My mother, who possesses a rattlesnake tongue and once broke a paddle on my behind, was surprisingly supportive of my oversized imagination. A living embodiment of the phrase “a place for everything and everything in its place,” she kept one drawer of precious dresser space empty so that it could serve as a “penthouse apartment” for the tiny plastic animals that were my play companions. She helped me cut a sheet of heavy white paper to fit the drawer, and I, inheritor of her rigid affliction for precision, used an engineer’s scale ruler to draw a detailed floorplan that identified sinks and commodes, placement of windows and the swing radius of doors. I was the sort of child who hand copied elevations of Frank Lloyd Wright designs. I would become lost transmuting two dimensions into three in the same manner I studied maps and imagined the places they defined. The penthouse blueprint featured five bedrooms occupied by my favorite animals, which included a blue elephant and a yellow cow. A mouse was their ringleader. I ordered the animals with coupons I found at the backs of comic books, where they were featured among ads for toy soldiers and the Charles Atlas Fitness Program. Those cheap, colorful plastic toys survived—for my mother saved everything—and today my grandchildren play with them when they visit. Mom also saved the stories I wrote featuring my penthouse dwellers. Nearly as soon as I could hold a pencil, time passed within their stories was as elemental to me as the experience of living out those stories with them in my hands.
My parents were orderly, precise, practical people. They were Depression era kids who grew up in poor Kansas farming communities. My dad started in the grocery business at twelve. The only hiatus in nearly five decades with the same company came when he was drafted into World War II. Defensive of her modest upbringing, when Dad was assigned as a store manager, Mom took meticulous care in how she dressed, how she managed her house, and how she presented her two sons. I longed for something other than a buzzcut and the stiff, corrective shoes that looked more suited for an accountant but knew better than to express that longing. There were clear expectations for how my brother and I dressed, how we behaved, how we comported ourselves in our studies. That our parents reserved space and time to indulge our imaginations seems almost remarkable. Yet mom never denied us Saturday trips to the hobby store so that we could purchase model kits, did not complain about the smell of model glue, even if she did insist that we line our desktop work surface with layers of newspaper, recap paint bottles, and maintain brushes so that they appeared constantly new. Dad read investment articles, taught himself how to use a computer, and learned how to grow the money he saved. Ordinarily not a reader outside the practical, if I talked about something I was reading, he’d read it too. In what little recreational time Dad had, he was a woodworker, building among other pieces of furniture, a sewing cabinet for my mother that featured a mechanism so that the mounted sewing machine could swing down from the surface and be hidden away, freeing space for complex patterns that Mom created when making her own clothes. The design showed the same ingenuity as the eight-foot-long cabinet he built in the garage that folded down to reveal the model train set he helped my brother and I configure. Most of my parents’ creative products were practical and functional—pantsuits and cupboards, skirts and magazine racks—but also stunningly beautiful, precise objects that demonstrated craftsmanship. They understood the desire to take a vision that existed in the mind and bring it into being.
Neither had attended college. Dad, the youngest of ten, had dropped out of school after 8th grade to help his widowed mother. Both he and Mom were smart and interested in the world beyond familiar horizons. That they expected my brother and I to attend college—to seize the opportunity they never had—was never something we questioned. When I, the first of the extended family, graduated college and immediately enrolled in graduate school to study creative writing, neither of them ever expressed a belief that to do so was folly. Neither of them had a lot of detail to share when they obediently read my manuscripts, but they’d tell me what they liked. Mostly they expressed respect for my resiliency in the face of steady rejection and beamed with pride at news of publications.
Having grown up in hardship, my parents modeled hard work and self-determination, attributes that have underpinned the dream-weaving to which I have dedicated my life. Perhaps it was stories that helped them through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. They had no library, seldom had time for reading books, but made certain that my brother and I had any book we wanted. Or perhaps storytelling was a luxury, like the solid Buicks Dad drove or the designer shoes Mom coveted, an indulgence that signaled they had made it to the middle class and their children could pursue their passions. More likely, they simply loved their sons and wanted them to be happy. Their voices echo in the spaces my work occupies, the novels, stories, essays, and poems that provide me the only way I know to have conversations with the universe.
Perhaps they, without expressing it, remained surprised that I’ve been able to make a living in one fashion and another—writer, editor, teacher, librarian—from words. No one has been more shocked than me, though, to be fair, without the sacrifice and devotion of the partner I’ve had for nearly forty years, it would have been a life scraping by with little time for writing. With her support, I’ve had the opportunity to share those conversations with the universe alongside readers in the pages of The Bloomsbury Review, Fugue, Dogwood, Zone 3, Per Contra, The Talking River Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, among others. Many of those stories have been gathered in the collection Lost & Found. I’ve been granted the freedom to be stubborn, choose the subjects and the treatments of my liking, try on other skins, explore the dark and the light, indulge in written conversations with writers long dead, and visit places more exotic than any map could convey. I’ve stood inside structures that don’t exist in two dimensions or three. I’ve been to Vietnam and Argentina and points in between in a novel titled In the Chameleon’s Shadow and inside grief and criminal minds in The Other Side. While you won’t find a single plastic animal within my work, you will encounter garden gnomes. The stories I’ve created show more craftsmanship than my own attempts at building furniture, and my mother would be aghast at mending attempts on tattered jeans. The stories I tell through novels, essays, and poems are attempts to find the connections between childish wonder and adult practicality, past and present, place to place, family to family, between the other and the we.
Regal House Publishing is delighted to bring you Mark Hummel’s novel, Man Underground, in the fall of 2023.