How I Met Your Mother
For Beth Siciliano, on the passing of her mother, Louise Shivers
It was years ago now, and I am such an English major it’s just too much of a bother to try and count back that far. I had driven to Athens for a UGA writer’s conference, where I didn’t know a soul. An editor there had the first chapter of my just-finished novel for a critique, and I was nervous.
I mingled at the reception, balancing a flimsy plastic cup with a shot of Jack, and I asked a woman nursing a Coke what she was working on. I was soon sorry. Her novel in process, as best I could tell, was a re-telling of the Bible, and she was determined to give me a blow-by-blow. Desperate to escape, I told her I had to meet someone, and I pushed through the glass doors onto a patio. Afraid she’d follow me and take offense at my ruse, I spied two men at a table with an empty chair.
“May I join you?”
The playwright Dawson Teague and the aspiring poet John Handy told me to have a seat. Turns out we were living in the same town, and John had an informal group that met for coffee to talk about writing.
“You should meet the famous writer, Louise Shivers,” he told me. And that was that.
Over the years we met for coffee, with the group, with her writing partner Tom Turner, and once with you as part of our quartet of Fury’s Ferry Writers. She braved a road trip in my tiny convertible to visit Callaway Gardens and the Little White House, shared barbeque at a roadside shack and posed for a photo at a Warm Springs gift shop in her Raquel Welch wig. I baked her cheesecakes, and she shared her pies and your dad’s perfect tomatoes. She sat in her living room or in quiet coffee shop corners and listened to me read my stories, always picking out the perfect phrase to show me she understood what I was doing. Kindred spirits. What she would call “back porch friends.”
She told me how her first novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, became the movie Summer Heat, and I ordered it on DVD from someone on eBay. When it arrived, instead of a Southern drama with Anthony Edwards, I found a Japanese soft porno film, proving I really should read the fine print on eBay. She gave me a VHS copy of the “real” one for Christmas.
We both had a thing for John Irving: I studied under him for a bit, she met him at a publisher’s do. We had other authors in common, and she picked out Southern writers for me to study. “I thought of you…” we told each other hundreds of times as we read a novel or a story or watched a film that moved us. She gave me The New Great American Writer’s Cookbook, and I could just taste her gumbo and cornbread and her mother’s potato salad. She introduced me to John T. Edge through his book, Southern Belly, and on the 4th of July we followed his advice to Gus’ near Memphis for fried chicken. I didn’t get to tell her about that, but I know she’d have loved it, too.
We exchanged hundreds, maybe thousands, of emails. When I moved to Chicago our coffee times dwindled, but not our friendship. I told her of a quick glance in the mirror where my lip was temporarily caught on my eye tooth. “I look like Elvis,” I wrote to her. “Not the young Elvis, but the old fat Elvis who just wanted another jelly donut.”
“You have to put that in a story,” she told me, and I did. And it was published. And another, and another. Louise helped me mine my life for the phrases and incidents that made for good fiction.
As her health problems became more frequent, our correspondence experienced major gaps, but always there’d come that welcomed note from louisebiz with some sincere congratulations, a bit about too many tests or doctor’s visits, and a determined plan to write some more. Sickness and health. Her memoir, finished and published. Her civil war novel, with its delightful character July, whom I met in an early draft, still in the works. I wasn’t too worried about the latest silence. I knew she’d build up her strength, send a note, but the email I expected from Louise was about Louise instead.
How I met your mother is one of those coincidences that isn’t. Whether you call it fate or kismet or the plan of the universe that some of us should be drawn together in a lifetime doesn’t matter. What matters is that we meet, and we know it was meant to be.
Sitting in my office in Oak Park, longing for the Georgia sun, I watched huge flakes of snow float down to accumulate on my balcony. I worried it would never end, just cycle in and out.
“I feel like I’m living in a snow globe,” I wrote Louise.
“Put it in a story,“ she told me, and a few years later, I did. And it was published. And I thank Louise.