The botanical name of the “writing seed” eludes me, but it was sown deep into the soil of my soul. Mrs. Phenow, my third-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary School, planted the seed in September 1955. It began with the dreaded back-to-school writing assignment, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”
I wrote about how I spend every summer vacation – tent camping with my cousins. Oh, I could have written about melt-in-your-mouth s’mores; rainbow trout flashing their bright colors as they taunted us, revealing their presence while refusing our bait; counting stars in the Milky Way; being lost with my Ricky Ricardo, Jr. doll on Stonewall Peak – all tales that would have made interesting reading. Instead, I chose to write a suspenseful drama about how a friendly camp raccoon frightened the daylights out of my uncle Sid, almost sending him and my cousins scurrying down the mountain for the safety of home.
It was a cute little non-fiction saga that delighted Mrs. Phenow. She made a huge deal of it when my mom and dad came to the parent-teacher conference. It was prominently displayed on the bulletin board next to a raccoon picture for “Back-to-School” Night. It was the only time in my academic career my work ever received any special recognition. I loved it. “I think someday you should be a writer,” my teacher said when she handed me back my paper. In my heart I knew, someday, when I grew up, I would be a writer.
Mrs. Phenow finally allowed me to bring my little masterpiece home. I read and reread it so many times I think, even now, sixty-eight years later, with little thought, I could recite it.
Over the years, I nurtured my sleepy writing seed, the one planted by Mrs. Phenow; feeding my love for words and reading volumes of Nancy Drew, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Classics and as an adult my favorite authors; James Herriot, Erma Bombeck, Jan Karon, Frank Peretti, and Alexander McCall Smith. It was common for me to be reading three books at a time while living an interesting life and collecting enough personal stories to compete with the “Naked City.” But this was the age of the typewriter and I had inherited my father’s tremors. Every time my shaking fingers struck a wrong key, I had to rip the paper from the carriage and begin again. I sat in frustration amidst balled-up crumpled papers while discouragement set in.
When computers became available, I began typing my stories on a PC in my den. I found helpful medical treatment for the tremors. Still, making numerous mistakes, I formed a relationship with the “delete” key. Writing made me feel good. It made people laugh. Sometimes cry.
If you would get off your lazy backside you could be the next Erma Bombeck,” my dad said to me one day. Maybe, he, too, remembered Mrs. Phenow’s writing seed. Did Daddy really think so? Would someone pay for my writing? How would that happen?
In 2008, I sold a story to Chicken Soup for the Soul. A fluke, I thought. My father passed away two months before the book was released. I continued to write. One year later, my mother passed away. Shortly after her death, my sister, Amy, and I were notified that mother had a small life insurance policy that would be split between us. Believe me, if Daddy had known about this insurance policy, he would have found some way to cash it in, spending the money on a piece of ground where the pine trees grew thick and as “straight as toothpicks.” I decided my parents would want me to use the money to improve my writing skills. I enrolled in the Christian Writers Guild Apprentice and Journeyman programs where I worked with mentors who encouraged me to submit my work and set lofty standards for the quality of my writing.
Since, I have been published many times. I say my genre is inspirational non-fiction, but as my father predicted, humor has become my niche. People say I write like Erma Bombeck. (Amy used her share of the inheritance to pursue a dream of her own – photography.) I didn’t think anybody would care about what I had to write, but Mrs. Phenow did all those long years ago.
Even after nearly seventy years, with a little water and fertilizer, dormant seeds can still germinate and produce beautiful blossoms. Sometimes, like with seeds planted in the soil, we must dig around in the dirt a bit and make way for the sprouts to break forth. Mrs. Phenow planted the seed. She left the digging, watering, and nurturing up to me.