Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Anita Lock is talking with Rick D. Niece, author of Perfect in Memory: A Son's Tribute to His Mother (Fanfare for a Hometown)
FQ: Sporadic yet aptly placed poetry dots Perfect in Memory. You are quite the poet! How old were you when you realized that you had a flare for this branch of literature?
NIECE: For as long as I can remember, I have felt the natural rhyme and rhythm of words and word combinations. I think it began when I was an infant. Classical music was always playing in our house, and the rhythmic meters and sequences became naturally internalized during my formative years. Also, my mother read aloud to me every day and at bedtime, with classical music playing in the background. As a result, musical sounds and word rhythms became second nature for me.
I try to capture the same type of rhythm and flow in my prose as I do in the poetry.
Words are a writer’s musical notes.
Sentence sounds and rhythms are literature’s melodies.
Prose is poetry in paragraph form.
That is the essence of my writing.
When I was in junior high and senior high, my classmates seemed to enjoy my doggerel verse. I had a knack for it, and as a consequence, was given two nicknames. Or I gave the nicknames to myself. I honestly cannot remember how I got tagged with them. But I was called Henry Wadsworth Shortfellow (I am not very tall!) and Alfred Lord TennisShoe.
I was asked to write our senior class poem, my first serious poetry assignment.
“We have journeyed through school’s gateway of wisdom
And strived to learn and achieve,
The goals we have set and struggled to get
All knowledge we sought to believe...
There are three more stanzas, but I think you get the point—doggerel!
FQ: One of your poems titled “Simplify Life” is set as an acrostic. Can you expound on why you wrote this and what affect it has played on your life?
NIECE: I enjoy writing acrostics and have composed a number of them over the years for a variety of occasions. Because I am donating one dollar for each copy of Perfect in Memory
sold to Arkansas Hospice, I wrote an acrostic for hospice.
ope in times of helplessness
pen arms for heartfelt hugs
elfless service to others
assionate about providing comfort
nstruments of loving grace
ompassion with care and concern
nsure life’s ending with dignity
“Simplify Life” represents my personal and professional creed. Everything has gotten so complicated and invasive: too much technology, too much information, and too little privacy. The acrostic “Simplify Life” represents my methods for keeping grounded and in touch with life’s real priorities. I hope by reading it, others will take pause and reflect on how to make their own lives simpler, especially when chaos threatens to overtake them.
For example, the advice for the first letter “S” is a great place to start. See the world through a child’s eyes. Pay attention like one who is experiencing wonderment for the first time.
FQ: You share your Arthur Murray dancing experiences with an unlikely partner--an elderly widow named Eloise. Equally unlikely is a common interest you and Eloise shared. Tell us about that encounter and how it impacted your life. Do you believe young and elderly people today can benefit from developing relationships with one another? Explain.
NIECE: As you read all three books in the “Fanfare for a Hometown” series, you begin to realize that a number of elderly women had a lasting impact on me when I was growing up. I cannot explain why we had such a strong connection, but it was there, and it was real: Fern Burdette, Miss Lizzie, Mrs. Waite, Jenny Knief, Mrs. Harshbarger, and of course, Eloise.
When my parents forced me to take six weeks of dance lessons with them, my partner was an elderly lady named Eloise. As a kid (and even now as an adult), I had no idea how old she was, but she seemed ancient. I was afraid I would step on her fossiled feet, and they might crumble! We had nothing to talk about until we discovered we had one thing in common—we each had someone we cared deeply about who was confined to a wheelchair. That commonality opened the floodgates, and we spent the dance lessons chattering away. Other than that, I think we connected because at the time, we both needed someone to depend upon.
I believe the young and the elderly are still able to connect. We each have so much to learn from one another. The elderly have wisdom, and the young have wishes. The elderly have experience, and the young have enthusiasm. The elderly have a life to look back on and share with pride, and the young have life to look forward to and dream about with hope. It certainly makes sense for us to share this together.
I hope my books cause generations to interact. Grandparents can introduce them to grandchildren, or grandchildren can share them with grandparents. There is no embarrassing language or improper situations. A younger generation can learn about a time of simplicity and innocence—something they may not experience firsthand.
FQ: One characteristic that stands out about your mother was that she was a survivor. It was her endurance and resilience that pulled her through familial hardships. What advice would you give to young people today who are going through rough family situations?
NIECE: I was an educator for forty-five years, with a career spanning from high school English teacher to university president. Throughout those years, I encountered a number of young adults who were dealing with difficult family situations. Most of them had something in common: they were missing one, two, three, or all four of the foundations of influence I had as a boy growing up in small town DeGraff, Ohio, population 900. Let me explain.
As a youngster, four influences guided me: family, school, church, and community. I am who I am today because of those nurturing factors. I am amazed at the number of students who have experienced none of those positive influences. Thus, I tried to establish a campuswide atmosphere that provided a sense of community—the kind of place where people look out for one another, care about one another, and where students feel safe and secure. My wife and I invited students into our on-campus home for meals, movies, and conversations. I had an open door policy at my office, primarily for students to have access to me. My wife and I encouraged students, faculty, and staff to attend the campus weekly chapel services. My goal was to create, maintain, and surround students with the same type of positive influences I experienced as an impressionable young man many years ago.
Specifically for students with difficult family situations, I have two pieces of advice. First, we don’t choose our families, but they are with us for life. Do all you can to resolve the dilemma, and if that doesn’t work, at least you know you tried. Second, don’t ever say the one thing—that lowest of blows or personal insult—that can never be taken back and that may negatively resonate for a lifetime. When parents shared concerns about their sons or daughters with me, I would urge them not to give up. Someday, the foundation they established as parents would be remembered, re-established, and respected. They may even watch it being instilled in their grandchildren.
For parents and sons and daughters alike, I encouraged them to keep caring about one another and to keep talking. Get passed these moments—better ones wait ahead.
FQ: Knowing that your mother was afraid of death, it became apparent that the reason for her fear was many-fold, one of which was unresolved conflict from her past. What have you learned from observing how fear gripped your mother?
Writing Perfect in Memory
became a cathartic experience for me. Some chapters, especially the last ones, were extremely difficult for me to write about. But the remembering, the writing, and the re-reading of what I had written gave me insights about my mother, and how two tragic incidents that occurred when she was sixteen affected her throughout her life. Ironically, much of my realization occurred during the final days of her life, and I never had the chance to tell her I finally understood why she felt so “out of place” throughout her lifetime.
I honestly think it was something more powerful than unresolved conflict that caused my mother to fear death. In fact, I think her fear was quite natural and understandable. Her mother died when Mom was only sixteen, and Mom was left to raise her two younger brothers when their father inexplicably panicked and abandoned them. My mother wanted to live to raise her boys. I think her fear of death was as simple as that. She did not want to abandon her family.
“All I ever wanted in life was to be a good mother and to make everything perfect for my boys,” she had said.
“Mom, you were a good mother, and we tried to be good sons. But nothing is perfect, except in memory.”
FQ: What advice would you offer to readers about preparing for death?
NIECE: My advice will sound clichéd, but it is all I have for an answer. Love every day as though it might be the last one. Don’t merely fantasize about a bucket list, actually create it, and then check the items off one by one. Trust the human spirit, and treat people with kindness. There is not enough kindness in the world today. Because death can come so unexpectedly, your act of kindness might be the last kind act someone experiences. Also, be kind because if you aren’t, the church could very well be empty for your funeral!
When I was in the third grade, we had a substitute teacher, Mrs. Cloud, for a week. On Friday afternoon, a few minutes before school was to be let out and the weekend would begin, she caught me watching the classroom clock. Mrs. Cloud spoke to me and loud enough for all of my classmates to hear. To this day I remember her exact words. “Rickie, you seem anxious for these last few minutes to pass. Someday, when you are older, you will wish you had them back.”
Her words have stayed with me, and even now I dislike wasting a minute. Okay, that’s my advice: don’t waste your minutes. Tempus fugue
FQ: Although your mother finally let go at the end, she held onto regrets for a long time. Having observed your mother's life journey, what advice would you give your readers about holding onto regrets?
NIECE: Several months ago, my youngest brother Kurt and I were having a deep, philosophical conversation. Kurt enjoys deep, philosophical conversations, and I always learn something from him during our talks. He asked if I had any regrets, and I quickly answered I did not. He was surprised, and then proceeded to tell me a few of his.
When he finished, I asked him why he had regrets and if, in fact, he hadn’t learned some valuable life experiences from those things he regretted. He thought about it—Kurt is a deep, philosophical thinker—and answered I was correct. He had learned from the things he regretted. He decided that, maybe, they were not regrets after all.
I really do not have any regrets. I am amazed at people who live their regrets—and eventually become regrettable themselves—for a lifetime. Why hold on to something that makes you unhappy? Now, that is something to regret!
FQ: While your stories have great appeal to baby boomers, they also reflect basic themes that are relevant today, such as love, respect, patience, and kindness—to name just a few. What themes do you hope young adults will learn from your stories?
NIECE: When I was pitching my series of books to various publishers, one of the typical questions they asked was, “Who is your target audience?” When I’d reply, “Pretty much everyone,” their skepticism quickly turned into rejection. Fortunately, Five Star Publications and its president, Linda Radke, believed in what I was writing and in me. Also, to validate my belief even more, a reviewer wrote that my books were appropriate for anyone age 10-110. I like that.
I hope young adults will learn more about an era they have only heard about. I hope the memories I recall will assist young readers in thinking about what memories they will hold sacred in forty years; to reflect upon who their major life influencers will be; to appreciate the moments they are living now. Those are the themes I want younger readers to take away from my stories.
I also hope to inspire baby boomers not only to remember, but to write their memories. Current and future family members will appreciate the documenting of family history and past lives.
I am proud that my books reflect the values of love, respect, patience, and kindness. Those are important traits to revere and honor. We seem to have lost our sense of civility presently. In a recent article I wrote for my Huffington Post blog, I lament the loss of civility. I titled the piece, “Can We Spell Civility Anymore, Let Alone Practice It?” I begin the article with an acrostic.
Concern ourselves with the well-being of others.
Initiate positive discussions about controversial topics.
Voice a differing opinion, then pause to listen.
Include more and exclude less.
Limit labeling and eliminate name-calling.
Interject a debatable point without being demeaning.
Temper intensity and hostility.
Yearn for compassion, tolerance, and understanding.
I think my books reflect a respect for civility.
FQ: Do you foresee you writing more memoirs?
NIECE: That is a great question. A number of my readers are encouraging me to write book four and to continue the series. Although I have not completely closed the door on the idea of an additional book, writing another “automythography”—a word I use to explain the genre instead of memoir—it will be awhile before I tackle a project of that nature. The three books in the series took twelve years to write, with Perfect in Memory taking four. Plus, writing Perfect in Memory drained me emotionally, and I need time to recharge.
FQ: What do you foresee will be your next literary project?
NIECE: My wife Sheree and I conceptualized a series of children’s books several years ago. We envision five books in the series and have completed three. We are in the illustration stage and will soon be in search of a publisher.
We are finding that we are not only a great team as husband and wife, we are pretty good writing collaborators as well. These books will have a nice range of appeal, from pre-readers to beginners. Adults will enjoy reading them aloud to their children and grandchildren. However, they may have to explain some of the stuff we think is pretty clever.
The first book has a working title of Lots! The second book is Lots and Lots! and the third Lots of Lots and Lots! Be on the lookout. We promise you will like them lots!