I hope you’ll be able to join us for our first Book Signing Event in Gridley on Saturday, June 15, 2013 from 11:00 to 2:00 at the Ice Burgie in Gridley. In case you haven’t read GRIDLEY GIRLS yet (and now you’ll not have any excuses as advance copies of the hardbacks will be on sale for $20 each with $3 of each book donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), here’s a little back story for how a Gridley Girl with a computer and a dream became an author.
On Father’s Day, June 16, 1974, one of my best friends passed away, just a few weeks shy of her tenth birthday. Our little group of friends was never the same. We didn’t know it but we looked at the world through different eyes after that. None of us had experienced death yet. Not even through a grandparent. Our first experience with death was with our friend, Jennifer. She was there one day. Gone the next. I never looked at the end of the school year in quite the same way again. I walked home from school with Jennifer every day. That was the last I saw of her – when we parted ways at the Mormon Church – she went west towards her house. I continued north to mine, cutting through Mr. John’s backyard behind the church as I always did. Nine days later, I got the call that she was gone. Poof. Just like that.
At her grave, her mother Suzanne hugged me, pulled me back and looked sternly into my eyes and begged, “Don’t you forget her. Promise me, Meredith! Promise me you’ll always remember her!” I nodded my head vigorously through my tears. Was she crazy? How could I forget a girl I had shared so much with? How could I forget the girl who taught me how to clean a toilet? The girl who played checkers over the phone with me? The girl who confirmed I was having a surprise party on my ninth birthday only because I spent the entire walk home from school cajoling her to confirm it because I was convinced I needed to clean my house in time for the alleged party. I didn’t know life without Jennifer Cone until that moment. I would never forget her.
In 1974, when a child died, people didn’t really know what to do (not that they know much more now) so we grieved. We went to the funeral. We went on with our lives without much talking about it. But it was there. Always there, shaping our lives, our friendships and how we dealt with loss.
In 1978, in Mr. Erickson’s eighth grade English class, we had to write thirty-page short stories and publish them as if we were real authors. We went through an editing process with little meetings with the teacher – learning how to argue our points for what we wanted to cut and what we wanted to keep. Mr. Erickson gave me a copy of Debbie LaBarbera’s short story that she had written two years earlier. It was after my first draft was written. He wanted me to see what I thought. In Debbie’s story, the protagonist died. That triggered something in me. I wanted my heroine to die too. I was adamant that she must die.
Mr. Erickson was not just Mr. Erickson to me. He was my parents best friend. He spent his whole career teaching across the hall from my mother. Our families were inseparable. I had been making him bourbon and cokes since I was tall enough to reach the counter. I had no problem fighting my point.
“She needs to die.” I said, without any emotion.
“But why?” he asked. “It doesn’t make any sense in the story.”
“I want people to cry when they read it.” Again, I didn’t say this with emotion.
He left it at that but later discussed it with my mother. They didn’t know what to make of it or my feelings. He eventually won. My protagonist did not die. My story was a romance. It was boring. I hated it. I got an A.
Normally all about the grade, I didn’t care about my A. I didn’t like the story. There was no real emotion in it to me.
I resolved then that I would someday write a book about our experiences and do for us what God could not. I would keep Jennifer alive. And no editor would change my story, nor could life. This would be my story, told the way I wanted it told.
It would take me years before I figured out that in eighth grade, I wanted my heroine to die because I had many unresolved feelings about sudden death. That is an understatement. I had no emotion when I said she needed to die because I was a frightened thirteen year-old girl trying to make sense of a very scary world.
Thirty years after Jennifer’s passing, I started having dreams. Vivid dreams starring my childhood best friends from Gridley. The dreams didn’t scare me. They were comforting. We were all in our freshman year at Gridley High and there was a pretty blond girl who looked familiar but I couldn’t tell who she was for weeks. I felt like God was talking to me through my dreams and knew I needed to do something about it but wasn’t sure what. I talked to my husband and explained that it might be time for me to cash in on the career. We were at a critical point in our child-rearing in that somebody needed to let up on their career as the kids weren’t raising themselves. In my traditional household, agree or not, I knew that somebody was me.
I told my mother-in-law about the dreams one day and she gave me the best advice, “Pray on it. And when you do, ask God to pretend you’re not very smart. Ask him to give you really big signs. He’ll tell you what to do.”
In a matter of weeks after those prayers, I was stranded on an airplane in the middle of nowhere West Virginia with a publishing director from Random House. The week after that, I met one of Oprah’s executives who has guided me for the last nine years. I don’t believe in coincidences.
I left Apple. I wrote the book. I moved across the country with my husband and kids leaving my beloved Sacramento Valley, the only home I’ve ever known, behind. I was brave. I was strong. I was scared to death. But I did it. I did it for my dear friend who left us too soon and for the promise I made her mother. I did it for my late mother who guided me from beyond, based on her own dreams of me becoming the next Judy Blume. I did it for my girlfriends who’ve shared their lives with me.
Girlfriends who aren’t just Gridley Girls to me. They’re woven into my DNA. What’s that line in the marriage vows? Matthew 19:3, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” That works for friendship too. Especially in our case.
So, this Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, the day before the 39th anniversary of the passing of Jennifer Lynn Cone, we’ll be celebrating the birth of a book. The birth of a book that celebrates friendship and Gridley, two of my favorite subjects. Jayne Ethington Barrow has graciously offered to donate 20% of her sales to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in memory of Jennifer. Advance copies of the hardback of GRIDLEY GIRLS will be on sale for $20 with $3 of each copy being donated to St. Jude. We’ll be eating our burgers and enjoying the new Gridley Girl drink at the Burgie.
Afterward, the Friends of the Library event honoring Doris Long will be held at 4:00 and we’ll have a reading and Q & A. I hope you’ll be able to join us on Saturday to honor our friend and support the kids of St. Jude. If not, take a little time to celebrate your life and your friendships. You’re worth it.