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May 2, 2016

Viola Shipman: A Charmed Life

Posted by emily

We are very excited to kick off our seventh annual Mother’s Day Author Blog series with Viola Shipman --- award-winning memoirist Wade Rouse, writing under a pen name --- whose debut novel, THE CHARM BRACELET, couldn’t be a more perfect place to start. It’s the story of three women who rediscover the importance of family as an heirloom charm bracelet changes their lives. Here, Viola warmly recounts early memories of reading with her mother and grandmothers, women who inspired not only her love of books, but her first novel as well.

One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories is going to the library hand in hand with my Ozarks grandmothers and mother. My paternal grandmother volunteered there, and it became a second home to me. The library was one of our neighboring town's oldest buildings, and it sat under ancient, arched trees. The steps were always a bit mossy in spring and leaf-strewn in the fall, but walking inside was akin to entering heaven. It smelled like a magical world, a world filled with secrets I needed to know.

My mother and grandmothers were voracious readers, and they helped make me one as well. My paternal grandmother's two favorite books were the Bible and WALDEN, and she jokingly said that in the Ozarks, where I grew up, it was heresy to read anything but the Bible or put any book on a similar level. But she felt reading was a key to understanding the world and those who were different than she was.          

"We live in a small town," my grandma would say, "but the world is big. That's how your mind must be, too."

I spent hours in that library, reading, talking to the librarians about their favorite books. It was there I read Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS and CALL OF THE WILD. I read Erma Bombeck, a Midwestern humorist who would become an inspiration.

Every summer was spent with my grandparents at a log cabin on a crystal clear, ice-cold creek in the middle of nowhere. We had nothing but each other and books: no TV, no phone. When my mom and grandmothers would head up for groceries, they'd also return with a trunkload of library books. They would read to me as we rocked on a glider that sat on a bluff overlooking the water; I would read on innertubes, floating in circles.

I read and read, and that's when I started to write.

I often didn't fit in at school, and books became more than my escape hatch --- they became my launch pad. My mother and grandmothers encouraged me to read, as well as to be smart, to think critically, to think beyond the small world in which I lived. More than anything, I was encouraged to dream. Let me tell you this: Once that seed is planted, it immediately takes root in a child's soul. There is nothing bigger, or more special, than a child's dream.

And I did, thanks to the women in my life. I dreamed of being a writer, and they encouraged that.

"You should have big dreams," they always told me, "but be happy with the simplest of things."

My mom and grandmothers all wore charm bracelets, and I remember --- as I grew older --- asking them, as we read books, the stories of their own lives. They told me, via their charms, and I began to understand more about their lives, which had not always been easy. A silhouette of a baby boy represented the child one grandmother had lost, while a charm of the Eiffel Tower was another grandmother's only link to her dream of being a fashion designer in Paris.

I found each charm held a story, a key that unlocked a secret part of them, and that while the charms were simple, their symbolism was grand: A dragonfly charm was to a life filled with good fortune; a puzzle piece was to a life filled with friends who complete you; a loon charm for a love that always called you home; a mustard seed charm to a life filled with faith; a sewing machine charm for a life bound by family.

Those charms were a path to discovering that my mother and grandmothers weren't just family, they were incredible women who had lived extraordinary lives, filled with beauty, hope and tragedy.

My debut novel, THE CHARM BRACELET, jangled in my head for many years. The book is a tribute to them. In fact, I chose Viola Shipman --- my maternal grandmother's name --- as a pen name in order to honor their lives, lessons, legacies and encouragement, as well as the lives and sacrifices of our elders. We would not be here without them.

Though my mom and grandmothers have passed, I still have their charms --- and stories. When I jangle those charms, I know they are near.

This Mother's Day, as you celebrate with those you love, I know you will say, "I love you," but also whisper, "Thank you."