Let’s start at the beginning. Last Thursday morning I woke at 5 a.m. with a beat in my heart and a skip in my step; it was Bella Voce day! And not just any ordinary Bella Voce day (although there’s no such thing), but the Bella Voce day in which I would, at long last, meet Ms. Geraldine Brooks, bestselling author, literary giant, and intellectual extraordinaire. I knew the day was really about to her, but I also knew that hey—I had to look good.
I hopped out of bed and showered, dressed, primped, blowed and brushed only to realize that I was, indeed, having the worst hair day of my adult life for what was supposed to be the most glamorous day of my adult life. (Think my courtroom ‘do, but with an actual attempt preceding it.) Regardless, my strict travel schedule forced me to take one last look in the mirror, suck in my gut, and tell myself, no matter; time to move on. Three hours later, after a beautiful sunrise drive down the gorge, I pulled up to the swanky Portland Hilton, handed my keys to the swanky Portland valet, and hot-tailed it to the swanky ladies room, where I saw that I was, in fact, still having the Worst Hair Day of My Adult Life. I tried to offset it with (yet another) layer of lip gloss, but no matter. Time to move on.
I walked through the beautiful double doors of the beautiful Hilton ballroom and there, in the front of the beautifully bedecked author’s table, stood Reneee Newman, director of Bella Voce, smiling and waving me over as though she’d been waiting for me. (Remember the final scene in Titanic, when Rose walks up the staircase posthumously and finds Jack standing at the top, smiling and waiting for her? It was kind of like that.)
“Jennifer!” Renee gave me a hug and immediately said, as any woman worth her salt says to another woman, “Great outfit!” I was about launch into a tirade about the lengths I’d gone to to achieve said outfit, (not to mention the harrowing misadventure with my hair), when she said, “Look, there’s Geraldine right over there. Let me introduce you.”
I followed her gaze and saw a lovely, tiny woman in a cozy sweater dress standing and talking with a group of guests. I looked around and gulped. I was going to meet Geraldine Brooks, already? I guess I’d assumed that once I arrived, I’d have some time to get ready for the Big Moment. Where was the prep lounge, the green room, the warmup time? Sure, cocktails were being offered left and right, but that did nothing to help a Mormon girl with an oily T-zone. (It happens when I get nervous.) I needed something more along the lines of a chapel—or at least a bathroom. Shoot, I’d have settled for a brown paper bag at this point. But instead of offering me something to throw up in, Renee offered me Ms. Geraldine Brooks. And before I could try to fluff up my hair (again), she was standing right in front of me, petite and plucky and perfect.
“Geraldine,” Renee began, “I want to introduce you to Jennifer Smith. She’s a writer and blogs frequently about Bella Voce.”
Oh no, I thought. No no no no no. Did Renee really just call me a “writer” in front of Geraldine Brooks? Geraldine Brooks, whose bestselling novels have been translated into twenty-five languages? Geraldine Brooks, who’s traveled the globe as an award winning journalist before she, you know, switched over to fiction and won oh, I don’t know…the Pulitzer Prize? (Who wins the Pulitzer Prize, anyway? I thought those people were made up.) Geraldine Brooks, world famous writer, had now just heard me addressed by the same title. It was, as Elizabeth Bennett would say, a most humiliating spectacle. But with manners befitting her education and experience, Ms. Brooks responded with a warm and open smile–and the most delicious Australian accent I’ve ever heard.
“What is your blog called?” Her voice was quiet in the loud room (people like Geraldine Brooks don’t need to talk loud to be heard.) But with my bad hearing and poor social skills I, of course, had to lean in and practically shout,
“What is the title of your blog?” She smiled calmly, a pool of serenity to my puddle of frenzy.
“Oh. Oh, um…it’s called, um, justastrayjuniormint.” I muttered the last part into one murky word, hoping she wouldn’t hear me and change the subject.
“I’m sorry, Jennifer, what was that?” I had no choice but to speak up.
“Um, it’s called just a stray junior mint.” She leaned forward intently and then said, in that gorgeous Aussie clip,
“Just a…stray…junior…mint?” Her voice lifted on the last word, as if gently deciphering a toddler’s cryptic new speech.
There have been a few times in my life when I’ve wanted to die—when the ground splitting open and swallowing me seemed preferable to the situation in which I currently found myself. Once was during my freshman year of college when I asked a boy (whom I had a terrible crush on) to Sadie Hawkins. He told me he was very sorry, he was seeing someone, but if he hadn’t been, sure, he would “love to be my boyfriend.” (I had asked him to the dance, not to be my boyfriend. Jerk.)
Another was my senior prom when, after inexplicably allowing my grandmother to help me shop for a dress, I showed up in a shiny, pleated peach monstrosity that brought shame even to the high school formal wear of 1991. (That evening didn’t go down well, the dress being the least of its disasters.)
And yet both of these train wrecks paled in comparison to the cringe factor I felt upon hearing Geraldine Brooks–Geraldine Brooks!–trying to politely push the words “stray junior mint” through her astute and accented tongue. What had I brought this poor woman to? How had I pulled her down to my world? It was like stuffing a butterfly back into the cocoon.
“Well,” I started, “the title’s based on a story I tell on my blog, about when a, um, stray junior mint, you know, like the candy…” I stopped here and made a circle with my forefinger and thumb, lest she didn’t understand, “was rolling around my purse, and it, like, melted and got on a bunch of stuff, and my husband teased me about it, and you know…” She and Renee were now both listening judiciously, apparently under the false assumption that I was actually on my way to making a point. My voice grew as my panic rose.
“It’s just kind of a lighthearted, silly blog, you know, kind of a-day-in-the-life sort of thing, so the stray junior mint kind of symbolizes all that…” Oh my sweet goodness, did I really just use the word symbolize in front of Geraldine Brooks? I may as well have been standing in my peach prom dress, asking her to be my boyfriend.
Remember my telling you about Life After Life, wherein the protagonist gets to go back and do her life over til she gets it right? Sniveling in front of this gracious intellectual, I thought: I would give anything to go back and give my blog a different title. Anything would have been less awkward to explain at this moment than just a stray junior mint. I could have gone with Thoughts by Jennifer or Musings by Mom or even a throwback to that great seventies show, One Day at a Time. Shoot, Sands Through the Hourglass would have been more impressive than the random, childish, assonine title I’d stupidly assigned this blog so many years ago. Why, oh why, I thought, had I named my blog justastrayjuniormint? But I knew why: because I never thought I’d have to justify it in front of a person who had won the Pulitzer Prize. (Heck, I didn’t even think those people were real.)
I finished my dissertation with some garbled garbage about “you know, sticky and sweet, just like me!” then threw in a few more likes and ums to drive my point home. Flawlessly courteous, Geraldine smiled and said,
“Well, I can’t wait to read it.”
Wait–what? Did Geraldine Brooks just say she couldn’t wait to read my blog?
GERALDINE BROOKS SAID SHE COULDN’T WAIT TO READ MY BLOG.
Of course she was only being polite, but who cares? If that ground ever did swallow me whole, I’d go down happy.
Fortunately, the ground beneath me stayed solid for the rest of the lunch, though my feet were floating substantially above it. I sat (right next to!) Ms. Brooks for the remainder of the meal, until she was called to the stage to speak. And she was, well, spectacular.
Sometimes good writers are bad speakers or bad writers are good speakers, but in this case, a great writer was a great speaker. She shared her love of writing and traveling, and laughed about her first “writing” job out of college (covering local horse races) and her husband’s endearing obsession with all things Civil War. (He’s a writer, too. Can you imagine them as dinner guests?) Her vast and varied experiences included a night spent with Ayatollah Khomeini’s widow and another night spent in a Nigerian jail. She spoke in depth about her time covering the Iran-Iraq war, and how much she’d learned from the many Persian women she’d met, all of whom welcomed this Western journalist warmly, despite their differing world views.
She said she looks for the history that is unbelievable, then writes a believable story around it; she loved true stories that fell under the category of “you can’t make this stuff up.” She used the image of a lit piece of paper floating down an old well, lighting up the sides of it as it went, illuminating story after story after story. She said those forgotten stories, the ones left in the dark, are the ones she longs to tell—the ones that belonged to our grandmothers and their grandmothers and their grandmothers. She wants to carry on that great female tradition of looking at those who come after us and saying “Once upon a time, this is how it was for me…”
I don’t want to say that I hung on her every word, but: I hung on her every word. So engaging was she that I had to remind myself to finish the piece of pumpkin cheesecake that was set before me. (But finish it I did. No worries.) Afterward she was asked to sign books, so I got promptly in line for a personal autograph on the title page (even though, as you know, I’d already enjoyed a witty and fruitful discussion with her about my blog.) When I made it to the front of the line, I told her again what a pleasure it was to meet her. She smiled and thanked me and then, while signing Geraldine Brooks across her latest bestseller, the Pulitzer Prize winning, world-famous writer said—once again and with a sincerity I was starting to believe—“I can’t wait to read your blog.”
Thank you Ms. Brooks. You can’t make this stuff up.