HOME PLACE - Kindred spirits grow as sisters of the pen


Alrighty now, we're two days past Christmas.

Our decorated living rooms are beginning to look like a long weekend's over-extended party. The food we delighted in Sunday is now jammed to the rear of the fridge and apparently breeding.

There continues to be glitter from the kids' homemade cards embedded in the carpet, along with those sadistic wire ornament hooks the cat is managing to pull off the needle-shedding tree.

Let me take you away from all that with a story about my friend, Cathy Lamb.

If you Google "Cathy Lamb," the first search page is filled with references to and images of this Oregon-based writer, making this one of those "I knew her when" stories.

Since her first book, "Julia's Chocolates" came out over six years ago, the prolific writer of women's fiction has published 10 books, including short stories and full novels.

This month alone, Cathy has sent off yet another novel and finished editing one more short story. It's like she has an IV of caffeine pumping into her body, opened to full drip at all times.

I should hate her, but she's always been this way.

Cathy and I "met" in 2000. I was contributing regularly to the commentary pages of The Oregonian, my state's Portland-centered newspaper. She was, too, but it wasn't until I read her piece about Bonnie that I paid attention.

Bonnie was Cathy's irascible neighbor, who happened to grow tomatoes that tasted like rich red nirvana. The kind of tomatoes that makes your grandmother toss aside those she picks through at the store with a sigh of exasperation. Your grandma, like Bonnie, remembers what tomatoes are supposed to taste like.

Bonnie shared her harvest with Cathy's family, and occasionally shared shots of vodka with Brad, Cathy's husband. -- whom, I will just say right now, is one of the funniest, sweetest guys I know. I've had a crush on him from Day 1. Bonnie was equally charmed by Brad, it would seem.

Cathy told readers that and more, including how Bonnie -- 80 years old and driving while using oxygen -- chased down some young, hothead of a driver who was tailgating her. "I am sure she scared the hell out of him," Cathy recalled.

Her Oregonian piece brought the old woman to life with such clarity and tenderness that I wept when I read far enough to discover Bonnie was gone, never to grow tomatoes or quaff vodka again. All we had, Cathy and her readers, was the vivid image of a woman who took life by the tail.

I nearly ran to my desk to shoot a note off the the editor of the Sunday commentary page, telling her how moved I was by this Cathy Lamb's writing. "I hope to read much more," I told her. "I'm a fan already."

Within a day Cathy wrote me, telling me she was MY fan and detailing which of my writings she had most loved. And that was that -- we were friends. We discovered we both had twins, we deeply loved our husbands, we had days we wanted to airmail our children to anywhere else, and we both wanted to write as much as we wanted to breathe.

It's all Cathy ever desired. "Everything I did from 16 on, professionally and educationally, was geared toward meeting that goal."

She went into teaching, knowing she could write evenings, weekends and summers. And when she reached a point that she didn't have to wipe second-grade noses and take the hot lunch count, Cathy dove off the solid pier of the sure paycheck and into the vast sea of unknown writers.

We quickly bonded as writing sisters. Before the days of real-time chatting and phone texting, we would send out exploratory emails. "It's 2 a.m. and I'm up, trying to make deadline. If you are up, call me."

You'd be amazed at how many times those bait messages hooked a phone call on both ends. Despite knowing we would be slicing bananas over hot oatmeal in just a few hours, we used the deep of the night to get the peace not found when our small children were awake.

We traded tips about editors, each of us passing on what we thought this editor was looking for or what that editor might feel connected to. We cared about the money, some, but we were passionate about honing our craft, getting published and having more eyes see our work.

Cathy and I edited each other, being sharply honest and committed to accepting constructive criticism. Too, we offered each other ideas for keeping our kids happy and occupied while we stayed on the keyboard "just 20 more minutes" day after day.

My family traveled west to hers and the Lambs came here. Our husbands immediately connected and our kids played well together. We suffered through great loss of mothers and fathers in a span of a few years and we weathered it better because of each other. Cathy and I, well, we wrote about our grief because doing anything else was unthinkable.

When I landed my job as a reporter, Cathy was beside herself with excitement. I happened to dial her number one day right after Brad had answered the phone call a publisher who said he wanted Cathy's book. But Cathy wasn't home and Brad was going to burst with the news if he didn't tell anyone.

Since I had a tiny hand in the preliminary editing of the book, he told me.I, of course, screamed as loudly and happily as I could into poor Brad's ear.

When the Union-Bulletin decided to publish a book of my columns last year, Cathy was the first person I asked to write something nice about my stuff.

Which she was ever so happy to do, she assured me then and elaborated on this week: "What I noticed about you and is that you never followed the shallow road to friendship. All your conversations were deeply personal and honest."

But that's just how it's been with us. Our victories have been fuel for the other, and not in some one upmanship way. Our individual challenges in life have shaped the other's perspective, rounding our written thoughts.

And now Cathy is long emerged from that sea of people hoping to someday have a book on s shelf bearing their name as author. She writes stories of women who have the most amazing journeys, some of those dark and horrific before coming into the light. In her writing, Cathy tackles issues that many of us would hesitate to bring up in the most private of conversations.

Her fans love her for it, judging by the comments I see on her Facebook postings when she announces a new book is about to hit the stores yet again. Readers can't get enough.

In my secret heart, I am hoping Cathy decides to write a story based on my life. Its all there, I believe, from the deepest grief to the height of happiness. If you agree, go to www.cathylamb.net and let her know.


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