Local author publishes before passing away
From 1929, when she was born in a small Minnesota town, to 2013, when she died in a senior apartment in Wyoming, Laurel Carey lived an interesting life.
Parts of her life are revealed in “Sunset Manor,” a book she published last August. There’s just enough autobiography worked into the book to give us a glimpse: She grew up in the Depression, moving from one school to another as her father followed construction jobs. When her family settled in Minneapolis during World War II so her parents could work in an ammunition plant, she found out she had dyslexia but finished high school and a cosmetology course. She married her high school sweetheart, and they raised three sons.
In 1983, when she was only 54 years old, her husband died of pancreatic cancer. They had been married 35 years and were living on a 120-acre hobby farm. She faced her aloneness with a trip across the country, met someone new, made a living running her own business in the Black Hills of South Dakota. An interesting life.
But that’s not really the point of this book. Subtitled “Adventures in aging in a small Midwestern town,” the 124-page self-published paperback is a series of essays, not told in chronological order, and not necessarily about the author.
Instead, Carey starts the book with six chapters about living in senior housing.
“Observing the other inmates,” she decides to “try to get their stories and throw in some of my own.”
Her sense of humor is evident in the nicknames she assigns: The Primary Medical Advisor, The Puzzle Man, The Watch Dogs. For this last group, who sit at the window noticing who’s coming and going, she generously transfers her groceries into bags from Fredericks of Hollywood, to give them something to talk about.
Carey notes the many signs in the senior housing complex, including “No smoking in this building” and “Please put cigarette butts in receptacles.”
She tells of befriending a crabby, complaining woman by helping out when the other woman is unable to keep up her garden after knee surgery.
In later chapters she decides to coax stories from the other residents about their lives. One of my favorites is from a woman who grew up in South Dakota during the 1930s. With no siblings to play with, she used tin snips to cut six-feet-tall ragweeds growing in an abandoned hog lot, making an imaginery kitchen, living room and bedroom.
Carey comments, “I can’t imagine my grandchildren in a ragweed playhouse, actually being outside in the open air. They would be completely baffled. And never know all the fun they’d been missing.”
But the chapters I really enjoyed were about Carey’s own life. When she’s out riding and her horse runs away, a man named Mike returns it, and then becomes part of her life. It’s hard to tell from the hints given whether that is mostly good or bad, but as Mike says when he is dying, “We did have some really good times together, didn’t we?”
There’s an advice poem, a romantic poem and a funny poem about chickadees winning a flower show, because they dropped birdseed and caused sunflowers to grow by the garden gate.
Carey’s story about using a flagpole to launch herself as a human tetherball when she was a girl is full of flying images that made me feel energized, too.
Both her criticism of doctors, and her praise of them in a later chapter, also rang a bell with me.
After an internal debate on whether to plant a garden (“a lot of hard work . . . but so much fun. Long hours. . . but fresh air, fresh flowers, cucumbers”), she decides to do it.
Then her onlookers offer conflicting advice:
- “Never plant before Memorial Day.”
- “Should have got those seeds in earlier.”
- “Commercial fertilizer gives your veggies a kick start.”
- “Use cow manure; it’s the only natural fertilizer.”
- “Plant rows north and south, they get both morning and afternoon sun.”
- “Don’t you know you should never plant rows north and south?”
When harvest time arrives, she cites the story of the Little Red Hen.
Not bound by chronological order, Carey introduces new topics in surprising places. A paragraph about sounds she loves is the first place the reader learns that she lived in the Black Hills.
I did not find out what happened to the hobby farm until I read “About the Author” at the end.
She refers to Mike’s “old destructive behavior” beginning again, but it’s not clear what that means.
Her list of nine favorite memories includes five that are mentioned for the first time in this list. But they sound so interesting, I wanted to learn more.
Unfortunately, that will not happen. Carey died shortly after her book was published.
Holly Harden, who taught Carey in a community education writing class in Forest Lake, wrote “She’s lovely, a spitfire, and has had more jobs than I can name. Trucker, farmer, masseuse for starters. Amazing life.” I agree.
In case you’d like to check it out, “Sunset Manor: Adventures in Aging in a Small Midwestern Town” is available at the Giese Memorial Library in Wyoming.