr. I was my Math teacher and he always told me that I can be and do anything I wanted to do. He said no one can judge you, only you, so do your best.

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  3. Jenn, you made me cry with these lovely stories. What a splendid man - and a much needed friend at the time for you, it sounds like.

    My friend Richard Gale was a force of nature. He was a no-nonsense Indiana landscaper who met the last love of his life on a Russian tour - the tour guide, Annie - and moved to my town to be with her. He became a regular at Quaker Meeting and maintained our historic building for years. That man singlehandedly moved a granite step at age eighty, and he wasn't a tall big guy, either. He planted hundreds of trees in Amesbury. All great stuff. But what I loved about him was the twinkle in his eye, how he would always dress up for the Halloween party another friend threw and occupy the dance floor all night, how he loved pies with a passion, how he would go body surfing - again, in his eighties - and what a good friend he was to me. He died five years ago and I still miss him, but his many trees live on.

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    1. Richard was doing it right! How lucky to have had him in your life, Edith.

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  4. Jenn, I love this essay, thanks so much for sharing. I will have to think about my person--brain isn't working this morning...

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  5. Great post Jenn. I already wrote about Tony Dias, my coaching mentor so I can't add much more than that here.

    Beyond that, my parents.

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    1. Coaches make such a huge difference in people's lives, don't they? I'm glad you had Tony.

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  6. What a great friend you had and just at the right time, too! Thank you for letting me in on your memories. Is it incredibly sad that I can't think of anyone like that in my life? I just had a realization that I have never had a man friend, a guy that was my buddy who always had my back. You are a very lucky lady, Jenn.

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    1. You never know when one might show up, Judi. I certainly wasn't expecting Howard. LOLs.

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  7. Great memories, Jenn. Thanks for sharing. I adore your books and am so happy to learn about the inspiration for this one. My mother used to say that you need to be a friend to have a friend. Some people just know how to be friends and I believe that your friendship with Howard showed that you were his friend, too.

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    1. Thank you, Judy. Yeah, we were there for each other at a time when we were both going through some big changes. Sometimes the universe lets you find who you need when you need them.

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  8. My small high school hired a ball of fire from the local university to teach AP English. We read books, not short stories in a textbook, and analyzed them. We were allowed to have our own opinions, contrary to the curriculum mandate. We wrote our own poems, one-act plays, and first chapters for novels. We didn't have assigned seats. He kept in touch after we left for college, curious what our high school experience lacked and what he could do to improve the curriculum.

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  9. Great essay, Jenn. I think I'd have to mention my AP Chemistry teacher, Mr. Eggleston. At the end of the year, I discovered I didn't have the math pre-reqs for the class so I asked why he'd let me in. He'd been my Regents chemistry teacher. "I knew you had the skills. You just needed confidence."

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    1. What a great guy. I love teachers who know when to throw out the rules.

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  10. My French teacher in school when I was about 11. Monsieur Caillé -- gorgeous with red hair and a well trimmed beard. He inspired me to work harder and to apply myself in learning the language. I adored him, and his confidence in me gave me the boost (or kick in the butt, really) that I needed to dig in, pay attention and do the work.

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    1. Every student should have a teacher like that.

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  11. Jenn, thanks for sharing--really can't wait now for this book! Howard sounds like my kind of neighbor and friend. My friend Gary--he was my right-hand man in the field and lab, but quickly became my friend. He was a font of outrageous laughter, booster, critic when necessary, steady, smart, hardworking, hard living, gone-way-to-soon kind of a guy. Miss him still and think of him often.

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    1. I'm glad you carry him in your heart, Flora. He sounds like a heck of a guy.

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  12. Jenn, that's a wonderful tribute to Howard. We all meet people at one point or another who seem larger than life, and he's definitely one of them. What a great person to know when you were restarting your life after things fell apart with Mr. Wrong (my mother would have warned you, saying, "An engagement without a wedding date is just an agreement to hang around together.")

    I can't wait to read WAIT FOR IT!

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    1. LOL - your mother was sooooo right. I mean three years??? What was I thinking???

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    2. Why do we only realize we should listen to our mothers after WE become mothers?

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  13. I’m always excited when one of the Jungle Reds books are about to be released and have preordered WAIT FOR IT! I have to say my husband is one of those larger than life people. He has suffered through a couple of tragedies through his life that could have made him bitter, but his personality is so extroverted and friendly that people come up to him all the time on the street and ask him to take their photo. Now in retirement, he golfs with three entirely separate groups of people and will golf with strangers if no one is around to go out with him. He just loves being around people that much. He is a rock during hard times for me. Best decision I made was to marry him.

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    1. Oh, Teri, I love this. Your husband is my kind of people - a stranger is only a friend I haven't met yet.

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    1. Thanks, Kaye, make it an Irish whiskey and I'm sure he'll toast you back!

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  15. Jenn, such a lovely piece. Now I REALLY can't wait to read WAIT FOR IT!!!!

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  16. You broke of an engagement, lost a job (of sorts), and started your life over again? You are a cozy mystery heroine! So, how many dead bodies did you stumble over? :)

    Seriously, thanks for sharing these memories. It is amazing how those seemingly small things can impact your life so much. I look back at the things I stumbled into in my life and the friends I've made as a result of them.

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    1. OMG!!! I never thought of it that way! Mark, you genius. This explains so much!!! LOL!

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    2. I do want to clarify that the "small thing" was the place you lived. The rest of your life at that time was major changes.

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  17. What wonderful memories! Howard sounds like a shining light and quite the character.

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  18. Jenn, this is a lovely piece. I'm glad you are able to immortalize him. The person who comes to mind for me was my father. I've immortalized him as Georgie's grandfather in the Royal Spyness books. He was a self-educated Londoner, unlike my posh headmistress mother, but he was the one who was warm, playful and generous. He made friends with everyone and was a kind man. I still miss him.

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    1. How lucky you are to have had such a wonderful dad, Rhys! I'm so glad you immortalized him :)

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  19. My first boss after college, Lorraine Lonquist at Prudential, taught me organizational methods that were most helpful when I finally found a teaching position. She also helped me learn to drive, and shared wise attitudes toward life, and she was a fierce ally when I needed one. More than 40 years later, I'm still grateful to her.

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    1. How wonderful, Mary. I'm so glad you had her in your life when you needed her.

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  20. Wow! What a great friend and great reminiscences of him. He would make a great character in a series.

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    1. He was definitely a character and he'd love being in a book!

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  21. What a fabulous friend and great memories. Thanks for sharing them!

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  22. Howard and I watched X Files the same way. What a wonderful way to remember him. I had a friend Regina who was fearless about meeting people. We met in a mystery writing class around 2000 or so. We went to Malice together, join Sisters in Crime together. Then she got cancer, and died in 2005. I've used her as a character in my Theater Cop series, and she inspired a short story. Making our friends who are no longer here a character is a lovely way to keep their essence alive.

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  23. Such a great story! Every writer wants memories like these and a colorful friend like Howard.

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