I’m delighted to welcome New York Times Bestselling Author CATHERINE ANDERSON to Rakes and Rascals today for an exclusive interview.
I’m even more delighted to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me!
Could you tell us where you were born and what it was like growing up there?
I was born in Grants Pass, a small town in southern Oregon. It was a fabulous place to grow up. We lived on a cul-de-sac off a very long street lined on both sides with nice houses. I’d guess there were thirty or forty kids of varying ages, so I had a group of friends close to my age. It was a safe place, so our parents let us run free. Nearby there were two large, vacant parcels of land, one which served as a baseball field and the other as a place to simply play. My mom, who was a writer, also loved to sew, and she began making outfits for my dolls. My little friends were so envious that she began clothing practically every doll on the street. She was so clever and creative with leftover scraps of cloth, making evening gowns, daytime outfits, swim suits, nurse uniforms, and all manner of other things. That led to little girls gathering at my house to play dolls with eager glances at my mom to see what she might make next. She kept a spotless house, but she always set aside time for writing, and then she would spend an hour sewing doll outfits while little girls were scrambling around on her living room floor.
It was not uncommon for us kids to see what other mothers were cooking as the sun began to set, and if it was something that sounded better than the dinner being served at home, we’d ask if we could eat there. That gave me an opportunity to learn what other families were like and how they lived. All the moms were so good about it, and sometimes staying for dinner turned into staying all night. I’m not sure how hold I was, but one time after dinner, I was invited to spend the night with my very best friend, Betty, who lived right across from us on the cul-de-sac. We were the same age. At bath time, my mother always supervised me, never my dad. But at Betty’s house, her father was in charge of baths. When it came bedtime, he herded us into the bathroom. I was horrified. No way was I going to strip naked in front of Betty’s dad! He was a really nice man, and he let me off the hook. Betty went to bed squeaky clean, and I went to bed after a wash cloth bath with no private part of my body exposed.
My brother, eight years older than me, had Asperger’s Syndrome, undiagnosed at that time, a condition normally caused by lack of oxygen to the brain at birth. He was a little different, but a boy named Billy who lived in a farmhouse at the opposite end of the baseball field befriended him, and they became best buds. They’d jump on their bikes and go all over town, then play baseball until dark. I often filled in if they needed a player, which earned me a couple of hits on my face from the ball. I was much younger and not a very good catcher. My brother Tommy loved Billy. One horrible day, they left together on their bikes, and Tommy came home alone, his eyes swollen from crying and his face pasty white. A semi-truck had clipped Billy’s bike, and Billy fell toward the truck. He was killed instantly. I remember how my brother grieved, and I also witnessed the impact on Billy’s parents and siblings. I would walk to their house because Tommy just couldn’t. Looking back on it, I think my brother blamed himself for some reason. I’d take cookies my mom made and stuff like that. That farmhouse, which had always been such a happy place, filled with noise from all the kids, had become silent. To this day, I can see the face of Billy’s mother, pale and gaunt, with black circles under her eyes, and I also recall his sisters trying their best to smile at me, but the gestures were hollow, just a curve of their lips. The loss of Billy was my first experience with sudden, accidental death, and it marked my heart in some way that I can’t really explain. But that depth I acquired by being so close to tragedy never really left me. To this day my stomach clenches when I see kids riding bicycles on busy streets or roads. I think those experiences helped me immensely later when I began writing professionally and developing characters for my books. I learned at a young age that no matter how different people may look, they all have things in common and feelings that run deep.
When I was seven, my parents were divorced, and eventually my mother could no longer afford to live in what was then a high-end neighbourhood. My folks had an old rental house where they had lived earlier in their marriage, so, when I was ten, my mom sold the trendy house and we moved back to the old, icky house. For me and my brother, it was like moving into a tomb. The neighbours were all elderly. There were no kids on our block. I finally met a girl my age over on the next street. Then a younger couple with four kids purchased a large home across the street. Later I discovered that a bedbound girl my age lived a few doors down, and I would go to visit her after school. She had some sort of blood condition, but in my estimation, she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
I had a dog named Coaly who had a high-wire run in our backyard that allowed him full access to our lawn and a few feet over the property line onto the yard of an elderly woman next door. She was, in a word, cantankerous. I was around twelve when her penchant for being difficult blossomed into full-blown irascibility. Our yards bordered each other from front to back, and my father had planted a privacy hedge years before that had grown to be about ten feet tall. Every year my stepfather would trim it back, but that year, the old woman emerged from her house, brandishing her cane, to tell him he could trim the top of the hedge on his side but not on hers, and she also forbade him to prune her side of a huge tree, which grew at the front corner of the property line. She also complained often about my dog, Coaly, which made me resent her even more.
One afternoon my mother mused aloud to me that she believed Mrs. Randall was just lonely. She said that lonely people sometimes became difficult in order to get attention. She suggested that I start visiting Mrs. Randall after school. Ha! I was terrified of that old lady! But my mother insisted, and off I went to stand on Mrs. Randall’s front porch, staring at her door and trembling from head to toe. When Mrs. Randall answered my knock, she asked, “What on earth do you want?” Or something to that effect. I stammered out that I had come to visit. She looked at me with unveiled suspicion but finally invited me in.
She was a fragile, stooped little lady with snow-white hair worn in an old-fashioned twist. She wore a very prim dress, thick brown hosiery, and sturdy black pumps. Her tiny, shadowy house was filled with ornate knick-knacks. She offered me a seat on her sofa and went to the kitchen to prepare tea. I was afraid to drink from the pretty, delicate cup and confessed to her that I might accidentally break it. She flapped her hand and told me not to be silly. So we settled in for a chat, only we had nothing in common. So I asked Mrs. Randall to please tell me stories about the olden days. She didn’t know where to start. Even at twelve, I was already penning love stories, so I asked her to tell me about when she met her husband.
It turned out to be a fabulous afternoon. I could have listened to her stories until bedtime. After that, I went to see Mrs. Randall almost every day. I came to love her in a way I never thought possible. She came to love my dog Coaly, and her only complaint about him after that was that when she fed him goodies on her back porch, he ate the food and then her plastic dishes. My mother solved that issue by providing Mrs. Randall with heavy crock bowls for my dog. Mrs. Randall became convinced that Coaly was her loyal protector, and perhaps he was. At some point, Mrs. Randall hired a handyman to do some work on her shed. Coaly hurled himself at the man, trying to attack him, and was foiled only when he hit the end of the chain. Mrs. Randall fired the handyman on the spot. When I got home and she told me, I was appalled. Coaly hated strange men who came onto our property carrying things. He tried to bite the farmer who brought us fresh milk once a week. He detested the mail man. The handyman had, of course, arrived with tools, a shovel, and a rake. But Mrs. Randall would hear none of my explanations for Coaly’s attitude toward the worker. Wagging her finger at my nose, she said that dogs can sense things we can’t. If Coaly disliked that man, she would take the dog’s word for it, and she advised me to do the same. The next time my stepdad went out to trim our hedge, Mrs. Randall tottered over to ask him if he would trim her side as well.
One day when I got home from school, Mama gathered me close for a hug and said she had some bad news. Mrs. Randall had fallen and broken her hip. I assumed the doctor could fix it for her, but my mother quickly explained that a broken hip was normally a death sentence for an elderly person. Mrs. Randall would not be easily moved into different bed positions because it would be so painful for her, and eventually she would probably die of pneumonia. (This was a few years before doctors began doing hip replacements.) Mrs. Randall had been placed in a private care facility, an old house a few blocks away. I immediately set off to find my friend. She was in a great deal of pain, and it broke my heart to see her suffering. Mrs. Randall thanked me for coming and then waved me away, saying the care facility was no place for a girl to be. In retrospect, I think she saw that I was about to burst into tears.
I tried to go back a time or two, as I recall, but the visits depressed me and made me so sad. Eventually I gave up and never returned to see Mrs. Randall. I regret that to this day. In retrospect, I realize that I was young, but another part of me will always feel guilty for abandoning that sweet old lady. A few months later, my mother told me that Mrs. Randall had indeed fallen ill with pneumonia and passed away. I walked back to the private caregiving facility and stood on the sidewalk, sobbing. I felt so awful for not going every day to see her.
Growing up in Grants Pass formed me into the person I am now. I have rich and wonderful memories. In the case of Mrs. Randall, I learned that difficult elderly people are sometimes only crying out for a friend. By moving from a high-end part of town to an old, seedy part of town, I learned that you shouldn’t judge people for the clothing they wear, the homes that they have, or how well-educated they are. You can meet truly wonderful individuals in all walks of life, and from each of them, you may learn something.
How would you describe yourself – temperamental or easy-going?
I think I’m a mixture of both, actually. I’m one of those people who tries to avoid confrontation, so normally I’m easy-going. That said, in doing this, I sometimes allow small and repeated aggravations to build within me, and sooner or later, I explode. That catches people by surprise and isn’t really fair to the person with whom I lose my temper. It is better to deal with situations as they occur, I think. But doing that doesn’t come easily to me.
When it comes to food do you like sweet or savoury or both?
I used to have a sweet tooth, but now I’m more into savoury. I can, however, devour an entire batch of meringue kisses in short order. I only make them once or twice a year, knowing when I do that I’ll eat them nonstop until they’re gone. One night, I calculated the calories in a batch of them and discovered the whole works was less than six hundred. That made me feel slightly better, but I still don’t often indulge. My last night in New Zealand, I spotted meringue kisses in a store. I bought two packages. When we got back to my son’s house, I offered to share the cookies with others, but no one else really liked them. Yes, I ate every single one and wished I had grabbed another package!
What is your most treasured possession?
That is a really difficult question. I have many possessions that mean a great deal to me. Less than a year before he died, my husband and the love of my life, wanted to give me a very special birthday gift. I think he knew it would be the last one from him. So he searched high and low on the Internet for an antique Underwood typewriter, the same kind that my mother had written stories on when I was a very young child. He finally found one, and he refused to tell me how much it cost. I was so surprised when I saw it that I burst into tears. It was such a thoughtful gesture on his part. I will always treasure that old typewriter.
Standing by the curio cabinet where the Underwood is displayed on the bottom shelf
If you were able to afford a second home anywhere in the world where would you choose and why?
I’ve discovered that I’m not really a second-home person. Sid and I bought a gorgeous townhouse on a resort in Hawaii, and I was miserable there because I missed my dogs. So I think, if I ever purchase another second home, it would be here in North America so that I could take my dogs, canary, cats, and chickens to stay there with me. I may soon be moving to Montana with my son John, so perhaps I will purchase a second home here in Oregon so that I can return for visits.
Finally, what has been your most embarrassing moment?
Oh, man, that is a really tough one to answer. I have had many embarrassing moments! But I think the very worst one was when I accidentally nailed a man in the groin with a book bag when I was attending college. I married young and waited to further my education until I was thirty-three. My husband and I had a business. I had kids and a household to manage. Time was a precious commodity, and I couldn’t see wasting long stretches of it by walking back and forth to a locker. Sid bought me a huge book bag, and I loaded it up with all my heavy tomes.
That particular day there was a final in my economics class. There was one other older person in the class, a guy about my age, and all the other students were young. They hurried through the exam, leaving only me and the other older person to stay until the professor said our time was up. As I left the room, I dragged the weighty book bag along behind me on the floor. I needed an open area to swing the book bag forward and back so I could get the strap over my shoulder. Once in the hall, I began swinging the monster. As the bag swung back, I felt it connect with something and heard a grunt. I whirled around to see my fellow student on his knees and hunched forward.
I immediately knew where I had struck him. He was in the classic position of a male who had just been drop-kicked. I abandoned my bag and ran back to him. I fluttered around him, repeatedly saying, “Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” When he finally recovered a bit, he looked up at me, and in a high-pitched soprano voice, he said, “I think I’m fine.”
When I related this story to Sid that evening, he laughed until tears ran down his cheeks.
Thank you for taking time out to be here today and sharing these interesting facts about yourself, Catherine.
It has been my pleasure. I hope I didn’t go on for too long. It’s a fault of mine. I am a storyteller, after all.
If you would like to find out more about Catherine and her books, here are the links: