Sabtu, 21 November 2020

Her memoir about Mom, growing up at Salton Sea almost wasn’t written - Press-Enterprise

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By Donna Kennedy

Contributing columnist

Donna Kennedy was a features writer for The Press-Enterprise and is a former writing instructor. (Photo courtesy of Donna Kennedy)

I grew up at the Salton Sea. When I tell this to friends, they look at me with pity, picturing a shrinking lake surrounded by mud, fish bones and shabby trailers. But the 1950s and ’60s were idyllic years when the sea was safe and desert pristine. My younger sister and I learned to swim in a lake so salty we could float, and we built sand castles on the shore using tumbleweed twigs and barnacles for trim.

Our obsessive mother was busy building her castle, which began as a shack on the beach and became a thriving, but slightly ramshackle, seaside resort. For more than 40 years, city folk flocked to Helen’s Place to waterski and party at her Beach House restaurant, bar, marina, motel and campground. In the fall and spring, the Beach House became the SS Saltonia, an imaginary ship that traveled to the far corners of Mom’s imagination. My sister cooked and I waited tables and danced the cancan at her Saturday night extravaganzas.

In her spare time, Mother produced a monthly newspaper, The Salton Seafarer, and wrote a book, “Salton Sea Story.” Anyone with questions about the sea was directed to Helen Burns.

But all that had disappeared, and my mother seemed mostly forgotten when my husband, Bill Linehan, gave me a nudge. Bill, a family history explorer, writer and editor, imagined a story about a heroic woman who had created a phenomenon at Salton Sea Beach that had vanished with the shoreline.

“Write a book,” he told me.

“No,” I said. “I lived it. That was enough.”

He persisted.

“I gave everything away!” I protested. After Mom’s death in 1994, I had hastily given the 40-year archive of Salton Seafarers to a woman who planned a museum. But nothing happened, and she and the newspapers disappeared.

“Besides,” I asked, “who would read a book like that?” I wanted to write fiction. Thirty-three years of journalism was enough nonfiction for me.

But I sighed and agreed to send query letters to agents and publishers. “If they sayno, can we forget about this?” I asked.

The agents weren’t interested.

“OK, you write it!” I finally said.

Bill was determined. Sagebrush Press in Yucca Valley had published his novel in 2011. Their interest was nonfiction history of the West, like prospectors, cattle and Death Valley. His 590-page novel of literary fiction was kind of Southwest, but it had been a stretch for them. But they were enthusiastic about our sea project and said yes.

Donna Kennedy teamed with husband Bill Linehan to write a book, “Queen of the Salton Sea: Helen Burns and Me,” filled with memories of her mother and their life by the eastern Riverside County lake. (Photo courtesy of Sagebrush Press)

The division of labor took care of itself. By 2013, most of my time and energy was devoted to raising Bill’s 7-year-old grand-twins, so he organized the project. For months, he painstakingly researched the land transactions of the 550 acres owned by Mom and my grandfather. He tracked down nearly all the old Salton Seafarers and accumulated color photos, maps and charts. I did interviews, made calls and wrote anecdotes of life with an eccentric mother. He remembered my old stories and asked me to write about times such as “that Halloween when the Hells Angels came” or “the year you won the Miss Salton Sea contest.” The book came in at 191 pages, which included 71 pages of photos, maps and charts.

And, as it turned out, Bill was right. People did buy “Queen of the Salton Sea: Helen Burns and Me.” On our Facebook page, we heard from old-timers who still lived at the sea, and from those who had left, and even from others who were curious about the sea’s wonder years.

Many of them were present at a gala reception Jan. 9 at La Quinta Museum, where the exhibit “Salton Sea Stories” featured excerpts and over-sized photos from our book. A standing-room-only crowd applauded and laughed as we described Mom’s resort, festivals, parades, music, dances, luaus, frustrations, feuds, ski-ins, skits, contests, dreams and everything else that filled up my early years. For an hour, we felt like best-selling authors. On a small scale, maybe we are: Sagebrush Press is close to selling out its initial 500-book run.

What kept the project going was Bill’s persistence and optimism. We started with my childhood tales wrapped in his research and dedication to accuracy. His enthusiasm was contagious, but when that ran low, we’d call up remembrances of Mom and let her take over. It always worked.

Donna Kennedy writes flash fiction and memoir and encourages her seventh-grade grand-twins in Riverside Virtual School. In her past, she wrote features for The Press-Enterprise and taught writing at San Bernardino Valley College and UC Riverside’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

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November 22, 2020 at 02:00AM
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Her memoir about Mom, growing up at Salton Sea almost wasn’t written - Press-Enterprise

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