Monthly Archives: March 2013

Alethia, Berkley 1940

Eyes wired red
from searching for nits
on the heads of eight kids,
my grandmother sits alone
in the kitchen
on a new cane chair
bought used with money from
Navy boarders.

Her head cocked,
an ear toward heaven,
she listens
for cries from babies
too grown to suckle
breasts long dry,
so tired they rest
atop her belly.

In her lap
her hands are clasped,
red and swollen,
from packing pickles,
washing the linens
of strangers,
fingers too rough for
rings, tender touch.

With knees pressed.
ankles crossed and
ten toes touching
linoleum,
perhaps she dreams
as she sits
the way she told me
a lady should.

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How to Make a Story: A Recipe That Calls for an Obituary and Curiosity

DSCN0115Last Saturday a friend of twenty years, asked if the stories I have written for this blog are true. They are.  Because I have the kind of big blended family and unusual ancestry that represents the diversity of the United States, I have a deep well from which to draw.  If I ever write fiction here or tell a story other than my own or create an imagined ending for one that started as truth, you’ll know.

But back to last Saturday.  Her question led to a discussion about when we became interested in stories and how differently our minds work in creating them.  L. is a talented short story and non-fiction writer.  Maybe in the future she’ll offer her thoughts in a guest post here.

But today I’m going to tell you how my mind started shaping stories because it might lead those of you who believe you’re not creative enough to come up with a song lyric, a short story, a novel or a narrative painting to think again.

When I was a kid learning to read, I preferred the newspaper to school primers.  Every day I studied three sections of The Virginian-Pilot:  the comics, Ann Landers and the obituaries.

My affinity for the obituaries started when I was young and still small enough to sit on my maternal grandmother’s lap as she read some of them to me.   In my adult mind, it seems that everyday she knew at least one name that appeared on that page.  After she read the notice, she would elaborate with what she knew or heard of that person.  She never spoke ill of the dead.  She did, however, list trials and tribulations not included in the bio.  A run-away husband. Bouts of diverticulitis. A stillborn child. A face burned by an exploding cook stove. A loved one killed in the Great War.  Back then I might not have understood the specifics of these revelations, but I sensed that they mattered.

All of this fascinated me so much more interesting than the See-Spot-Run books my brother read in first grade.  Although I didn’t know the language to use, I understood how obituaries, especially the way my grandmother presented them, held more plot and deeper characterizations.

Every so often – let’s say two months because a kid does not have a good concept of time unless he’s being sent to bed – my grandmother would gasp upon seeing certain names.  “Oh,” she would cry, “Freddie Rogers died.”  She would shake her head, “He loved me so!” before telling me how handsome he was. Or she would exclaim, “Jimmy Murphy!  He wanted to marry me, but my mother didn’t like him.”  I liked to imagine these boys hanging around my grandmother, begging for her attention, adoring her the way I did.

Months turned into years, and still my grandmother would spot the name of a former love, and it appeared she had more boyfriends than Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe could ever expect to have.  It seemed a bit much for a woman so devoted to God and her evangelical faith and the radio sermons of Ernest Amsley.

Finally, I said, “Grandma!  How could you have so many boyfriends?  You got married at fourteen.”  She pursed her lips, closed her eyes and smiled.

So you can see why my fondness for obits continued long after I was too old to sit on her lap, on past her dying at age 83 and still remains with me today.

As a writer, I see every obituary as a story in need of details.  If I read of a man who is survived by eight children, all scattered across the country, I wonder why not even one child stayed at home.  Where they all trying to escape horrors of poverty and abuse? What regrets did he carry to his death?

Or a woman doctor who died at 90, never married, and spent her life doing medical research? What kind of family did she come from that encouraged her studies in an age when homemaking was the usual career of choice?  And how did her family make or inherit so much money that they could afford to buy so many years of education?  Had she ever been in love?  Had a broken heart?  Did she live with a lover?  Or a house full of cats?  There are always so many questions to ask, blanks to fill in.

Of course, it’s impossible to know the full story of anyone’s life, even those loved ones you know better than anyone else. But it is possible to take the clues offered in an obituary and make it a story of your own.

Go on.  Try it. You’ll see.

Swinging to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Learning a Lesson in Discrimination.

imagesWhen my oldest niece, S. was young, the two of us danced together whenever we had the opportunity – overnights at her grandma’s, weddings, and always after Thanksgiving dinners at her father’s house.  As soon as her sister was born and able to walk, K. joined us as we made our own conga line and danced down hallways and from room to room, the three of us joyfully flinging arms and legs here and there, our only teachers having been MTV videos and Barney.

Then S. turned into a teenager, and before long, she was no longer content with our own stylistic gyrations.  She wanted to learn how to swing dance and shimmy to the salsa.  At age 16, she was old enough to take adult dance classes at the local recreation center.  There, the swing classes required partners, and I agreed to be hers.  The idea of the two of us taking lessons made us giggle — but not for long.

When I turned in our registration, I learned that we could not sign up together.  When I asked why, the clerk said, “Because you’re the same sex.” She also suggested others might be offended by my niece and I dancing hand-in-hand.

I was stunned but only momentarily because civil rights issues fire my blood more quickly than any Latin dance.  As my FB friends know, I’m quick to jump on a soapbox.  I pointed out that our country was nearing the dawn of a new millennium: that the center was a public facility funded by tax dollars: and that laws prevented such discrimination!

Still, the woman insisted it was the policy.  Understanding she was the messenger, I asked her to pass on my comments, which she did.

A week later I heard my concern had been sent to the city attorney’s office.  I was thrilled, sure that soon my niece and I would learn how to dance to the sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy without knocking into each other, and, in doing so, she would benefit from a real life civics lesson.  My heart swelled.  I, her old auntie, would have a hand in creating an activist for equal rights.

Two weeks later, the clerk called to give us the okay.  She didn’t sound too happy, and I wondered if she had no niece or daughter of her own.

Maybe I should have thanked her and hung up, but I REALLY couldn’t.  This was about more than S. and me.  “So,” I said, “what if two guys come in tomorrow to sign up?  Will you let them in the class?”  There was a moment of silence not unlike the kind at a funeral service, the way it lingered before she said, “We don’t have any choice.”

The rest of the day I kept watch on the clock, waiting for S. to arrive home from school.  At 4:40 p.m., I called her.

“Great news!” I said.  “ We’re in.”

“What happened?”  I detected excitement in her voice.  My own little Bella Abzug.

“They had to let us in. They can’t discriminate.”

“Oh,” S. said, now sounding a bit dejected.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well,” she paused, “I thought you were going to say they’d found us some cute guys.”

But this story, like so many of mine, doesn’t end so quickly.

Our teacher, a skinny platinum blonde with hurricane hair, segregated us from the group and sent us to a corner.  When the other dancers changed partners, we were not included.  But at some point they all cut eyes our way, watching S., fired up by her love of dance, push and pull and spin me as I hung on for my life.

Afterwards, an old friend and his wife asked why we were not allowed to participate with the rest of the class, a group that seemed too somber to enjoy dancing.  Before I could answer, S. said, “The teacher thinks we have cooties.”

In the following weeks, others we knew only by sight asked, too.

Then, on the last night my friend told the instructor that everyone wanted to dance with S. and me.

“Is that true?” she asked, her mood soured by the request.  They all nodded.

She started the music, and when she turned to us, no one stood with his or her partner.  The Spanish couple had broken apart. So had the African American one.  Two women had paired up and didn’t seem the least bit put off by holding hands.  S. danced with most of the group, including a man whose age totaled that of three 16-year-old boys, and I danced with my friend, his wife and others.

And, that night, we all laughed and danced, no longer minding if our moves were smooth or steps in time. All inhibitions were surrendered as we became grown-up teenagers who just wanted to share the joys of dance with a 16-year-old girl.