Penny (Morgan) Colman (1944-)
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature
Born 1944, in Denver, CO; Education: University of Michigan, A.B. (with distinction), 1966; Johns Hopkins University, M.A.T., 1967; University of Oklahoma, postgraduate work, 1977; New York University, book publishing program certificate, 1980. Hobbies and other interests: "Exploring cemeteries to find graves of historic people I write about; kayaking; going to every type of bookstore, especially used books; driving on long trips; walking and bicycling; doing puzzles and playing Scrabble; thinking and talking about ideas."
Office—138 Knickerbocker Rd., Englewood, NJ 07631.
Freelance writer and editor, 1975—; seminar leader, 1975—; United Presbyterian Church, New York, NY, program developer, 1977-81; Granger Galleries, New York, NY, founder and president, 1981-85; Center for Food Action, Englewood, NJ, executive director, 1986-87; What's New in Home Economics, Philadelphia, PA, associate editor, 1997. Columbia University Teachers College, New York, NY, adjunct instructor, 2001-03; Queens College, City University of New York, Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Flushing, NY, distinguished lecturer, 2003—; Ohio State University, College of Education, Columbus, visiting lecturer, 2004. Appointed to New Jersey Commission on Hunger, 1986, and New Jersey State Women Infant Children Advisory Council, 1987. Speaker at conferences, including Children's Literature Conference, Ohio State University; lecturer at universities, including University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, Mount Holyoke College, University of Iowa, Florida Atlantic University, University of Maine, and Oakland University, Rochester, MI. Has appeared on radio, television, and Internet programs. Exhibitions: "On the Road: Marker, Monuments, Memorials to Women" (photographs), Bergen County Community College, 1997.
Authors Guild, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Silver Award, Lidman Prize Competition, 1990, for "Stamps!"; Paul A. Witty Short Story Award nomination, International Reading Association, 1990, for "But Not Ms. Anderson!"; Children's Book of the Year Awards, Child Study Association and Bank Street College of Education, and Recommended Book for Reluctant Readers citation, American Library Association, all for Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Social Studies, Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council (CSC/CBC), for A Woman Un-afraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins, for Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children, and for Strike!: The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present; Blue Ribbon Award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1995, Junior Library Guild selection, Young Adult Best Book and Notable Children's Book citation, American Library Association, Best Book of the Year, School Library Journal, Orbis Pictus Honor Book citation, National Council of Teachers of English, Teachers Choice and Young Adult Choice, International Reading Association, all 1996, all for Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II; Notable Children's Book citation, American Library Association, 2003, and Notable Children's Trade Book in the Social Studies, Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council (CSC/CBC) for Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II; Junior Library Guild selection, Best Books for the Teen Age List, New York Public Library, both 1997, Blue Ribbon Award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Best Children's Book of the Year, Children's Book Committee, Bank Street College of Education, and Society of School Librarians International Honor Book, all 1998, Best Books for Young Adults Citation, American Library Association, 1999, and Best Book of the Year citation, Publishers Weekly, all for Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial; Parents' Choice Award, Book of the Month Club selection, both 2000, and Best Book for the Teen Age List, New York Public Library, 2001, all for Girls: A History of Growing up Female in America; honored by the women of the New Jersey State Legislature for books and public appearances that have "contributed to the advancement of women."
FOR CHILDREN; NONFICTION
Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix, Shoe Tree (White Hall, VA) 1992.
Spies!: Women in the Civil War, Betterway (Cincinnati, OH),1992.
Fannie Lou Hamer and the Fight for the Vote, Millbrook (Brookfield, CT), 1993.
A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1993.
101 Ways to Do Better in School, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1994.
Madam C. J. Walker: Building a Business Empire, Millbrook (Brookfield, CT), 1994.
Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children, Millbrook (Brookfield, CT), 1994.
Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1994.
Women in Society: United States of America, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 1994.
Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, Crown (New York, NY), 1995.
Strike!: The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present, Millbrook (Brookfield, CT), 1995.
Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
Girls: A History of Growing up Female in America, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II, Crown (New York, NY), 2002.
Adventuring Women: Eight True Stories about Women Who Made a Difference, Holt (New York, NY), in press.
FOR CHILDREN; FICTION
I Never Do Anything Bad, illustrated by Pamela T. Keating, Paulist Press (Mahwah, NJ), 1988.
Dark Closets and Noises in the Night, illustrated by Pamela T. Keating, Paulist Press (Mahwah, NJ), 1991.
FOR ADULTS; NONFICTION
Spiritual Disciplines for Everyday Living, Character Research, 1982.
Grand Canyon Magic, PMC Books (Englewood, NJ), 1987.
This Is Bergen County Where People Make a Difference, League of Women Voters, 1989.
With Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas) Fifty Years Together: Researchers, Psychiatrists, Professors, and Parents, privately published, 1993.
Understanding Your Roles, Granger Publications (Oklahoma City, OK), 1977.
Putting Me Together, Granger Publications (Oklahoma City, OK), 1977.
Knowing Me and You, Granger Publications (Oklahoma City, OK), 1977.
(And editor) Hunger: Report and Recommendation of the New Jersey Commission on Hunger, New Jersey Commission on Hunger (Trenton, NJ), 1986.
Surviving in Bergen County, League of Women Voters, 1990.
The Equal Rights Amendment: A Curriculum Guide, National Education Association (Washington, DC), 1993.
Also author of Dare to Seek (one-act play), Granger, 1976; author of essays, articles, and short stories. Contributor to The Century That Was: Twelve Authors Reflect on the Past Hundred Years, edited by J. Giblin, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000; and to World Book Encyclopedia, 2005. Contributing editor, The American Way, Viking, 1976. Consulting editor, The Cheyenne Way, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1978; consulting editor and writer, Enabling the Enablers 1989. Contributor to Teens: A Fresh Look, John Muir, 1991. Editor of newsletters, including ACCESS, CFA News, Sharing, and Placement Happens When .… Author of script for videotape, Education Is the Key, Broad Street Productions, 1994. Contributor of nonfiction essays and fiction to periodicals for children and adults.
Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II was adapted as the play Rosie the Riveter by Eileen Phelan.
Penny Colman is the author of a number of nonfiction books, including biographies of famous and not-so-famous women of history. She also writes kid-winning social histories such as Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom and Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. Reviewing the latter title, Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin asserted that "Colman's approach to her subject is worlds away from dry textbook tradition."
Colman once told Something about the Author (SATA): "I grew up in a noisy family. Very noisy. My three brothers and I were close in age, and we were always into something: backyard baseball games; canoeing, swimming, and fishing in the creek that ran behind our house; and fighting with each other about this and that. There was also always music. We had a family orchestra: my dad played the piano, my mom and brother Vin played the cello, my brother Kip and I played the violin, and my brother Jon played the clarinet. We kids weren't very good, but we played anyhow. For several years, my parents also owned a farm with a huge barn and a swimming hole. We had three horses, six sheep, a goat who jumped on the hood of moving cars, and a flock of exotic-looking chickens that my dad and I ordered from a catalog. When all the noise and activity got to be too much, I would go for long bike rides. I loved to ride with 'no hands' on the handle bar, and I got to be so good that I could read a book and ride my bike at the same time!
Colman's first nonfiction work for a younger audience was Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Dix, an important figure in social reform for the treatment of people with mental illness, is painted in a three-dimensional portrait by Colman, who "does an excellent job of citing primary sources, with many of the passages from her subject's own writing," wrote Kathleen L. Atwood in the School Library Journal. Atwood called the book "a must purchase in the field of women's studies." Zena Sutherland, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books remarked that "Colman lets Dorothea Dix's achievements speak for themselves." As with all her books, Colman did the picture research for Breaking the Chains and took some of the photographs that appear in the book.
Her next title, Spies!: Women in the Civil War, focuses on women who served as spies for both sides during the Civil War. Not supporting one side or the other, Colman instead celebrated the patriotism and bravery shown by all the women who fought for their causes. Featured women include Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, and Harriet Tubman. Cecilia P. Swanson, writing in Kliatt, called Spies! a "fascinating book" and praised the "glimpses of these unlikely heroines." Elizabeth M. Reardon, in her School Library Journal review, commented, "this book will add some much-needed representation on the women who took part in that chapter of our history."
In writing nonfiction, Colman utilizes many of the techniques that novelists and short story writers use. As she noted in the New Advocate, she follows the five R's of creative nonfiction, as articulated by the editor Lee Gut-kind: "real life, reflection, research, reading, and 'riting." Colman went on to explain that the "initial task I undertake is discovering the structure, which is to nonfiction what plot is to fiction. Just as good fiction has a plot and subplots, good nonfiction has structure and substructures, or macro-and microstructures .…As I shape the structure, I also search for the essence of the story, the emotional insight, the cognitive concept that I want to illuminate."
Labor activist Mother Jones is the subject of Colman's well-received biography Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children. A primer on the fledgling labor movement and on child labor in the United States, Colman's biography details the twenty-day child labor protest march led by Mother Jones. Though the march failed to gain Jones an interview with President Theodore Roosevelt as planned, it did attract widespread press coverage. In her book Colman quotes Mother Jones: "The president refused to see us but our march had done its work. We had drawn the attention of the nation to the crime of child labor." Booklist critic Mary Harris Veeder praised Colman's use of historical documents, including photos of the actual march and first-hand newspaper accounts and editorial cartoons published at the time.
Colman continues to explore the themes of women's history and labor history in A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins, Strike! The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present, and Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II. In the first of these, Colman profiles Frances Perkins, the woman who served as the secretary of labor during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. Perkins was central in establishing many labor-related policies and legislation that still stand today, including Social Security. New York Times Book Review contributor Ellen Chesler commented that Colman "is equally thorough, fair, and candid in her treatment of Frances Perkins," while Booklist reviewer Susan DeRonne noted that readers get "a feel for the sweeping changes in the labor movement" along with a better understanding of Perkins herself. In a Voice of Youth Advocates review, Sari Feldman complimented Colman for writing about "the many contributions of Perkins that today are certainly taken for granted."
In Rosie the Riveter Colman concentrates on the efforts of women in the work force during World War II during which they took over manufacturing positions and other traditionally male-dominated jobs while the men served with the military. Elizabeth Bush, reviewing Rosie the Riveter in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, described the book as "tightly focused and smoothly written." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews praised that "Colman … expertly explores the enormous changes in the lives of women in their own homes and beyond." A writer for Publishers Weekly noted that, "Incorporating many first-hand accounts, [Colman] evenly explores the resistance" women felt and experienced as they moved into traditionally male roles.
In Strike! Colman explores two hundred years of labor struggles. Key labor protests are addressed, including the 1834 mill worker strike in Lowell, Massachusetts; the brutal Haymarket Square protest, and the Pullman strike of 1894. Shirley Wilton, writing in the School Library Journal, appreciated the "poignant detail" with which these and other events are described. "Colman's book is surprisingly readable," wrote Wilton, "and accomplishes its purpose of providing a general overview of labor history with style and accuracy." Julie Yates Walton of Booklist said that Colman's "comprehensive story of the 'bitter' struggle between American workers and their employers is a clear-eyed reminder of how ugly and violent the struggle actually was."
Rites of cleanliness are examined in Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers, and burial customs are brought to light in Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts. Historical facts young readers may be surprised to discover include Queen Isabella of Spain's boast that she had taken only two baths in her lifetime. Reviewing Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers in Booklist, Ilene Cooper commented that while Colman shows good taste and restraint in her discussion, she "offers plenty of anecdotes that will have kids happily yelling, 'Gross!'" Cooper further noted that the author's choice of topic "will be utterly fascinating to middle-graders (and let's face it, for adults, too)" and "hard to keep on the shelves." Elizabeth S. Watson, writing in Horn Book, praised Colman's "lucid, chatty descriptions," and termed the book "a clear, direct, accessible discussion."
When approaching the subject of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts, Colman "experienced a tangle of emotions," as she notes in her introduction to the text, adding that "different parts of me had different reactions: the creative part of me was challenged, the intellectual part was curious, and the emotional part was apprehensive." Booklist contributor Zvirin noted that Colman uses "heartfelt personal experience and comments from people she interviewed to moderate the visceral impact of the information." "A sensitive, solid book," Zvirin concluded, "with answers to questions people often need and want to know but are too reluctant to ask." Shirley Wilton observed in School Library Journal that death "has been underreported and mostly avoided in writing for young people," and went on to note that Colman's book "answers many questions and introduces fascinating facts." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "this is a book readers will pore over, not only for the wealth of absorbing information, but because Colman … allows readers to view [death] as a universal experience that connects them to others." As Colman herself remarked in the book, "Understanding death doesn't necessarily take away our anxieties or fears about our own death, or our sadness about other people's deaths, but it does help us to find ways to continue on with our lives." As in Breaking the Chains, many of Colman's photographs are featured in this book, including the cover photo.
Colman continued her exploration of women's history with Girls: Growing up Female in America and Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II. In Girls, Colman traces the experiences of girls in America from pre-Colonial days to the present day. The well-documented book includes diaries and letters in which girls write about their lives and the events around them, from the American Revolution through the twentieth century. By highlighting the experiences of girls from a wide variety of backgrounds, particularly girls of color, "a solid understanding of women is gained," wrote Rita Fontinha in Kliatt. Ilene Cooper wrote in Booklist that, "by folding individual stories into the parade of historical events, [Colman] also gives readers a sense of U.S. history," and a writer for Kirkus Reviews praised Colman for not creating a generic narrative for an "everygirl" audience, instead allowing a whole to "emerge from the histories and words of real people."
Where the Action Was focuses on the women who reported from the front lines of World War II. Eighteen female journalists and photographers are profiled through their own words and pictures, including Martha Gellhorn, Margaret Bourke-White, and Lee Miller. Though they often faced discrimination, intimidation, and outright ostracism, these women took great risks to document the human cost of war, from Iwo Jima to Buchenwald. Colman's accompanying text "impressively recreates … the danger, confusion, even the stench" of war, wrote Cooper in Booklist, and a writer for Kirkus Reviews praised the book, saying that "young readers and researchers will be astonished and delighted at [the] bravery" of these ground-breaking women.
Colman explained her approach to writing in the New Advocate: "Creating a high quality nonfiction book is not for the faint-hearted because it is a challenging, complex, time-consuming, and intense experience. Many of us do extensive research, including finding illustrative material that has to be carefully coordinated with the text. We spend countless hours thinking about structure and discovering the narrative. We glue ourselves to our chairs for endless days as we craft our writing in a way that will keep readers turning the page."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Colman, Penny, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
LeShahn, Edna, In Search of Myself and Other Children, M. Evans, 1976.
Booklist, October 1, 1993, Susan DeRonne, review of A Woman Unafraid; May 1, 1994, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children, p. 1596; January 1, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom, p. 818; November 15, 1995, Julie Yates Walton, review of Strike!: The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present, p. 550; April 15, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, p. 1490; November 1, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, a review of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, p. 466; February 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Girls: A History of Growing up Female in America, p. 1017; March 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II, p. 1145.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July-August, 1992, Zena Sutherland, review of Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix, p. 291; July-August, 1995, Elizabeth Bush, review of Rosie the Riveter, p. 380; February, 1998, p. 197.
Erie Dispatch, March 5, 1950.
Horn Book, March-April, 1995, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers, p. 213; September-October, 1995, Mary M. Burns, review of Rosie the Riveter, p. 617; January-February, 1998, review of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts, p. 91; March-April, 2002, Margaret A. Bush, review of Where the Action Was, p. 228.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1994, review of Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers; April 1, 1995, review of Rosie the Riveter; January 1, 2000, review of Girls; December 15, 2001, review of Where the Action Was, p. 1756.
Kliatt, March, 1993, Cecilia P. Swanson, review of Spies! Women in the Civil War; March, 2004, Rita Fontinha, review of Girls, p. 37.
Library Journal, December, 1997, Shirley Wilton, review of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts, p. 134.
New Advocate, summer, 1999, Penny Colman, "Nonfiction Is Literature, Too," pp. 215-222.
New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1993, Ellen Chesler, review of A Woman Unafraid, p. 40; September 10, 1995, review of Rosie the Riveter, p. 35; May 19, 2002, Jeanne M. Pinder, "Gas Mask and Heels," p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, May 8, 1995, review of Rosie the Riveter, p. 297; November 3, 1997, review of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts, p. 86; February 9, 1998, p. 98; February 28, 2000, review of Girls.
Redbook, January, 1957, "The Strangest Place to Find a Family."
School Library Journal, July, 1992, Kathleen L. Atwood, a review of Breaking the Chains, p. 92; April, 1993, Elizabeth M. Reardon, review of Spies! Women in the Civil War; March, 1995, Kate Hegarty Bouman, review of Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers, p. 209; May, 1995, review of Rosie the Riveter; January, 1996, Shirley Wilton, review of Strike!, p. 132; December, 1997, review of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts..
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1994, Sari Feldman, review of A Woman Unafraid; June, 1996, p. 86; August, 1996, p. 149.
Warren Observer, October 15, 1953; December 24, 1953.
Wilson Library Bulletin, June, 1994, p. 127.
Penny Colman Web site, http://www.pennycolman.com (January 25, 2005).
Penny (Morgan) Colman
Penny Colman contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I know adults who easily remember their childhood. Dot Chastney Emer, whom I interviewed for my book Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II (page one and throughout Rosie), quickly recalled what the bubblegum tasted like when she was a little girl during World War II. She described the clothes she wore, and the smell of the manure her father spread on their Victory Garden. She remembered the correct spelling of the first and last names of her classmates in elementary school.
Not me. My childhood memories are like a moth-infested sweater—full of holes. How then did I write this autobiography?
I did research.
I started by interviewing myself.
"Okay, Penny," I said to myself, "forget about the holes and write down what you do remember."
I wrote pages of memories. I wrote about my energetic family. I wrote about playing with my three brothers—backyard basketball and baseball; canoeing, swimming, and fishing in the creek that ran behind our house; ice skating; horseback riding; and roughhousing. I wrote about the sad ending to the story about the rare and exotic chickens that Dad and I ordered from a catalogue. I wrote about my mother playing her cello and painting (a story about one of her paintings and a picture of it is in my book Corpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History of Burial, pages 141-142), and writing articles for the newspaper about a saddlemaker and a barn auction and gypsies. I wrote down the stories that the adults told such as the one about how my parents got married in a hardware store.
I wrote and I wrote.
Then I rummaged around my house for what historians call primary source documents. I found several picture albums, including one that my parents made when I was a baby. I found my birth certificate and school papers. I found letters my father wrote to his father-in-law and to me, and letters I wrote when I took a bicycle trip across the United States in 1960. I found a diary I kept when I hitchhiked throughout Europe in 1964.
I unearthed a pin with two dachshunds that I got after my dog Liedchen died when I was in junior high school. I found three silver charm bracelets with seventeen charms, including a bicycle, a map of the United States, a cable car, a tambourine, a tennis racket, a sled, a sailboat with white sails, and a teeter-totter with two figures that move up and down, one wearing a pink shirt and green pants and the other wearing a white shirt and black pants.
Although the charms are more than forty years old, I remembered why I got them, except for one. The bicycle, map, and cable car represented my 1960 trip. The tambourine was for my love of music. The tennis racket and sailboat signified two of my favorite sports. The sled was for the tobogganing my brothers and I did in the winter. Why, however, was there a teeter-totter charm? Perhaps because I, or someone else, thought it was cute?
I found diplomas from high school, college, and graduate school. I found my marriage certificate and divorce certificate and many photographs of my three sons. There were boxes of notes and drafts and finished manuscripts for the many articles, stories, essays, a one-act play, and books that I have written. There were copies of journal articles and columns my father wrote and articles and stories my mother wrote and several articles my maternal grandfather wrote, including one about his trip at the age of eighty-three from New York City to Rio Ceballos in Argentina to visit his sister Fany, whom he had not seen for fifty-one years.
His visit lasted three weeks. Then they parted. "We embraced for the last time," he wrote. "Tears from our eyes were rolling and falling down like the leaves of autumn. I felt as if the dew fell silently upon us from heaven. Even the flowers around us in her garden had a sad expression and faded away from our dim and feeble sight" (Warwick Valley Dispatch, 1976). Although they did not see each other again, in 2004 I discovered, with the help of the Internet, that Fany's great-granddaughter Mariana lives near me, and now she regularly joins our family events.
I also found a magazine dated January, 1957 with an article and seven photographs about our family titled, "The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family." And we were a "happy family" then, unaware that hard and sad times would come to us. As for the "strangest place," that was where we lived—on the grounds of Warren State Hospital, a huge institution for people—more than 30,000 at that time, with serious mental illness.
We moved there in 1949, the year I turned five, after living in Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Lexington, Kentucky. I always liked reciting that living-all-over-the-United-States-before-I-was-five-years-old itinerary. To me, it seemed exotic because my parents were not originally from any of those places, or even close to them.
My father, Norman Charles Morgan, who was of English and Welsh ancestry, was born and grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1918, and went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. My mother, Marija (known as Maritza) Leskovar, was born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), in 1920. Her mother, Pavla Mihailovic Junkovic, died before my mother was a year old and her father, Joseph Leskovar, put her in an orphanage near the Black Sea. My mother was about three when Marketa (known as Greta) Kosiř, Joseph's first cousin, visited her. Determined to get my mother out of the orphanage, Greta, a gentle, beautiful woman, married Joseph. Many years later, Greta's sister, Bedřišeka (known as Frieda) Matousek, showed me the yellow and white checkered blanket that my mother was wrapped in when Greta first brought her to her parents' farm in Koryčany, a village in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). In the mid-1920s, Joseph and Greta and my mother immigrated to Canada and then to New York City.
My mother and her father never got along. Finally when my mother was about ten, Greta arranged for her to live with the family in Koryčany. Periodically, my mother visited her parents in New York City. In 1938, the year Adolf Hitler's army invaded Czechoslovakia, my mother moved to New York City. Within a year she entered Cornell University, where she and my father met. My mother's roommate, Eda LeShan, witnessed my parents' courtship and their wedding in a hardware store. Many years later, Eda became a well-known parent educator and writer. She wrote about that time in my parents' life in her book In Search of Myself and Other Children. I know that the "two classmates" in this excerpt are my parents because Eda, whom I knew as my "Jewish grandmother," told me. Here is the excerpt:
"During my first year in college I played the role of 'member of the wedding' to two classmates who fell in love .…
"I found them fascinating. I was a provincial, protected middle-class girl who had never been away from home, except to camp. To me they seemed crazy and wild .… They found an abandoned farmhouse and 'furnished' it at the city dump. They eloped, with me, as witness, and were married by a rural justice of the peace who happened to own a hardware store. The wedding took place surrounded by chicken wire, with chamber pots hanging over our heads! It was spring, and as we drove away from the college we passed a field of blue wildflowers. The young man stopped the car and ran into the field, making wedding bouquets for us to carry at the wedding .…
"One day, during the winter of our first meeting each other, we were driving together through a snowy woods. Again the young man stopped the car abruptly, and we made a snow maiden. I returned the next day to take pictures of her, and wrote the following composition for my English class:
Yesterday three gay, excited people, happy in their togetherness and in being alive in a snowy world, giggled and shouted … as they teased the snow into becoming a playfellow .… They built a snow maiden, high as a small tree .… In her arms is a child, made fast to her body by snow firmness .… The eyes of the young woman reach to a small spot of sky between the treetops .…Her power fills the woods .… She will not melt until the sun is really warm. Then, as spring persists, the sun will gently weld the child and her mother into one. No one walking thought the woods will ever know that she lived .… But she cannot cease to be, for she was born of happy loving."
(She also "cannot cease," I think as I read Eda's words, because Eda memorialized the snow maiden in writing.)
After college, my parents moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, where my father went to medical school at Dartmouth College, and my mother created displays for the museum. After two years, they moved to Denver, Colorado, where my father finished medical school at the University of Colorado. I was born in Denver on September 2, 1944, eleven months after my brother Vincent was born, and three years after the United States entered World War II. I was named Penelope Granger Morgan. The Granger was for my grandmother, my father's mother, who was Mary Elizabeth Granger before she married Frank Millett Morgan, her first cousin. We called them Gramp and Grammie.
I loved Grammie, but I have no fond memories of Gramp, although he excelled at fun things such as stamp collecting, photography, and fishing. He was a grump, even when I went with him to a fascinating convention of stamp collectors, even when he took me dry-fly fishing for trout that I loved to eat.
But worst than being a grump, Gramp was a bigot.
Once when I was about twelve years old, Gramp and Grammie were taking me to a church supper (for the food, not the religion). I was wearing a new outfit, a blouse and skirt with alternating big blocks of solid black and white. The skirt was full, but droopy, and Grammie asked Gramp to stop at a department store so she could buy me a crinoline to wear under the skirt and puff it out.
Gramp stopped, and I went into the store with Grammie and fell in love with a crinoline that had many layers, each a different color—yellow, red, blue, green, white, and most electrifying—a layer of bright pink! I had never seen anything like it; being an only girl with three brothers, I was more familiar with blue jeans and T-shirts.
While Grammie paid, I happily slipped on the crinoline that looked like a rainbow-colored open parachute. Whoosh, my skirt puffed out, and, oh, I felt so pretty—skinned knees, chewed fingernails, and unruly curly hair all transformed by the colorful crinoline, especially the bright pink layer.
I gaily bounced out of the store and slid onto the back seat of the car. While I patted my skirt with my hands, Gramp turned to look at me. He glanced at the material showing under my skirt, frowned, and announced, "Young lady, you go back into that store and return that undergarment."
"Mary," he admonished Grammie as she opened the car door, "you take her back. No granddaughter of mine is going to wear anything with 'nigger pink' in it."
I protested, but to no avail.
"Come on, Penny," Grammie said. And, so, we returned to the store and exchanged my multi-colored crinoline for an all-white one. It too filled out my skirt, but the rainbow outside and inside of me was gone.
And that is just one example of Gramp's bigotry that encompassed career women, Jews, Democrats, and foreigners like my mother, especially because she had dark eyes, dark hair, and a dark-olive complexion.
Now, back to my first name—Penelope. My mother, the story goes, thought that she could win over Gramp, if she gave me a proper WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) name. She did some research, and selected three names: Hepzibath, Abigail, and Penelope. Then she wrote each name on a slip of paper, put them in a hat, and drew out, obviously—Penelope. I never knew what my father's role was in all this. But I know Gramp never changed his attitude toward my mother. As for me, I grew up determined to fight bigotry for as long as I lived.
Shortly after I was born and named Penelope, but called Penny, we moved to Seattle, Washington, where my father served as a medical officer in the United States Public Health Service. My family repeated two stories from this time. One about how my father relished storms at sea when he was stationed on board a Coast Guard cutter; how he stood in the bow like a rodeo cowboy riding a bronco until the captain ordered him to safety below deck.
The other story was about how my parents unwittingly baked me. It happened during a clamming excursion along the shores of Puget Sound. I was less than a year old and my parents wrapped me in towels to protect me from the sun while they went clamming. Tightly wrapped in towels, I sat there as the hot sun turned my wet bathing suit and the towels into a steam oven. When my parents returned and unwrapped me, I was the color of a cooked lobster—bright red. I never knew quite what to make of that story, or why my parents repeated it. Finally I decided to take it as a cautionary tale when I was raising my own children.
My parents loved Seattle and were happy there, but, as was the case during the war, within a year my father was transferred to Portland, Oregon, where my brother Jonathan was born. During our brief stay there, my parents took us on a picnic at Mt. Hood, an extinct volcano in the Cascade Mountains fifty miles east of Portland. That excursion resulted in a story that embarrassed me when I was a kid. As an adult, I vowed not to retell or write stories that embarrass people.
So, what's the story? When we returned home from the picnic at Mt. Hood, a friend of my parents asked me what I saw. "A little froggie under a leaf where I went pee-pee," I replied. And that's the punch line of the story.
From Portland, we moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, the first hospital established by Congress for the confinement and treatment of drug addicts. Originally called the Lexington Narcotic Farm, the institution included numerous brick buildings with bars on the windows and doors, spacious lawns, a farm and a dairy on a 1,050 acre site. There were over a thousand patients, most of them addicts. Others were prisoners who had been judged to be criminally insane. My brother Christopher was born in Lexington. He is called Kip because my brothers and I pronounced Christopher as "Kiptafur."
My father was training to be a psychiatrist. Originally he planned to be an internist, but switched, the story went, because he increasingly realized that often-times there was a connection between patients' bodily illnesses and their minds. Psychiatry also appealed to my father because it was bloodless, and my father hated the sight of bloody injuries, a dislike he could barely contain when any of us were bloody. Like the time when I was about ten years old and my brothers and I were out late one dark night spying on the neighbor boy who, we had heard, watched television in his underwear.
"Run, he sees us!" one of my brothers shouted.
And I did, straight into a tree branch and gouged a hole in the socket of my left eye. Bloodied and screaming, I burst into the house where my parents were having a dinner party. Fighting against fainting at the sight of my eye, my father rushed me to an office where he stitched my jagged wound. My mother assisted him, stepping away only for a moment to wiggle out of her girdle, an act that made me laugh.
"Hold still!" my father ordered me. "I'm stitching very close to your eye."
My eye, happily, was fine. My only reminder of my accident is a small scar at the outside corner of my left eye. Occasionally I rub it and smile at the memory of my father who did what he had to do despite his aversion to bloody wounds and my mother who assisted him, after wiggling out of her girdle.
In Kentucky, we lived in one of the houses built for doctors, although I do not remember it. I also do not remember going to concerts in the hospital auditorium where patients such as Judy Garland and King Cole (later known as Nat King Cole) performed, although my parents said they took us. Nor do I remember spending time with the writer and artist Alexander King, who went to Lexington four different times for a total of fourteen months before he finally cured himself.
One of King's stays coincided with our time there. In his book King described my father as a man "who possessed gifts of imagination rarely to be met anywhere."
"I once told him," King wrote, "how depressing it was to see the same dreary, collapsed, dope-addict faces all around me, month after month, and how I longed for the sight of someone who was quite uncontaminated by the institutions." In response, my father started bringing me and one of my brothers to visit King. "I had the pleasure," King wrote, "of passing a few enjoyable hours with these extraterrestrial beings, telling them stories and drawing a lot of pictures for their special amusement .… I can tell you that those two children affected me like the sight of sudden spring flowers in a horrible cinder pile."
Who I do remember, however, is a tall, thin man with baggy clothes, wild hair, wild eyes, big head, a gaunt face, bony fingers and long arms who jerked his head and shouted at someone who was not in the room, at least that I could see. I do not know how the man spelled his name, but my phonetic spelling is Eef.
Eef would scoop me up and carefully sit me on the kitchen counter, all the while jerking his head and shouting at someone I could not see. Then he would make me the absolutely most perfect soft-boiled egg, all the while jerking his head and shouting at someone I could not see. Mostly I remember him shouting, "No … don't make me … leave me alone … No!"
Years later, my father told me that Eef had been judged by the courts to be criminally insane and was a prisoner at Lexington. He had killed his wife with a hatchet because he thought that God told him to. Eef was on medication, my father explained, and it was good for him to be able to come to our house, instead of being locked in the ward all the time. As for the person I could not see, that was a voice in Eef's head that he thought was God telling him to do things that Eef did not want to do.
Many people are aghast when I tell them that story. "What were your parents, especially your father, thinking?" they ask. "How could they expose you to such a dangerous person?" To my parents, I reply, Eef was not a dangerous person, he was a mentally ill person who was getting treatment. To me, he was an intriguing person who made the absolutely most perfect soft-boiled eggs in the world.
The year I turned five, in 1949, we moved to the grounds of a huge institution for people with serious mental illness, Warren State Hospital, the place referred to in the magazine articles I wrote about earlier as "The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family." Of course, having just read about my experiences in Lexington, you know that Warren State Hospital was, in fact, the second "strangest place" I lived.
Living in these places clearly inspired me to later write my first biography, Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix, about the legendary nineteenth-century crusader for humane treatment of people with mental illness and mental retardation, especially poor people. An effective and eloquent advocate, Dorothea Dix insisted that, as I quote in my book: "It is time that people should have learnt that to be insane is not to be disgraced; that sickness is not to be ranked with crime."
Warren State Hospital was actually a self-contained city built over many acres. Of the more than 30,000 patients, some were confined behind locked doors and barred windows. Other patients lived on open wards and were free to walk around the grounds. Patients who were able did many jobs, although for little pay, at the farm, at the institution, and in the doctors' homes as cooks and housekeepers and handymen.
Ruth, a short, rotund woman with frizzy hair whom we all loved, came to our house and cooked. Her specialty was a coffee chiffon pie that we, especially my father, devoured. Glenn, a quiet, serious man who was a carpenter, built us a big covered wagon. Roy, a taciturn man whose fingers were stained yellow with nicotine, was a handyman who could fix most anything.
The hospital had a farm with many barns, big fields where cabbage, turnips, and potatoes grew and pastures with cows and bulls and horses. In the middle of the institution was a large grassy field with three baseball diamonds ringed by maple trees. There were several tennis courts and many brick and stone buildings of various sizes. Main Hall was a massive stone edifice with two towers that stood at the end of the tree-lined, long, straight front entrance road that was marked at its beginning by two stone pillars.
My father's office was in Main Hall, as was the well-stocked canteen run by the patients. I bought lots of candy and ice cream and pens, and other stuff there. That's where I was at about the age of nine when I found out that a patient—a particularly gentle man who taught me and my brothers how to play baseball—had "gone crazy" and burst into my father's office and smashed a ten-pound piece of iron down on Dad's head.
Fortunately Dad was talking on the telephone to the hospital operator. She heard the commotion and clattering of the receiver when Dad dropped it, and summoned help. Attendants and doctors came on the run. Dad, they later reported, refused to get his head stitched up until he was sure that our friend the patient was tended to. When the patient who told me the story got to the part about my father heroically insisting on the patient's welfare first, he shook his head and said about my father: "Doc's crazy," an interesting comment for me to remember all these many years later; perhaps because it was an early exposure to different perspectives.
That night at dinner, I remember, Dad carefully explained to us that our friend the patient was ill not bad or evil, but that he would have to stay on a locked ward until he got better. In time, Dad said, he will be able to play ball with you again. And, as I remember it, he did.
Warren State Hospital was located in North Warren, Pennsylvania, a village three miles north of Warren, a town built in a valley where the Allegheny River and Conewango Creek joined in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. While doing my research for Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix, I was delighted to discover and quote from Dix's writings about her travels to investigate the treatment of mentally ill people in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania: "thirty-four hours without stop except to change horses … boat to Pittsburgh … Meadville … Erie … to Warren, no road, would take more than fifty miles horseback, cannot attempt that, had to take long route through New York by Jamestown "a nearby town where my father later had an office and my brother Kip and his family now live."
Warren was a town of Presbyterians and Episcopalians, in addition to some Methodists, Lutherans, and a few Baptists. There was a large Roman Catholic Church—the religion of my mother's growing up—built for the Italians who lived on the other side of the tracks where the riverbanks were low. Politically, Warren was Republican. There were no African-Americans, for as I later learned, if any came to town the police told them to move on, nor were there people who were born in other countries like my mother, at least, not that I ever knew about.
In as many ways as they could, my parents up-ended the social, cultural, and political narrowness of this environment. My father started a pioneering psychiatric training program that brought doctors and their families from other countries, especially India and Turkey. In 1952, my parents supported the Democratic candidate for president, Adlai Stevenson, and I remember standing on a street corner holding a campaign sign. Their close friends, Eda LeShan and her husband Larry, were our Jewish grandparents, and we eagerly anticipated their visits from New York City with a carload of thin, fat, hard, and soft salamis; rye bread; and gefilte fish. My parents always invited Philip Schwartz, the hospital's pathologist, and his wife Vera, both of whom spoke with thick accents, to join us for our regular excursions to the beach of flat, smooth rocks at Barcelona, New York, a fishing village on Lake Erie, another place that Dorothea Dix visited. (Philip Schwartz is the same Dr. Schwartz I later wrote about in Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial; he came to our house with "slices of people's brains in thick, narrow glass containers.")
My parents also enlivened life by inviting a potpourri of guests to their parties. I remember Margery, a woman with huge eyes and a husky voice, who illustrated her conversations with her long silver and ebony cigarette holder, the smoke of her lighted cigarette lingering in the air after each stroke of the holder. There was Quinn, a multitalented elf of a man who did the wiring for an elaborate HO-gauge electric train setup my parents created on sheets of plywood, complete with towns and papier-maché tunnels and mountains. There was Jim, a table tennis champion, and Elizabeth, who played piano duets with my father. Some patients were invited, too. In rereading the magazine article, I noticed the writer quoted a patient as asking: "Doctor, are your parties always this crazy?"
My favorite party was the elaborate dinner on Christmas Eve. The guest list was expandable in that everyone and anyone who did not have a place to go was invited. As I remember it, my mother drove around inviting people off the street, although that may not be an accurate memory. What is accurate is the tradition of hanging a string of sleigh bells out the kitchen window. Periodically during the scrumptious dinner, one of us would slip away to put a present outside by the front door. Someone else would slip into the kitchen and pull the strap to ring the bells.
"Hush," Mom said loudly and dramatically. "Listen!"
That was the bell ringer's cue to pull the strap even harder.
"It's Santa Claus!" she would announce. "Let's see if he left anything!"
Off we'd race to the front door, and, find, lo and behold, a present for someone at the table. This went on and on until everyone had a present. Sometimes there were more guests than gifts and Mom would dip into my stack of gifts under the tree.
"Penny, you do not mind, do you?" she would ask. At times, I did, but I always agreed to share. Why? Now, I am not sure, although most likely it was because of what I do remember—the delight of each and every guest who got a gift from Santa.
During our years at Warren State Hospital, we lived in three different houses. The first was a one-floor brick house situated beside the hospital's massive power plant with its very tall smokestack and enormous coal pile. Railroad tracks ran between our house and the power plant, and I remember the train stopping and tipping the coal car to dump out the coal, filling the air with clouds of black dust. A three-lane highway ran on the other side of the power plant. It was on that highway that a group of patients saved Kip from certain injury, if not death.
It happened one afternoon when Mom went into the house to answer the telephone and left one-and-a-half-year-old Kip playing with his toys alone in the yard. She returned and found him missing. Just then she heard a commotion. It was a group of patients who were working on the coal pile. Dropping their shovels, they raced onto the highway, shouting and waving their arms to stop traffic. Then Mom saw Kip, who had managed to toddle to the far lane, safely cradled in the arms of another patient who was carrying him to safety. I was at kindergarten when that happened, but I heard all about it when I got home. The patients were so brave, I remember thinking.
I was home alone with Grammie one sunny beautiful day when a man wrapped in a white sheet knocked on the back door.
"Excuse me, Madame," he said and politely asked for permission to take a sun bath in our yard.
Grammie agreed. But when she looked out the window and saw the man lying stark naked on his sheet, she realized that he was probably an escaped patient from a locked ward, something that periodically happened, and called Dad.
"I'm on my way." Dad said. "Keep him there!"
Just then Grammie saw the man get up.
"Sir," she called out to him. "Please join us for a cup of tea."
That is why he was sitting at the table, wrapped in his sheet, drinking tea when my breathless father arrived.
"Norman," Grammie said to Dad. "Sit down and have a cup of tea." And, he did, surprising me with how quickly he obeyed Grammie. When the tea cups were finally empty, Dad and two burly attendants escorted the man back to his ward.
The second house we lived in was a white, two-story house near the end of a row of houses built for doctors and social workers. A porch ran the length of one side and the house sat close to the fence of black iron rods that marked the border of the hospital grounds. On the other side of the fence, there was a sidewalk and a two-lane, tree-lined road. The shoulder of the road was a steep bank above the Conewango Creek that flowed past the grounds toward Warren where it emptied into the Allegheny River. The name Creek gives the wrong impression because it was not a creek in the dictionary definition of a "small stream"; it was a river, and it was our playground.
All summer, we swam, fished, and canoed. One of our games involved two people standing on the gunnels at each end of the canoe and vigorously jumping up and down and rocking back and forth until one person fell off. We explored islands in the middle of the water, and when the water was low we played on the low, concrete dam that stretched across the creek about a quarter of a mile downstream.
The year I turned nine years old, 1953, my parents bought a farm, another place where we played. We also worked hard.
Six miles from the hospital, the farm had eighty-four acres of flat fields, an apple orchard, and rolling hills with forests and meadows where wild strawberries grew. Jackson Run Creek, truly a "small stream," ran along the base of the hills. There was a big barn with a tin roof, stalls for horses and cows, and a hayloft that was in good shape. The two-story farmhouse with a tar-paper roof, was run down and filled with rubbish—rags and rusted tools, beer bottles and broken furniture. A small building between the barn and the house that my parents said we could use for a clubhouse was a mess, too.
We threw ourselves into fixing up the farmhouse and small building. For days, we sorted, lifted, lugged, dumped, and burned stuff in big bonfires. Then came the repairing, rebuilding, scrubbing, scrapping, painting and wallpapering. Mom got stacks of free square-shaped, samples of wallpaper that we pasted on the walls of my small bedroom under the eaves, creating a four-sided patchwork quilt.
After that was done, we made a swimming hole in the stream by building a dam out of boulders and logs and dirt. I vividly remember the day Dad was hacking away with a pickax at a stump in the water and inadvertently sliced open the side of a harmless, long, fat water snake; fat, we discovered, because she was pregnant. Stunned, curious, amazed, and concerned, I watched the baby snakes tumble out of the mother snake's gaping wound into the water.
"Will the babies live?" I asked Dad.
"Yes, they are clearly big enough to survive," he replied. I was relieved, although I hoped that the baby snakes would survive someplace other than in our swimming hole.
We owned the farm for three years. During that time, I learned how to hay and how to shear sheep (we had six), and how to ride horses (we had three, including a Morgan horse; my father was a descendant of Justin Morgan, the owner of the original stallion of the breed). We had a brown and white billy goat who jumped on the front hood of moving cars. Then there were the chickens, not regular looking chickens, but rare and exotic chickens that Dad and I ordered from a catalogue—chickens with beards; chickens with long sweeping tail feathers; chickens with feathered feet; and a chicken that had silver and black feathers, a flowing crest, a V-shaped comb, a muff of feathers at its throat, and a fifth toe.
We raised the chickens in our garage until they were big enough to live on the farm. Unfortunately we forgot about foxes and other wildlife that eat chickens, and that is the sad ending to my story about the rare and exotic chickens that Dad and I ordered from a catalogue.
That same year—when I turned nine and we bought the farm—I got a close-up view of two writers—my parents. Mom joined the staff of a local newspaper as a journalist and photographer. Occasionally she took me with her when she went off in pursuit of a story. I listened as she interviewed Pete Pepkey, the saddlemaker. I watched while she took notes and photographs for an article about the annual field day and watermelon-eating contest at Warren State Hospital. I was there when she decided to investigate a rumor that gypsies were camping at Lake Erie State Park, a park on the eastern shore of Lake Erie about an hour drive from North Warren.
Off we went in our baby-blue Ford station wagon. Entering the park, we drove around until suddenly we spotted people coming out of a wooded area down a hillside. They came, Mom wrote, "down the hillside in a graceful line." There were women with "touselheaded babies in their arms" and men and boys and girls, especially, I remember, a girl who turned out to be my age, who had my same dark brown eyes and dark hair and dark olive complexion. Mom interviewed many people, including the girl, and took many photographs. "Gypsies they are," Mom concluded in her Warren Observer, article, "… as one young man assured us later, they were the best gypsy clan in the United States."
My adventures of going off with my mother with her notepad and pencil and camera in search of real people doing real things in a real place introduced me to the exciting world of nonfiction writing. So did my father's writing activities when, that same year, he started writing a weekly column, "Everyday Psychology," for several newspapers.
In rereading Dad's columns, I noted that he covered many topics—religion, psychiatry, stuttering, raising children, race relations, mental retardation and education. Occasionally, he wrote about our family, as evidenced by this excerpt from his column that appeared the day before Christmas in 1953.
"A few days before Christmas my whole family went out to the woods to cut our tree. The snow was deep, the path long, and the wind very cold. Before we had fetched our Christmas tree back the car, I heard grumbling complaints about cold feet and frost-nipped ears. Someone even mumbled phrases that sounded very much like 'next year I hope we buy our tree.'
"A warm house and hot soup brought a glow to our faces. One of the boys looked up showing a broad smile. He said, 'That was real fun, Daddy. Are you going to write about it for the paper?'"
The fact that Dad did so showed me that real people doing real things in real places are interesting and worth writing about. His columns also showed me that nonfiction is a valuable vehicle for sharing true stories and discussing issues and ideas. I also learned, from other articles that Dad wrote, that writing nonfiction is a way to bring about change, or at least to try, a big value in my family. In particular I remember an article Dad wrote in which he exposed poor conditions and shoddy treatment of patients in mental institutions in Pennsylvania.
I was about eleven or twelve when I published my first article. We were living in our third house on the grounds, a newly built house surrounded by lots of lawn. Across the street was a big cabbage field where my brother Jon and I practiced with our bow and arrow by angling our bows upward and shooting. We watched the arrow's arc, waiting to hear "twang," the sound of the vibrations from the shaft if the arrow landed directly in the center of a head of cabbage.
My first article appeared in the first, and I think only, edition of a newsletter I created to announce the start of our neighborhood orchestra comprised of me, my brothers, and our friends. Vin was the conductor. Kip and I played the violin. Jon played the clarinet. Our friend Elsa played the flute. Martin played the trombone. There was a trumpet player, a cellist, and a double bass player. I remember struggling to figure out how to translate the sounds of the instruments into letters and words. Years later, I remembered that struggle as I was writing a fiction story, "I Like It When People Laugh," and translating the sounds of laughter into letters and words.
I grew up surrounded by music—classical, opera, Broadway show music, popular, folk, rhythm and blues. Kip, I remember, loved Elvis Presley. We all played various instruments. My parents were excellent musicians. My brothers and I varied in our abilities, but we were always willing to make music together. There is a wonderful photograph in the magazine article, "The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family," of one of our "family musicales": Kip and I are playing the violins, Jon is playing the clarinet, Mom and Vin are playing the cello, Dad is playing the piano. Hanging on the wall behind Dad are four of Mom's oil paintings, two of which now hang on the walls in my house.
As an author, I am always listening for the music—tone, rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre—in my writing. For an example of this, listen musically as you read each word in the opening sentence in Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II: "The summer between second and third grade, Dot Chastney had her first inkling that things weren't quite right in the world." Read it again and beat the rhythm of the sentence, a string of one and two syllable words. Now, identify the most important word, the word that tickles your brain, catches your attention because it changes the accent, or the emphasis of your beat. What word did you select? Inkling? Yes! Now make a list of synonyms for inkling—idea, intimation, indication, notion, thought, hunch, hint, sign, suspicion, clue, etc. Then select a synonym, substitute it for inkling in the sentence and read the sentence out loud, listening for how the substitute word affects your response to the sentence.
In addition to writing musically, I listen to music when I write—not when I am doing research or assessing my material or thinking about the structure or when I am writing in my head—just when I am physically writing. That is when I listen to music, not just any music, just the right music. What is the right music? That is hard to answer, except to say, I know it when I hear it. Then I play it over and over again at high volume until I finish whatever it is that I am writing.
I also grew up surrounded by art. Dad was a sculptor. Once, in exchange for being allowed to stay up late, I agreed to sit still long enough for him to shape a clump of clay into a bust of me, ponytail and all. Mom was a well-known painter, and a popular art teacher. In my collection of stuff I gathered to write this piece, I found a 1950 Erie Dispatch, newspaper article, "Art for Children Only!," about art classes Mom taught at the public library for children "aged eighteen months, four, five and six!" The writer noted that "Mrs. Morgan brings along her daughter, Penelope, 5" and there I am in the accompanying photograph. She also took me with her when she taught art at the Hoffman Children's Home, an orphanage in Warren. Years later, a friend in high school who had lived there when he was a boy told me that doing art with Mom always made him happy.
I did not inherit my parents' abilities to sculpt and paint. As a writer, however, I shape material and paint scenes in my articles, essays, stories, and books. Here is a brief description of Harriet Tubman from Spies! Women in the Civil War: "Toughened by years of hard labor, Harriet Tubman was a powerful woman. According to one account, 'before she was nineteen years old she was a match for the strongest man on the plantation .…She could lift huge barrels of produce and draw a loaded stone boat like an ox.' About five feet tall, Harriet Tubman had formidable features—heavy-lidded, wide-set eyes, strong cheekbones and forehead, and a firm mouth with a full lower lip (she had lost her upper front teeth so her upper lip appeared flat). Her only receding feature was her chin, and that was balanced by her well-defined ears."
My childhood immersion in art clearly contributed to the creation of my very visual brain and strong aesthetic sensibilities. I do my own picture research for my books, indicating on the manuscript exactly where I think the image should be inserted. I also take photographs for my books, including some pictures for Girls and the cover picture and most of the photographs in Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts. When I am writing a book, I "see" design ideas, including using newspaper headlines as a graphic element at the beginning of each chapter in Where the Action Was.
Mom painted everywhere—in the living room, the den, the basement. There is a wonderful photograph in "The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family" of her painting outside. Wearing one of Dad's old white shirts with the sleeves rolled up, she is standing beside the picnic table with one knee resting on the bench, intently working on a canvas lying on the table; nearby is a tin can full of brushes and tubes of oil paints. Beside that photograph is a picture of me flying my red, yellow, green and purple cloth box kite with wings.
Dad bought me that kite. Years later, I wrote an essay, "Dancing with the Birds," about our kite flying experiences. I am reprinting it here for two reasons: 1) It demonstrates how I turned a childhood experience into a published essay; 2) It is a short piece, 524 words, yet conveys clear and emotionally evocative images and feelings. I like writing a short piece because it hones my ability to select just the right word, an essential skill for any writer.
Any wind was enough for my father. Slight or strong, it didn't matter, it was kite-flying time. He bought kites like gardeners ordered seeds, skiers purchased wax and folks who fish collected lures—something for every condition.
It was an all-day affair when Dad and I went kite-flying. We would drive to a huge meadow that stretched along both sides of a country road.
"Which way is the wind coming from?" Dad always asked as we got out of the car. I'd moisten my index finger in my mouth, hold it up and wait to see which side of my finger dried first.
If the wind was strong like a hair drier, it was easy to tell, but a light or gusty breeze was trickier and sometimes I had to wet my fingers several times.
Then I would grab the kite and walk with the wind against my back while Dad stood still and unrolled the string as I walked farther away from him.
"Okay," he would shout. "That's far enough!" With that I would turn my face into the wind and sprint back toward Dad holding the kite over my shoulder.
"That's it! That's it!" he would yell as I ran and the wind lifted the kite. "It's up!" he'd exclaim as the string rose up beyond my reach. Higher and higher the kite would fly, soaring over the trees and sailing with the clouds as Dad played out the string.
We always experimented—flying two kites at one time, one in each hand or lying down and tying the string around one of our feet. Years later, when I was a college student, I devised a way to fly a kite from my second story dormitory window, but that's another story.
My favorite was when we flew our red, yellow, green and purple cloth box kite with wings (heavy wind). As Dad slowly let the box kite rise, I would quickly get a paper kite in the air and tie its string to the box kite's string. Over and over I would tie paper kites until the box kite was at the end of its string. On a particularly bright blue, breezy day, we had five paper kites soaring at intervals off the box kite's main string—a record to this day.
Dad and I would spend hours together decorating the sky, sharing the wind, dancing with the birds and touching the clouds. And we would end every kite-flying excursion with the same ritual. In the mellow light of late afternoon, I would send up an inexpensive paper kite and hold the string with both hands.
"Are you ready?" Dad asked.
"I guess so."
"O.K., up, up an away!"
As Dad elongated the "away," I opened my hands. The string flicked my fingers with a saucy farewell. Standing together, Dad and I watched until the kite's color and shape became a blur, then a speck and then out-of-sight.
As it disappeared, we speculated about its destination. Some days we doubted it would clear the surrounding mountains, other days it was headed for France or Australia or China. And then there were days that we knew our kite was on its way to make another constellation in the night sky (Sunshine, October 1988). Here is another example of how I turned a childhood experience into another short piece, 404 words. I wrote it when I had a column, "A Penny for Your Thoughts" in a local, weekly newspaper The Sports Journal.
When I was a kid I played ice hockey on a rink my mother made. The first forecast of freezing weather and she would attach the garden hose and flood the backyard. My three brothers and I, with miscellaneous friends, would play all winter. Two wastebaskets placed about 4' apart at each end of our rink marked the goals. We started the season with four hockey sticks and two pucks, but ended it using a piece of wood or a rock and brooms. I vaguely remember a time we used tennis racquets or, perhaps, it was croquet mallets. At any rate, now that I'm a middle-age writer with three teenage children, I finally went to my first professional ice hockey game—the New Jersey Devils vs. the St. Louis Blues. It was a very different experience.
I watched the man drive the bulky machine that smoothed and recoated the ice before the game and between periods, and I shivered just remembering how my mittens would freeze to the hose while I stood outside spraying our rink. I'd slip my numb hands out of the mittens, detach the hose and throw it through the basement window, the mittens still clasping it.
I marveled at the gear: colorful uniforms, helmets, padding, and masks. About the only thing I could relate to was that we were also colorful—mismatched gloves, assorted scarfs, hats, jackets, and electric, duct or adhesive tape wrapped around our sticks. And the three effective and efficient officials. Oh, we had rules—sometimes.
The organist, vendors, and announcer joined to create an atmosphere of hype and hassle that were unknown in my neighborhood. But, I discovered as the game progressed, there were similarities.
The sounds were so familiar: swoosh, slap, and scrap. And the action: sprawling, scrambling, and sliding skaters chasing the puck and hitting it and each other with a crack. It was a fast moving game of "ohs" and "ahs" (unlike football, basketball, and baseball which have more "boos" and "yeahs"). And, although I was now a spectator, my feelings were the same—excitement and enthusiasm.
Early in the first period, one of my sons—it was also his first ice hockey game—turned to me and said, "This is going to be fun." And it was, although the team we were rooting for lost in the last one second of the game! Come to think of it, my childhood team once lost a game like that (January 1986).
My memories of playing ice hockey on the rink my mother made date back to 1955-1956. In 1957, ironically, a few months after the publication of "The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family," our family life turned upside down.
Dad had contracted hepatitis and instead of getting better, he got sicker and sicker. Unable to work, he resigned from his position, and we had to move out of the hospital's house. Without an income or a place to live, life seemed very scary.
We avoided homelessness when a family friend bought us a house in North Warren. Dad, the friend explained, had once helped him save his business. It was a rambling house with lots of rooms, several porches and a backyard that sloped down to the Conewango Creek. Of all the houses I lived in, it was my favorite.
Mom got a job as an art teacher at the high school, a boon to our financial situation. In time, Dad recovered and opened a private practice in Jamestown, New York, a half hour drive from North Warren.
Early in 1960, Dad encouraged me to take what is now called an adventure vacation—a Transcontinental Bicycle Trip sponsored by the American Youth Hostel. True, I loved to ride my bike, but I hesitated, until I found out that we would cover some stretches of America by train.
We—ten kids and one adult leader—met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 28. All of our stuff—clothing, shoes, toothbrush, flashlight, etc.—was packed in forest green, canvas saddlebags that we attached to a rack over the back fender of our three-speed bikes. We tied our compact sleeping bag to the back of the bike seat. On July 17 we arrived in San Francisco, California; highpoints along the way were jaunts through Michigan and Yellowstone National Park, and the ride up and over the Teton Pass. On July 24, we started riding down route U.S. 1, a two-lane, curvy, oftentimes perilously high and narrow road along the edge of the California coast. On August 3 we headed east and homeward via the Grand Canyon; Santa Fe, New Mexico; St. Louis, Missouri; Washington, DC; and New York City, where our trip ended seven weeks after it started.
I kept a log on lined, yellow, now brownish-yellow-with-age sheets of paper. I wrote forty-one entries on both sides of the paper with the date, place, and phrases, fragments, and an occasional sentence. Here are excerpts from my first entry, except they were handwritten, not typed:
June 28 Philadelphia
met at train station
rode to Paoli, Pa
lost food all over road—Bill and I cooked
the first meal out of what was left
went swimming in a creek under
some falls—Jane wants to leave
The letters I wrote to my parents, unlike my log, are descriptive and detailed. For example, here is how I wrote about the "lost food all over road" in a letter: "The first day Mike (our leader), Bill, and I went to Paoli to get groceries for lunch and dinner. Bill and I wanted canned fruit salad and canned peas but Mike wanted fresh fruit salad and fresh peas. Finally we met the group for lunch—that is after we lost the pears and the bags split open. Then we started up a two-mile hill—each person carrying something. We made it to the top but on the way down: bananas, a can of macaroni salad, two heads of lettuce, one can of hot dogs & beans, a loaf of bread, etc. were spread out all over the road, ground into the road by cars. It was very funny."
In another example, I wrote "terrible fog" in my log on "July 28 San Simeon, California." In a letter dated, July 30, from Santa Barbara, California, I wrote: "The ride along the coast was very nice. One day we had terrible fog. You could see only 5' ahead on a winding road. My hair was really wet and so was I after that ride .… One day we ate lunch beside the ocean on some rocks. It was really great. The Pacific is so blue and beautiful. We have seen white and brown seals. The day we had the fog all day we rode high above the ocean … since we could not see anything, just hear, we really put our imaginations to work."
The difference between my log and my letters is interesting because I still write that way—in fragments, phrases, an occasional sentence for myself; carefully constructed sentences for other people.
Two years after that trip, in 1962, I graduated from high school. That summer my parents had another child, my sister Catherine Anne, known as Cam. In the fall, I took lots of pictures of Cam with me when I went to college at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Years later I included a picture of Cam in Girls: a History of Growing Up Female in America.
After two years of college, I decided to drop out and hitchhike through Europe. My father loved the idea. My mother hated it. It was dangerous, she said, plus I might not finish college. I promised her that I would be careful (I was), and finish college, (I did); reluctantly she helped me get ready. I departed on the MS Aurelia, a low-cost student ship that took ten days to get to England. For four and a half months, I traveled far and wide—England to Sweden to Turkey to Italy to Switzerland to France—by hitching rides on the back of motorcycles, in huge trucks, small trucks, vans, and small cars. Hitchhiking across Greece, I got a ride in the cramped cab of a Caterpillar road scraper. Occasionally I took ferries, boats, and trains. I stayed in youth hostels, a low-cost place to sleep and cook.
To earn money, I spent six weeks in Sweden working on an assembly line in a frozen food factory where I cut up and packaged broccoli, an experience that sensitized me to working-class issues that I wrote about in several books, including Strike: The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to Present and A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins (Perkins was the secretary of labor in the United States cabinet and architect of far-reaching legislation, including the establishment of Social Security).
One moonless night in Sweden, some co-workers and I raided a garden for vegetables to make soup. I grabbed a huge head of cabbage, and ran really fast, vowing never to steal anything ever again!
Sixteen months after I returned home, life became very sad and hard.
My beloved brother Jon died, at the age of twenty, of viral pneumonia. Less than a year later, Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, at the age of forty-seven. He had about six weeks to live, the doctors said. Dad, however, delayed death for three years.
Dad expected me to carry on, and I did. I graduated from the University of Michigan; earned a master of arts in teaching from Johns Hopkins University; married Robert "Bob" Colman; had a son, Jonathan; and thirteen months later had twins—David and Stephen.
Bob, a Presbyterian minister, was pastor of a church in West Seneca, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. We lived in a manse, a house owned by the church, another strange place for me to live, considering my minimal religious upbringing. In 1973, we moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when Jonathan was four years old and David and Stephen were three years old. In 1978, we moved to New Jersey. In the summer of 1982, the kids and I spent seven weeks driving across the United States in an old red van that we dubbed the "Road Radish." My marriage ended in a divorce, after twenty-five years.
There are many stories from those years, but I will save them for another essay; suffice it to say that my children were, and still are, a constant source of fun and stimulation and adventures and love. Now in their mid-thirties, Jonathan, David and Stephen are doing interesting and worthwhile work; through them three wonderful women—Katrin de Haën, Crystal Lewis-Colman, and Sarah Jones—and a precious granddaughter, Sophie Colman de Haën, have joined our family. For more than a decade, I have shared my life and work and home with my dear friend and partner Linda Hickson. My full-time writing career started one month after my forty-third birthday in October 1987, after I resigned as executive director of a social service agency. I had been writing on and off for years and had published some articles and a one-act play, Dare to Seek, using the name Penelope Morgan Colman. Now, I decided to write as Penny Colman, a simpler name it seemed, easier to live up to. That was seventeen years ago. I have published essays, stories, articles, and books on a variety of topics—parenting, education, sports, biographies, and social history. Although I have written fiction, I primarily write nonfiction.
In 1990, I began immersing myself in the fascinating field of women's history. I have published biographies of Fannie Lou Hamer, the great civil rights leader; Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, the legendary labor agitator and activist; and Madam C. J. Walker, groundbreaking business woman and humanitarian, in addition to Frances Perkins, Dorothea Lynde Dix, and Civil War spies such as Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Harriet Tubman, and Elizabeth Van Lew. I have written books about growing up female in America, about women war correspondents who covered the action in World War II, and about women workers who made indispensable contributions to the war effort during World War II. Currently I am writing books about women's fight for the vote and about women who lived adventurous and productive lives such as Alice Hamilton, Mary Gibson Henry, Biddy Mason, and Juana Briones.
I am often asked: "Where do you get your ideas?"
I reveal how I get ideas "everywhere, anytime" in the preface to Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom:
I didn't start thinking about the history of the bathroom until I took a white-water rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The trip lasted thirteen days, and it was my first experience of living life without a bathroom. We used river water and biodegradable soap for cleaning ourselves. We spit toothpaste into the fast moving water. We urinated on the wet sand or in the river.
Every night we camped along the river, and the guides set up a toilet for solid wastes behind a boulder or a tree. The toilet was actually a surplus military ammunition can with a toilet seat balanced across the top. A large, green garbage bag was placed inside the ammunition can. In the morning, the guides sealed the bag, lifted it out, carried it to a baggage raft, and placed it in a large metal container that would be carried out of the canyon at the end of the trip. "Don't pee in the toilet or drop in sharp objects," said the guides. "Urine makes it too heavy and you can imagine the mess if a sharp object pokes through the bag."
If we needed a toilet during the day, the guides provided a "day tripper," a small ammunition can with a small plastic bag and no toilet seat. Using it required flexibility, balance, and urgency.
The first and only time I used the "day tripper," I said to myself, "There's got to be a story here!" There was, and here it is: Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of Bathrooms.
That book prompted an editor, Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt and Company, to contact me about writing a book. "Dear Ms. Colman," Christy wrote, "I have long been an admirer of your work. After reading Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom, I thought you would be the perfect person to write a book about graveyards, coffins, and embalming." That letter was the beginning of the process that produced Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts. I was in the final stages of completing that book when I learned that Mom had terminal cancer. Like Dad, she expected me to carry on, and I did, although those months were very intense. At one point, I said to my son Stephen, "This is the wrong book to be working on now." When he replied, "Actually it is the right book," I was startled. But as we tended to my mother's dying, death, and burial, I realized that Stephen was right.
He was right because after doing the research and writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts. I was full of useful information, and I had gained a measure of calmness about death and the burial process that I shared with my family as we had her body cremated and provided our own container for her cremated remains; dug her grave; and conducted a memorial service, complete with the ringing of a fourteen-bell carillon and a mile-long funeral procession with a Dixieland band and a fire truck, in honor of Mom's service as a volunteer fire fighter.
This story illustrates why I focus on nonfiction writing, indeed why I am passionate about nonfiction. Why I accepted an appointment as a Distinguished Lecturer at Queens College, the City University of New York, where I teach teachers who are getting masters degrees. Because nonfiction matters!
Nonfiction is the language of everyday things—news, instructions, reports, presentations, letters, e-mail, records, documents, court decisions—and extraordinary things such as Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments. Nonfiction is the language of all the debates of policies and issues—social, economic, political and environmental—that affect everyone's life throughout the world. Nonfiction is the currency with which public policies and legislation are enacted, societal needs are discussed, cultural aesthetics are defined, life lessons are conveyed, historical narratives are transmitted. The currency with which matters of war and peace are decided.
Nonfiction is everywhere. It is activities and duties and decisions and desires and feelings and fears and happiness. It is birthdays and festivals and funerals. It is winning and losing and bouncing back. It is the WOW experiences of life—reveling in nature, witnessing an athletic achievement, marveling at an artistic creation or theatrical or musical, fulfilling a dream, falling in love. Nonfiction is there and here and everywhere.
That is why I write nonfiction, and, why I hope, you love nonfiction, too!