Tag Archives: blended families

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.

The Birds, the Bees and Clematis. A Story that Takes a Sexy Turn.

ClematisI wouldn’t tell what follows if my late stepfather had been the least bit shy or embarrassed about it, but I can still recall the day he laid back in his recliner, told me this true story as tears streamed from his Paul Newman baby blues and laughter deepened his always prominent dimples. He had hardly said two words before my mother started laughing and tearing up.  She knew what was coming.

First, you need to know that before my mother and stepfather downsized to a condo, both were gardeners.  On temperate days, the exceptions being my stepfather’s golf on dry Tuesdays, their standing dates on Fridays, and Sundays when they attended the Southern Baptist Church where they met and were fixed up on a date by a deacon, they worked in their yard.

In addition to taking care of the tedious chores of cutting grass, weeding, edging and raking, they tended huge flowers beds of heirloom azaleas, roses bushes, hydrangeas, and assorted annuals and perennials, both low-growing and climbing.  When they were done and had showered off the muck and dirt, the two would sit out in the backyard and sip iced tea, enjoying their own private paradise, one they sorely missed after their move.

They took care to make sure their front yard was beautiful, too, with beds of neatly trimmed boxwoods along the front walk and tall pines ringed by azaleas.  On anything else rising from the ground – a trellis, a light pole, a mailbox, they grew clematis.  Neither my mother nor stepfather were interested in the mini-versions.  They loved the huge showy blossoms of white or purple that could be seen by anyone passing down the street.  The bigger the clematis bloom, the more awed they were by nature and God’s hand in it.

One day on the golf course at Ocean View as my stepfather hit a round with old friends from his youth and others from his church, the talk turned to yard work.  I wasn’t there, but I imagine there was grumbling by some who’d prefer to spend less time on the grass at home and more on that at the course, but eventually the conversation turned to the growing season and how flora of all kinds were flourishing – squash plants spreading like octopi, dahlias stalks breaking ground, hydrangeas clumps taking on tinges of blues and pinks.

And it was during this talk that my dear stepfather, picturing the dazzling clematis abloom on the mailbox, said,  “You’re not kidding.  You should see the beautiful clitoris I have at home!”

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The Year I Became a Black Sheep and Stayed that Way.

imagesOne glorious morning after my high school graduation, I totaled my car while my parents were vacationing near remote Corolla, NC.  They were unreachable because cell phones had yet to be invented, and Corolla Beach was off the grid.

I had stayed home alone because of my job at a bank where I spent my days checking the accuracy of computer print-outs for credit card merchant fees.  Even then, I thought the job, aside from being tedious, was silly.  Who was I, who maintained a steady C in high school math, to correct a computer?

But I did, and that’s where I was headed on a bright June morning as the eight-track played the Moody Blues when I, the only driver on the road, hit a parked car.  An Oldsmobile that was big, shiny cherry red, and, later I learned, bought new only one week prior.

Terrified, I knocked on doors until I found the owner.  But Jerry, even after taking a look at his car, seemed more worried about me.  He let me use his phone to call my neighbor and my boss.  He called the police because he needed a report to file an insurance claim.  As we waited for our guests, he gave me a Pepsi Cola and a Valium to calm my nerves.

When the policeman showed, Jerry begged him not to give me a ticket, but I left with a citation for reckless driving.

That Friday evening, my neighbor drove me to a pick-up spot north of Corolla to meet my father as planned the week before. Because I’d already spent a good portion of my life on restriction or writing “I must not . . .” sentences hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, I was scared to tell him about the ruin of Jerry’s car, the damage to my fifth-handed 1964 Impala and the ticket.  But I had to since my car was nowhere in sight.

As I recounted my morning and all that had gone wrong, his nostrils flared.  Moments later, he informed me that I would have to pay for the damage to my car and for a lawyer, whom I’d not planned on hiring.

Then he said, “Tell me exactly how this happened.   What were you doing?”

I told him that my shoulder bag leaning against the diver’s side floor hump flopped toward the gas pedal as I made a left turn and that as I’d reached down to remove it, I swerved into Jerry’s car.  An innocent mistake.  That was all.

“Hmph,” my father said.  “I think you were smoking a cigarette and dropped it.  You swerved trying to pick it up.”

It was scary how close he was to the truth, but I stuck to my story and told it to the judge who said, “What about centrifugal force?”

I left that courtroom with a reduced charge of improper driving, a fine and a crush on that white-haired man.  Even as a teenager I had a thing for brainy guys like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Judge Lamb.

I told my father about court, the wisdom of the judge, and I let my dad think that he had gotten the story right since his theory was so close.

I would have left it at that if not for one thing.  The story became part of family lore —  the-daughter-as-a-black-sheep tale, and it was brought up at family dinners for the next 15 or so years.  I had moved on, done a lot of amazing things no one every mentioned or asked about.  In some ways I had the least blemished record of anyone in the family, except my mother.  Yet the story persisted.

Then, one Thanksgiving, long after my parents had split up and married others, someone, without a doubt my father, brought up the story that had so entertained my family, my family which had grown to include two teenage brothers, in addition to my older one, and a sister young enough to be my daughter.

This time when he came to the “she was smoking a cigarette,” I said, “Dad.”  I put down my fork.  “It wasn’t a cigarette.”  For a long few seconds, no one spoke.  Everyone stared at me. Having nothing to add, I picked up my knife and fork and returned to eating my dinner.  So did the others.

Several years passed before anyone brought up that story again, and the next time it was told, it was told right.

But not by my father.  He didn’t say a word.

Writer’s Note: I’ve an old notebook in which I keep weird facts, websites and off-the–wall news items.  Today I scanned through it, hoping for a blog idea.  Then I came across one line that read — The International Society of Black Sheep. This blog almost wrote itself.

Elizabeth Taylor Was Not My Mother.

DSCN0108When I was a kid, one of my favorite rainy day activities was to dig through the hall closet and haul out family albums and other mementos and spend an afternoon studying them.  Among these items were a small carving of Buddha, a picture of my father’s Japanese girlfriend, Mit-su, and a magical wooden cigarette box that he brought home with him from the Korean War;  photographs of my mother and her seven siblings taken at Ocean View Beach, the streets of Berkeley and my great-grandmother’s house in South Norfolk;  and a bronzed pair of baby shoes that had belonged to my older brother, a baby book that detailed his first year and every inch of him, his birth certificate riddled with errors, and an album fat with photos of him as a newborn.

I was eight before I realized that according to our closet, my own history with my family started when I was old enough to push my naked self up from my belly to stare into the camera. When I asked my mother why there were no pictures of me as a newborn and no baby book, she said, “I didn’t have time.  You were a baby.  Your brother was one.”  And my babies shoes and birth certificate?  “I don’t know.  They’re packed away somewhere.”

For a long while, I pondered her indifference, and it wasn’t until a girl in the neighborhood told me that she was adopted that I suspected that I was, too.  When I asked my mother, she snorted, “Adopted?  You look just like your father.”  And when I went to my father, he told me I looked just like my mother.  To me, their answers were fishy.  They looked nothing alike.

I turned to my grandmother for the truth as she was rolling out dough for dumplings on the kitchen table.  She stopped long enough to roll here eyes to heaven, shake her head and sigh before continuing on with her work.  From her actions and lack of words, I understood she had been sworn to silence.

Evidence mounted.  I spent a good portion of my life on restriction for various infractions, from storing my dirty socks under my bed and refusing to eat eggs, gagging at the sight and smell of them to failing a math quiz and forging my mother’s name on it.  That signature passed muster with my teacher but not with my parents.

It seemed as though years passed without my being allowed to see friends, talk on the telephone or watch TV.  If these people were my real parents, why weren’t they  nicer to me?

Then, when I was 12 or so, I read a newspaper article that said most children at some point in their lives believed they were adopted. Still, I had no evidence that I wasn’t.

And more to the point, I had nothing in common with my parents.  My mother, a Southern Baptist, loved church and True Romance magazines.  I did not.  My father enjoyed any dinner that included wild game riddled with buckshot, which I did not.  Both of them liked car trips that involved lots of scenery, especially long drives in mountains.  With my behind petrifying in the back seat of the Ford, there was only so much scenery i could take, 10 minutes at the most.

After college, I decided to take my savings and travel solo in Europe for three months.  This, of course, required a passport which, in turn, required a birth certificate that I ordered from the Virginia Department of Vital Statistics.  When it came, I saw for the first time that my parents were who they said they were, although our last names, typed incorrectly, were scratched through and written by hand.  Perhaps I should have been relieved to have my roots confirmed.  Instead, I felt a bit let down.  Elizabeth Taylor would not be coming to claim me.  Ever.

But this story doesn’t end there.  In time I started looking more like both of my parents who divorced after 21 years of marriage.  I kept my father’s coloring and my face began to resemble my mother’s.  As the three of us aged, I found much in common with both of them, too much and some things too embarrassing to list here.

Then, towards the last half of 2012, my parents each gave me what I consider as gifts.

My father told me about his cousin’s daughter, a woman close to my age whom I’d never met nor heard mentioned.  He thought we would like each other. because — get this — we both shared common medical histories. While that might be something to discuss, I didn’t see this common denominator as reason to embrace another relative.  (As those of you who read this blog know, I have a billion of them, not including my in-laws.)

My father sent me her email address, and I wrote her.  Becky wrote me back.  We continued to do so, getting to know each other as though we’d been set up by Match.com.  It was crazy how much alike we were in our interests.  Then, on Facebook, I saw her headshot, and there, I saw parts of myself — the shape of her face, the mouth, the teeth, and I knew her to be, without doubt, not just distant family but as a sister who “got” me and vice versa, even though we’d never met.

In November, during a visit to my 80 year-old mother, I told her of Becky and how much we shared in terms of genes, education, interests and so on, and when I finally stopped talking, she stood and said,  “Wait here.  I have something for you.”  She disappeared down the hall toward her bedroom, where I assumed she had a piece of clothing to pass on to me, but instead she returned and held out a set of bronzed booties.  “Take them,” she said.  They’re yours.”

When Families Evolve

resizedAllenEricaWed0218My stepdaughter won’t be coming home for Christmas.  I’m sad about this, and I’m sure her mother is, too.  But she was here a few months ago for nine days which she split between us.

When Jess comes home, we usually gab a lot, sip wine and watch movies on Netflix, visit thrift stores.  (We never go to malls, thank God.)  This last visit, however, her only request was, “I want us to cook together.”  I don’t remember what I taught her, but she took the lead on making a fennel salad and a sweet potato chorizo soup, both delicious.

Jess works as a designer.  Sometimes she’ll bring home plans she has drawn.  Other times she takes me to web pages that display renovation projects on which she has worked.  As she explains the problems and solutions of each job, I think how lucky I am to be able to share her.  Key to my being able to do this is her one, true mother, a generous woman who once sent me a Mother’s Day card that made me weepy.

But this blog isn’t only about Jess.  It’s about my large blended family, and how lucky we are.

My siblings range in age from 25 to 62, and they include one full brother, two half brothers, a half sister and two stepsisters.  I used to joke that we were a family waiting for a call from Oprah.  Then one day as I watched her show, I realized she had called a different family — one with a smaller age spread and no diversity in term of ethnicity or sexual preference. Our group has it all.  Sometime we squabble with each other but mostly we laugh.

When I was single and my half brothers were kids, I’d drive them and my niece and nephews to Peter Piper’s Pizza where they would take it upon themselves to call me “mommy.”  They wanted to shock the waitress that someone so young with no ring on her finger could have so many children.  They counted on her sympathy for free Coke refills which they knew I would never buy.

Until recent years, my siblings and I, along with our partners and children, and all of our parents and step-parents celebrated Christmas Eve en masse.  Those holidays were noisy and hectic but yet pleasantly civilized with my two fathers talking over cocktails; my mother chatting with my half brothers, who, like my nieces and nephews, called her Grandma while my stepmother and her year-older stepson took turns taking pictures.  I’ve no ideas how old the kids were before they sorted out the relationships between us all, but when my niece went to college and was assigned to draw her family tree, she called upon me for help.

People have called our family gatherings “crazy,” which is only true on Father’s Day when our annual ping-pong tournament causes a bit too many taunts and too much blustering.

We have my older brother’s first wife to thank for keeping our family together.  She refused to host multiple holiday and birthday parties after her first child was born. She invited all of the not-so-amicably divorced grandparents and their partners to her son’s first birthday and left it up to them to decide whether to attend, put away their differences and act as adults, which they did.

That was 30 years ago.