On February 15, 2012, I wrote a long overdue thank-you note to my cousin who had sent me a copy of her richly detailed published map of Newport, Rhode Island. I was happy to be in touch with her, and that we could both talk about things we had authored.
I mailed my thank you note to her just before I took off for Australia. I went there in search of an author who had so identified with my book that he bought 730 copies of it. My new author friend, who is now determined to write his own 365 thank yous, was sending a copy of my book along with each one of his 365 thank you notes, and I thought I would go sign them for him. “Really,” friends were saying, “all the way to Australia? To sign a few books?”
Well, for one thing, I had never been to Australia. Why not? It seemed like the right thing to do.
I had written the note to my cousin on one of a beautiful set of greeting cards sent to me by Shannon and Phil Haldaman of Traverse City, Michigan. Shannon Haldaman first contacted me in January 2011, when my book was first released. The Haldamans had been energized by the book, and had begun writing one thank you note a day. Sometimes more than one. Then, later in the year, she and her husband Phil decided to do even more to revive the nearly lost art of handwritten greeting cards by starting their own card company. According to The Grand Traverse Insider, a local newspaper, she was inspired by my book to “give the project her all” and to add a line of thank-you cards.
“The impact made by Kralik’s book was phenomenal, and that, plus the encouragement they received from the author when they contacted him on Facebook, led the Haldamans to jump into their new venture with excitement,” the Insider reported. The cards the Haldamans made record the beauty of northern Michigan, a beauty I had learned well during my five years as a summer camp counselor at the National Music Camp located between two beautiful lakes near Traverse City. There were the tranquil lakes, the white birch trees, the cherries I remembered so well. And there was one card picturing a bed of Petosky stones. Always valued by the young campers who found them, the Petosky stones capture fossilized plant growth in the patterns shown on their smooth grey faces. Here’s that card:
My cousin grew up in Michigan, and shortly after receiving my card she wrote to ask me if I had heard that Jeffrey Zaslow had died while driving on a Northern Michigan road not far south of Traverse City, from a book signing in Petosky, Michigan. The news, which reached me in Australia, has left me wondering what to write ever since.
Mr. Zaslow, a prominent Wall Street Journal columnist, went from respected author to phenomenally successful writer when he became the co-author of a book entitled “The Last Lecture.” As a reporter, he attended what was billed as the last lecture of Randy Pausch, a popular professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Professor Pausch, who was dying of cancer, had given a stirring, vibrant lecture in which he tried to pass on the collected wisdom of his lifetime to his children, and any of his students who cared to listen. It turned out that the Internet was listening, and the lecture became an overnight YouTube sensation. It will ever be known as the best PowerPoint presentation in the history of that medium.
Subsequent to the lecture, Mr. Zaslow interviewed Professor Pausch for many of the mornings of the remainder of his life, as Pausch pedaled his bicycle in an effort to bolster his inexorably failing health. The thus expanded lecture became a book of the same name that sold 5 million copies in the U.S. alone.
“The Last Lecture” established Mr. Zaslow for good as a writer, and made him the go-to teller of famous stories of persons who could not quite tell their story for themselves.
One can imagine that publishers sought him out when they figured that the subject, such as Captain Sully Sullenberger or Gabrielle Giffords, had a sure fire best-seller in them—if only they could write it. His stature was such that he was recognized as a full co-author on each of the resulting books, “Call of Duty” and “Gabby.”
His talent for telling the stories of others thus fully established, he then began telling stories that were totally his own, including his latest release, “The Magic Room,” a book about a small bridal shop in rural Fowler, Michigan.
The papers say Mr. Zaslow was killed in Warner Township, near the town of Elmira. The accident occurred on Highway M-32, a 2-lane blacktop that runs west to east at that point. According to the papers, M-32 was icy that night, and Mr. Zaslow lost control of his car, which slid into a semi-trailer truck, killing him. He was driving alone to and from the town of Petosky, where he signed for readers of his new book. The road there seems to go straight, west to east, and then bends southeast for no particular reason. There is almost nothing there. The township hall and other buildings would not be visible from the road on a dark night.
I drove these roads 40 years ago in the summers when I worked at the National Music Camp. On our days off, we would drive through the small towns, trying to find a bar we hadn’t tried before, just to see what kind of beer they had on tap. The drinking age was 18, in those days, on the late ’60′s logic that if you were old enough to fight in Vietnam, you were old enough to vote, and old enough to have a beer. Or a whiskey. We sometimes raced to see who could drink a pitcher first without pouring it into a glass. Every once in a while, we would find a band. I remember driving through this area one night to find the band Steppenwolf, which played one or two songs in a barn like structure and then ran for the door. That passed for culture in those Northern Michigan nights of the early ’70′s, but with the northern lights dancing across the spinning sky, there was no need for more.
Other than the fact that I have driven on the road where he died, my connection with Mr. Zaslow is a tiny, but an enduring one. First of all, the income provided to my publisher by the success of his book might be one of the reasons they felt flush enough to take a flyer on mine. As my friends said, “A book about thank you notes? Really?” That might have been the publisher’s thought as well, but my wonderful agent convinced them there was something good in there, and a flyer they did take on this complete unknown.
When my book was coming out, my editor contacted Mr. Zaslow. Although I was at that point absolutely nobody in the publishing world (even now am only slightly more), he agreed to read and comment on it. His resulting comment remains one of the nicest things anyone has said about my book. The publisher has excerpted his remarks on the cover of every single one of my books that has been printed since.
Of course, the natural thing to do seemed to be to write him a thank-you note. As I didn’t have Mr. Zaslow’s address, I did just what people do who are trying to contact me. I wrote to the publisher. Of course, it was my own publisher, but that was all I could do. According to my notes, I said something like this:
“I really appreciated that you took time out of your schedule—almost literally at a moment’s notice, to read and write a blurb on behalf of 365 Thank Yous. You were generous with your time, and in your thoughts, and with your reputation, all on behalf of a completely unknown author. I hope to get the chance to thank you in person some day, but for now thank you.”
These are the only words I ever communicated to him. I never got the chance to thank him in person. It would have been an honor.
From every account I have read, Mr. Zaslow’s kindness to me was characteristic of a generously lived live. He seems to have been most helpful to those like me who were struggling for what he had already attained as a writer, and a human being. Four years younger than me, his death made me acutely aware of how lucky I have been to live this long, and how the world seems to lose the best of the human race just when they are most needed.
I suppose I could have left it at that, and have made this blog just the public thank you I never got to make to Mr. Zaslow in person. But in writing to me, my cousin told me how much she enjoyed his latest book, “The Magic Room.” This made me think. Mr. Zaslow had been kind enough to read my book. Reading his book would be the least I could do.
Absent Mr. Zaslow’s kindness to me, I might not have ever read “The Magic Room.” It is not a book that at first blush would attract a male audience. It is the story of Becker’s Bridal, a bridal store that has been the dominant business in tiny Fowler, Michigan for four generations and 76 years. A book about a bridal shop? That’s hardly the kind of thing that would normally catch my eye, which like anyone else’s is attracted to the latest excitement, a hunger game, for example. Yet a book about thank you notes must not have looked very attractive to Mr. Zaslow. A book about thank-you notes is hardly a guy’s sort of book either.
In fact with regard to the purchase of a bridal dress, one imagines the father of the bride, even one who deeply loves his daughter, looking for a way to minimize the time involved. Zaslow’s book describes fathers pacing up and down Main Street in Fowler, blowing their noses and wiping their eyes. Yet I suspect that if dragged to Fowler for such an occasion, many fathers might find a comfortable chair, plug in a set of earphones, listen to the game, and wait to write the check. I might be doing that myself someday had I not read this book.
It took me a while. I was busy at work, reading files that were measured in feet rather than inches each day, and not reading much of anything at night. But I’ve been too tired to read recreationally for most of my life, so I finally did what I have been doing for most of my life: I got an audio copy. I began listening on my long drive to and from work each day. One morning, on the 210 freeway north of Los Angeles I found myself deep in the story of the bridal shop and its patrons, and realized I was crying along with the rest of Mr. Zaslow’s readers.
Mr. Zaslow assigned himself to stand in the “Magic Room” of Becker’s Bridal, a room of mirrors where brides take one last look at The Dress. He shared the moment and the before and the after stories of the weddings of the families he discovered there. Mr. Zaslow was the type of talented writer you could plunk down most anywhere, a mall, a McDonald’s, a rest stop on the turnpike. Leave him for a while and let him talk to people and observe what’s going on, and when you come back he could have a story written, and it would be a good one. The Magic Room is a story like that. No wonder so many people who could get anyone to write their story for them chose Mr. Zaslow for the job.
There are those who wonder at his trip to Northern Michigan that night. But in publishing today there is no group of readers too small. After all, I went to Australia at the invitation of just one. You feel a sense of responsibility to the publisher who has taken a risk on your work to do what is necessary to sell books these days. If you have any doubts about this, just look at how many authors you might think of as aloof are now answering their email, posting to their readers on Facebook, blogging their hearts out. In a proper case, however, this work is not drudgery. When you write a book that is as filled with love as is the “Magic Room,” your readers turn out to be the kind of loving people you most want to meet. And it is a re-inspiring experience to make contact with them. To Mr. Zaslow it must have seemed, like my trip to Australia, the right thing to do.
In the “Magic Room,” Mr. Zaslow’s aim was to discover families whose stories illuminated the ways of love. While the fathers in this story are often distant, divorced or drunk, Mr. Zaslow most wanted to find in these wedding-dress stories the ways in which fathers and mothers express their love for their daughters. And he wanted to discover the kind of man he most wanted for his daughters.
The Magic Room is an important story about good love, but also about how precious and rare it is. While there is a Magic Room in Becker’s, there is also “a room, beyond the view of buoyant brides, dubbed the Dress Cemetery. It’s a sad, crowded place where dresses are piled up after engagements are broken or brides-to-be are abandoned by grooms with cold feet.”
Unless there is another book or two on his computer–and here’s hoping that there is–The Magic Room is as close as Mr. Zaslow came to telling what is probably his most compelling story, his own. In searching for the ways a parent can express love for a daughter, the most important discovery of the book, indeed of his life, is that we must express it now, while we can. In a passage that seems even more compelling to me now, he tells the story of a judge in Illinois, who made a point of always telling his daughter he loved her:
“One Friday night in 1995, as his eighteen-year-old daughter headed out the door with her friends, he said to her, ‘Remember I love you.’ She replied: ‘I love you too, Dad.’ She died hours later in a car accident and the judge told me how grateful he was that his last words to her were a reminder of his love.”
I thought of this story this week, as I said goodbye to my twelve-year-old before she embarked, at 3 a.m. Wednesday, for her class trip to the Pacific Northwest.
Zaslow tells the story of how he put little notes for his eight-year-old daughter in her lunch bag each day, just to remind her that he was thinking of her. She threw away the lunch bag, and as any parent knows an eaten lunch is a small landfill of detritus to throw out, plastic bags, and wrappers and such, but Zaslow’s daughter saved every note. This was a surprise, he writes, but not to me. I have written notes like that, and I know they are not thrown out.
Though it was not meant to be so, “The Magic Room” could ultimately be viewed as a tragedy. Zaslow goes to the wedding of every one of the brides he writes about. Yet he will not get to watch his daughters get married, and to see that they have a proper dress. To view the book as a tragedy would miss the point Mr. Zaslow was trying to make. I doubt that he ever missed a chance to show or tell his daughters how much he loved them, and it is evident in this book. I have no doubt his daughters will think of him on the day they buy their dress. While Mr. Zaslow will not get to buy his daughters a dress at Becker’s, they will know he loved them.
So once again, I say thank you, Mr. Zaslow. Thank you for writing a book to show fathers the way to love their daughters, and the importance of doing so today.