Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Unconventional Family

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. Her website:  

My Unconventional Family
This month we were asked to write our blogs about ourselves. I’m not used to blabbing on about myself, but I do like to talk about the people who raised me and helped mold me into the person I am today—my parents.

   This is my great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Barnhart for whom I was named.

(My grandmother and grandfather McNeal. My grandfather always wore this hat. He was born the year after the Civil War ended. That just astounds me.)

(My mom and me. Looks like a Steinbeck novel)

My parents had some very different notions of how to raise children. For the most part, I’m grateful for it. My dad was the Thomas Jefferson of the family constitution. We were allowed a great deal in the way of freedom, but we also learned early on that there were consequences for our actions. I suppose that’s always true of freedom, in that it required responsibility for one’s own actions.
My older sister, Mary, and me on our first Christmas in North Carolina

We were never forced to share our toys. Now you might think not sharing would make us guarded and selfish, but that was not the case. Because we knew we didn’t have to share, we didn’t feel the need to guard our toys. No one was going to snatch them away from us. We did learn an important life lesson, too. We could negotiate using toys as a tool. It went sort of like this: I’ll let you play with my Betsy Wetsy (there really was a doll named that who did that) if you will let me play with your tea set. We were actually quite generous with our stuff most of the time. We even gave some toys away when the church asked for donations for kids without Christmas.

(I'm crying because Mary was invited to a party and I wasn't. She's all dressed up and I'm in my crappy dress. This picture was taken on the Naval base at Virginia Beach when Pop worked ocean weather on a coast guard cutter.)

My parents did not hang over our shoulders demanding that we do our school work. I hated homework. I found many ways to procrastinate about getting it done. Since there were no rules regarding a time or place for doing homework, I, in my infinite wisdom, decided I could just skip it. Well, I found out there is a consequence to not doing homework that has nothing to do with grades (a thing I also didn’t care much about.) After suffering the deep humiliation of not having a report to give when it came to my turn, I became mortified. After several humiliating episodes before my schoolmates, I did do homework, but I can’t really say I studied. It was fortunate for me that I was a great listener and note taker, or I may not have passed a single grade. The first time I seriously studied was my senior year in high school, and of all things, it was in English. College changed my errant study habits forever.

We didn’t have censorship in what we read. If the book was in our house, we were allowed to read it. The only time the lack of censorship in reading material came to be tested was when I started reading my mother’s True Detective magazines when I was around ten. The horror of these supposedly true stories were told in graphic detail and gave me nightmares. They never told me to stop reading these stories, but the secret stash of these magazines suddenly dried up. I can only assume in retrospect, that Mom no longer bought them, or else she found a really good place to hide them. Although fascinated by these horrific stories, I was glad to get back to my Little Lulu and Casper the Ghost comics. And, by the way, comic books were encouraged in our house. It was Pop’s sneaky way of getting us to read.

We weren’t allowed to roam the neighborhood, but we were allowed to roam the woods. When I think of it now, it’s hard to decide which of these places were the most dangerous for little kids. We spent hours building teepees out of limbs and pretending to be explorers unfettered by parental rules.

This is Pop on our birthday back in 1975. He wore it on TV where he was doing his weatherman gig on the news. That same day, Jimmy Carter was on the show campaigning for president. In Pop's sock was a skindu (a traditional dagger) that security must not have noticed. 

I was a firebug. My older sister was the perfect accomplice.  We planned a very long time how we would put a candle in a papier-mâché Halloween pumpkin. Our plan unfolded one morning in the hall closet. It was difficult to get that darn match to light, but we finally accomplished it and, voila, a very exciting flame ensued.  When we grew tired of sitting in the closet watching the candle burn, we left…and we left the candle burning. After the fire department left, we did receive one of the rare spankings from Pop. I had a total of three, and each one involved a life-threatening action on my part.  After the fire spanking, I declared I was leaving home and packed up my toys in my wagon. My clever parents said I would have to wait until after dark so I wouldn’t embarrass them in front of the neighbors. A good bluff; they knew I was afraid of the dark. Later, after they thought we were asleep, they were in the kitchen which was close to our room, talking about our escapades and, amazingly, were laughing about it.

While being punished for something, I think it was sticking bubble gum under the chair, I sat facing the wall in the chair of shame. Bored and angry, I decided it was a good idea to tear the wallpaper off the wall. The consequences could have been great, but I was fearless. They laughed about my actions because, as it turned out, I was helping them since they planned to remove the wall paper and paint. Well, who knew?

As teenagers, my sister and I were grounded for wrecking Mom’s car and lying about it. Lying was one of those things that had automatic punishment added to it. We weren’t supposed to use the phone for a week. Pop disabled our phone upstairs, so it was dead. We made it through 24 hours of silence before we decided to hunt for the phone box and figure out how to fix it. We found it, replaced the wire Pop disconnected, and, in victory, called the inside phone from our room. When Pop answered and he knew we fixed our phone, he took us off our no-call grounding and commended us for finding how he had disabled our phone. See what I mean? We were allowed so much freedom. But don’t think there weren’t some rules. A big one was not to smart-mouth our mother. Another rule was no skipping school and, finally, no lying. We could do just about anything else, but those three had dire consequences. I never skipped school in my life. I did smart-mouth my mother—once only, and I did tell a few lies when my back was to the wall, but the truth proved to be the easier way out of a situation. Sometimes my parents had difficulty discerning my "stories" for lies, but they got good at telling the difference.

We didn’t have a bedtime after we reached the age of twelve. I spent a few days at school miserably trying to stay awake and learned the lesson on this particular freedom. Weekends and summer were my glory days when I stayed up all hours, but I ditched the idea of staying up on school nights. I’m not one for misery.

You might wonder how my sister and I managed to graduate from school without failing a grade and get into college. It seems we had so much freedom to do what we wanted, you might think we would be undisciplined and unruly, but we weren’t. We respected our parents and we had the satisfying knowledge that we could take care of ourselves. Our parents took a big risk allowing us so much freedom.  The worst consequence was to disappoint them. I just couldn’t take that look on their faces when I lost their respect.

My parents led by example, teaching us things about life, love, and family. As much as my mother had chronic depression and battled heart disease from my early childhood, she didn’t complain about it. She faced it with dignity, perseverance, and courage in the face of adversity. Mom taught us how to sew and improvise when we wanted something there was no pattern for, and how to cook even when all the ingredients weren’t in the pantry. She could make a tasty meal out of sawdust.

(This is Pop releasing a squirrel who managed to get into the bird trap Pop used for catching birds to ban.)
Pop took us on walks in the woods and showed us all he knew including a reverence for all God’s creation. He made math into a game and never criticized me for never being good at it. We learned how to garden using compose heaps and soap instead of commercial fertilizers and poisonous chemicals. He was a feminist long before the notion became popular. He believed women were smart and needed to be educated. He once told me that I should always be self-reliant because, you never know when you might end up needing to support your family. He was a dedicated conservationist and banned birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service from the time he was a kid. I’m glad now that he didn’t allow us to have a TV even though I resented it when I was a kid. My sister and I spent our days reading, going on adventures, and cooking up outrageous schemes. We were never bored.

Even though they made their fair share of mistakes, my parents made us feel safe, secure, and loved. They gave me the strength, courage and freedom to be who I really am. My parents were a gift. Because of their wisdom and guidance, I have been able to face some very difficult times in my life without giving up or feeling sorry for myself. They believed in me. I couldn't ask more than that.

A Bit About Me Today 
I have been married—twice, actually. Although I never had children of my own, I have fur babies I love very much, Liberty the cat and Lily, the golden retriever. On September 11, 2001, Liberty was hit by a car and, after she was treated for her injuries, my vet put her up for adoption. I saw her when I brought my dog in for her yearly exam. She was the sweetest little kitten. We bonded and I adopted her. Lily was a rescue dog. I got her when she was 4 months old. She had been dumped in a high kill shelter by a couple who said they couldn’t love her. They had recently lost their previous golden and probably tried to fill the void too soon. I had lost my previous golden, Kate, due to cancer, but Lily and I healed each other through all the sadness we had experienced.

Lily, my Golden Retriever
Liberty sleeping under her "sun lamp" on my desk
I became a practical nurse and worked just about every department in my early years. But I wanted to work in critical care, especially coronary care, so I went back to school to become a registered nurse to qualify for critical care. It was hard to do. I worked full time and had to drive an hour each way to get to and from college. After 3 years, I finally succeeded and worked 21 years in coronary care, and then transferred to the emergency department and worked the last 17 years of my career there.
I'm standing in front of the CCU monitors. I know. The frog is weird. I made it for the Christmas tree when I was about 16. I wore it to cheer up the patients.

I’ve been writing most of my life. It took a long time and many classes in creative writing before I finally became published in 1999. I didn’t write romance in the beginning. I was more into sci-fi and fantasy fiction. On the suggestion of one of my writing instructors, I tried writing romance, and loved it. Although I write mostly western romance now, I also write paranormal, time travel, and a few contemporary stories and novels. My western romances take place in Wyoming in the fictional town of Hazard and involve the Wilding family first introduced in my time travel western, Harmonica Joe’s Reluctant Bride. In my short story in the Christmas anthology, WISHING FOR A COWBOY, I wrote, A Husband for Christmas, about Jane and her son, survivors of the Titanic and rescued from a fire by Banjo Wilding. Just when it seems Jane and Robin will spend their lives alone, Banjo’s uncle, a half Lakota named Teekonka, shows them there just might be a brighter future than they ever imagined, in spite of all their emotional pain.  It’s now out as a single.

A BOOK GIVE AWAY!! I'm giving away a copy of A Husband For Christmas to someone who comments today. Include your email address in your comment for a chance to win.

  A HUSBAND FOR CHRISTMAS is now being offered as a single. It first appeared in the Christmas Anthology, WISHING FOR A COWBOY. I'll be giving away a copy of this story to someone who comments today.

A night of horror… a wish for a new life...and a secret love


Jane Pierpont and her son, Robin, survived the Titanic, but her husband went down with the ship and the emotional scars of that night have kept her and her son locked into that frightening event years later . Robin is terrified of deep water and Jane has nightmares and survivor’s guilt. She yearns for a family, a loving husband and maybe another child, but she feels disloyal to Michael’s memory whenever Teekonka RedSky comes near her.

Teekonka RedSky loves Jane and her son, but all his efforts to help them past their painful memories of the night Michael Pierpont died have been unsuccessful. Unwilling to give up, can his Lakota beliefs help him bring peace to Robin and free Jane to love again?  

Teekonka let go of the latch and stepped back into the room. He took Jane’s hand in his, its warmth radiating into her chest. “I wondered if you and Rob would attend the festival with me.”
Jane felt confused. “The hotel is just down the street from here. We can manage to get there quite well on our own.”

He shook his head and squeezed her hand. “You don’t understand, Jane. I’m asking you and your son to go with me because I want to court you.”

Jane pulled her hand free. Self-reproach engulfed her. Before her stood a handsome, strong man who wanted to court her and include her son, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t right. Surely, Michael’s spirit was close by, and he would never approve. He couldn’t help dying. “I…I’m flattered that you should ask, but I can’t. My husband—”

Teekonka’s jaw clenched. “Your husband is dead. He’s been dead for seven years.” He stepped back from her. A frown turned his firm lips down. After he walked to the door and lifted the latch, he turned to her again. “I’m sorry. I apologize for reacting so angrily.  You still love your husband. I understand.” The door closed, and he was gone.

Jane stood alone in a room that had suddenly grown cold and dim. 

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  1. Okay, Sarah, your life sounds like a movie that I want to see. Your parents were such progressive thinkers on child raising, and yet instilled values and wonderful life lessons. Love how you called your dad Pops. Reminds me of Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. This was such an interesting post. Thank you for sharing your story with us.((Hugs))

  2. Sarah--I was going to scan your post before I put it out for promo this morning, but ended up reading every word. Your parents were different, and oh, if only many today could take some lessons.
    But what struck me was the fact you are a wonderful story-teller. You write your stories somewhat the same way, but writing in first person with no dialogue is definitely your forte. Wow.
    Thanks for the entertainment early this morning--a very dark, very wet and stormy morning (love it!)

  3. Thank you, Ashley, for appreciating the weirdness that is my family. I didn't even mention my Grandfather McNeal's love of saving tin pie plates, balls of string and paper bags. He kept them all very neat and tidy in their place, but he sure loved saving them.
    I really appreciate you taking the time to come by and comment.

  4. Celia, you always say the kindest things.
    My parents allowed me to be a free spirit, but sometimes I felt very different from my peers. My parents did not punish us for bad grades, but the parents of my classmates often did. Once, when my friends at school were complaining about their parents grounding them for bad grades, I actually lied and said my parents wouldn't let me talk on the phone for a week. It wasn't true, but it made me feel more like everybody else. I just didn't appreciate the freedoms I had.
    Thank you for saying I'm a good storyteller and for brightening your day. It's been cast over here for days and days, too. I'm ready for some sunshine myself.

  5. Sarah, thank you for a chance to know you better. I already admired your courage in the way you handled adversity. Now I can see that you could have done no less because of your upbringing. What a wonderful story this is. And I agree with Celia that your narrative skill is superb.

  6. So fun to read about your childhood memories. My childhood was different- Swedish community and farming- but the same era. I had Little Lulu and Casper coloring books so know what you were talking about. Life was so different then, compared to kids growing up now days. Thanks for sharing with your readers today.

  7. Linda S., thank you so much for your compliment. You think I'm courageous? That's a very high compliment, too. I really appreciate you coming by today. It means a lot to me.

  8. Linda H., maybe it was different because we didn't have electronical gismos everywhere. We actually interacted with other people face to face and reading was considered fun. We didn't have a constant stream of negative news and opinions forced upon us every minute of the day, either. Except for conversations, things were pretty dang quiet...lots of time to get into some kind of trouble. Didn't you love Little Lulu?
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

  9. Sarah, I love your pix and life story and your Golden! Oh, hug her for me. What a warm heart you have. Xox oh, and awesome blurb! Xoxox

  10. Sarah,

    I really enjoyed reading about your life. Your childhood was different, but it sounds like a wonderful one. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Another wonderful story about your life. The photos were really great also. The mistakes I made growing up, I choose not to tell: (to embarrassing). Thank you for your enjoyable walk down memory lane.

  12. Hey JoAnne. It's good to see you here.
    I guess I see childhood mistakes as a learning process. Some of it is embarrassing, like the time I ate the dyed Easter eggs for the church Easter egg hunt and left the shells right there on the pew. Like ya know everybody probably smelled them when I ate them. Heck, we all did that kind of stupid stuff. That's how we found out about life, what works and what doesn't. Personally, I found out a lot of stuff that doesn't work--most of it in my teen years. Well, you probably know how that goes.
    Thank you for dropping by. It was very sweet of you.

  13. Sarah, I thoroughly enjoyed all those wonderful family pictures. And I laughed at all the craziness you and your sister did. Guess I was taken back to my early life and could totally appreciate what you got into. It sounds like you had a wonderful upbringing. Loved your dad in that kilt, love those Scotsmen. And your pets(I should furry family) are wonderful. My lab is definitely part of the family.You've certainly had a full and resourceful life. No wonder you write great books.

  14. I enjoyed your story and your photos. Nice to learn more about you.

  15. Sarah, your parents were very wise -- and look what happened! They raised at least one kind, self-reliant woman with an enormous heart and a generous spirit.

    I think we should point to you next time someone asks "What do you mean 'write what you know'?" I can see the life lessons you've learned in each of your stories. :-)


  16. I enjoyed learning more about you, Sarah. All your stories are wonderful, but especially love the one where you were pulling wallpaper off and here you did your parents a favor. lol Also loved how you and your sister fixed the phone and figured out how your father had disabled it.

    My daughter-in-law is a nurse so I can appreciate what a hard job that is. Thanks for sharing your life story. And wow, that is hard to believe how your grandfather was born a year after the Civil War ended.

  17. Tanya, I love Lily, my Golden. She is so sweet!
    Tanya, thank you for that compliment regarding my blurb. Do you ever find it difficult to find just the right passage in the story to bring out the theme of the story without totally giving the ending away? I do. It's so difficult to find just the right place, so thank you for liking the one I chose. And thank you so much for coming by to comment, too.

  18. Kirsten, it really was different, but I didn't realize that until I visited my friends or heard them talk about life at home. For one thing, my dad thought every lamp shade was a bulletin board where he could clip newspaper clippings with clothespins. There was the rustle of paper every time a door opened. I found it embarrassing when my friends came to visit. Still, I felt home was a place where I could be free to be myself and that did make me happy.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

  19. Beverly, I did have a wonderful childhood in spite of the eccentricities of our household. For all that my sister and I did get into trouble, punishment was rare.
    My first grade teacher thought I was odd for carrying my book satchel with me everywhere I went--even on the playground and sent a note home requesting my parents to make me stop. Pop, God bless him, knew I was having trouble separating from my mom and carried precious items she gave me in that satchel. He sent a note back refusing to make me stop and asked for a meeting with the teacher to discuss why. I don't know if they had that meeting, but she never mentioned my satchel again. It was as if he had said to me, "I've got your back." And he did.
    Thank you for coming. Labs are great dogs, too. What's your dog's name?

  20. Caroline, I love modern technology because it helped me scan those old photos to my computer so I could post them. I'm so glad you liked them. Thank you.

  21. Kathleen, I am so amazed that you see my life experiences in my stories, but I guess that's really true of all of us. Our characters portray our spirits--whether we want them to or not. LOL
    Thank you for thinking I'm so sweet and adorable. It might surprise you to know that, underneath all my cuddly squishiness is a temper that lets loose sometimes.
    I know how very busy you are working behind the scenes and writing on your own work, so I really appreciate that you took the time to come here and leave a lovely comment. Thank you!

  22. Diane, my grandfather was old when my dad was a kid. I should have posted a picture of them together. He and my grandmother planned their kids 5-6 years apart so they could afford to send them to college and Pop was the last kid--and the only one to survive long enough to have kids. All three of them had a college education though. Still, it amazes me, too that my grandfather was born the year after the Civil War ended. Mind boggling.
    I'm very glad my parents were so tolerant of our misdeeds, too. They encouraged us to be "real" and to be resourceful. As a kid, I was afraid of foxes. I had this vision of a monster lurking in the forest waiting to catch me and eat me. Pop didn't ridicule me for being afraid. He tried many things to get me over this fear, until finally, he showed me a fox at the zoo--this tiny little creature no bigger than my cat. Just like that, I was over it and he never brought it up again. However, when I bought my first house, he gave me a limited edition print of a fox and a fox door knocker. LOL
    I really appreciate you coming by to read my blog and leave a comment. You are so kind.

  23. Time to choose the winner of A Husband For Christmas. Using my very scientific method of names in the fish bowl, here is my winner.
    Caroline Clemmons!!!
    Congratulations Caroline.

  24. Congratulations, Caroline! I do my winners the same way, Sarah. I write the names on slips of paper, put them in a bowl or a bag. Then I have my daughter Amanda draw a name. LOL

  25. I'm late as usual. Sorry, Sarah. I loved reading about you and your unconventional family. A fire bug? My goodness, I'm glad you survived your childhood!

    I also enjoyed the excerpt from A Husband for Christmas. I'll look for it.

  26. See Diane, it's a tried and true method that never fails.

  27. Early or late, Lyn, it's always wonderful to hear from you.
    Oh yes, I was a terrible little firebug. I set fire to the beautiful quilt my grandmother made me. The next door neighbor was burning leaves and I sat in my wagon fascinated while little live coals burned holes in the quilt I always kept with me. I was so scared because it was after the house burning incident--so I buried my beautiful quilt. Mom could have patched it up where holes were burned in it, but I lost my nerve. The quilt was one of my favorite possessions.
    Thank you for coming by.

  28. Interesting how your parents' parenting style somewhat mirrors mine and my wife's. I've been know to wear a kilt, too. Also interesting that your grandfather and mine were born one year after the Civil War ended. You never know how many things you have in common with someone until you know them a little better.

  29. I would have felt right at home with your family. The biggest difference, we had a TV, but I still was a voracious reader...still am.

    Thank you for sharing so much of your life. Doris

  30. JD, those are amazing similarities. Who would have thought?
    Your children will come to appreciate your parenting style eventually, if not already. I didn't understand what a difference it made until way into my adulthood. The only thing I would change if I had children, would be to allow them to show emotions more. My father taught us to be stoic. I didn't cry at the funerals of my parents even though I was devastated inside.
    Thank you so much for your comment. It makes me want to know about you more.

  31. Doris, my parents provided a shield between us and the world. I always felt safe no matter what was going on "out there". It's a big difference when the shield is gone. Life can seem scary and precarious.
    Reading for entertainment makes all the difference I think. When I wondered about something like the solar system, I read about it. When I wanted to know how to do something, like make a compost heap, I looked it up and read how to do it. It took time and a little effort, but it was so satisfying to do that. Now everyone just googles everything. I'm guilty of it, too, but I don't get the same feeling of accomplishment from it. Honestly, I don't know why that is.
    Thank you so much for your comment, Doris. I appreciate it.


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