Sparked by Words

Story to Tell

My grandparents were born in Europe in the late eighteen hundreds, and like many who came to America in the early part of the twentieth century, their stories were tossed overboard to the seas over which they sailed in ships laden with immigrants. People driven to leave the countries of their birth often choose to keep secret the conditions that harrowed them till they took the chance that might lead to a better life. Beginner’s luck had much to do with how their new lives played out but blind luck on this side of the pond offered much better chances than the old countries with their royal, clannish, and violent systems of social injustice.

 

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As a second generation American child firstborn on both my mother’s and father’s sides of our family, all my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents were alive at my birth. A fortunate child. I’d love to say they vouchsafed their stories to me but that would be a stretch. Of the six, two spoke English well, one passably, the other three spoke it poorly though they probably understood a fair to commendable amount. An uncommon language wasn’t the only barrier. They were all used to keeping secrets, believing themselves and their children safer from the armies and conditions that drove them to New York’s harbor if their stories remained hidden. A rare open mouth ready to disclose a fact got hushed by an aunt flapping her arms or a spouse’s cough or a second thought that silence still was best. Their memories were their safest vaults.

By the time I was three, a grandmother had died; by seven, the last of the greats had also passed. Shortly after I turned eleven our family moved from the most eastern seaboard of the country to the most western port. The tropical paradisean melting pot of Hawaii had beckoned my parents. Though paradise lay submerged in the ocean around the islands more than hula-ed on its shores, we never returned to New Jersey’s frozen winters and humid summers. Melting pot, no way, but placid weather is its own tourism, so after a few years when we gave up Hawaii’s false promises, we moved to California. The dreams here were more honest in the garish blaze of neon lights, the weather still benign compared to Jersey’s blizzards. Yeah, even with earthquakes threatening to calf our most western cliffs into the Pacific and fires ravaging every place else in the state, it’s true. The weather here is better.

What I know of the truth and circumstances of the lives of the older generations came to me in snippets overheard at family dinners, in an occasional whisper tucked into my ear with orders never to repeat, or in the gossip we cousins shared with each other in backyards and playrooms. Some tales were told in Yiddish, a language I knew only by swear words, vulgarities, and curses, insufficient fluency to comprehend substance. Struggling with anger or frustration, my mother imbued me with the most tidbits of family lore, verbal explosions of the conditions that informed and inflamed her. By the time I was in my thirties, with my own young family and my own personal history, I’d learned all I ever would about the people who’d made me lucky enough to born in Philadelphia, land of brotherly love even if it wasn’t. Still, a much better option than the lives of every distant family member who remained in Europe but didn’t survive its hatred and torches. However harsh the weather in any part of the world, nothing imposes devastation like madmen with power and guns.

Ashes and secrets, the nexus of my generation, the kernel of my family, the lodestone of my DNA. All things Family Rosen and Bonin curled in a tight volute. My father and most of his generation have gone to grave, and the few who are left can no longer remember. They had a story to tell but only I can tell it, and even then, it’s a porous tale, riven by their fears and my childish lack of attention to the few times anyone wanted to share a bit with me, my lack of insight to know when to memorize better and press for more information. Compelling, even horrifying bits, not enough for history or biography, but sufficient for the genesis of a book.

Here then is the heart of my newest story, The Milkman’s Horse, and heart is a perfect way to describe it. Cloistered behind flesh, bone, and muscle pumps the lifeblood of those who birthed me and my generation. I’ve interrupted my fourth novel to write the fifth, one founded on the tales of my family. I don’t know enough to tell the whole truth and nothing but, so I’m writing a group of short stories linked by rumor, innuendo, gossip, and imagination. At the core of each tale is a singular fact told me by someone, though “fact” is another way of stating I don’t know exactly what I’m writing about.

Usually a pantser, slopping thoughts onto my computer and organizing chapters later, I’ve started this book with an outline of places and events, a list of real people and the characters who will play their parts, and a slim, broken history trooping its way through as a connective lifeline. I’m asking other family members of my generation what they know, gathering facts about how things used to be, researching old maps and history books, collecting hard evidence like birth certificates and census lists, and investigating American life fifty to one hundred years ago.

I’m excited by this new venture, a way of saying thank you to my terrified, courageous family, a means of resurrecting the lives of those who came before, and honoring those still here whose memories have suffered. Now you know why my blog posts have been unevenly posted of late. I’m occupied, friends, and you know what the Do Not Disturb sign means when posted outside my door. I’m writing. For a writer, that’s not a good thing.

That’s a great thing.

 

Family Image courtesy Laura Grace Weldon, Pixabay.com, public domain

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Comments on: "Story to Tell" (55)

  1. Awesome post Sharon – so interesting and a great backdrop to your story… Good luck with the writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Suzie. So far the stories are coming easily. Of course, I haven’t done any real editing, just the first drafts, but they’ve been in my head for decades.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love it when you first start putting those thoughts down and it pours out! It’s just the editing that gets a bit tedious haha!

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      • Other writers have also told me that they don’t look forward to editing their own work but I’ve always enjoyed it. I think if I ever get to the point that I’m dreading editing and revising, I’ll have to consider if it’s a work I want to continue at all. Isn’t it interesting to find out how other writers work? The creative process is unique for each of us and one person’s slog might be another’s victory. You’ve written several times about your writing process, and I think you write on your phone while the taking the train? I don’t think I could get much accomplished that way though I do lots of fruitful thinking while driving. (Can’t write and drive.)

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      • It certainly is! Have you checked out Sacha Black’s blog? She writes a lot about writing…

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      • I haven’t read Sacha’s blog, but thank you for the suggestion. I’ll take a look soon at her blog – bet she’ll give me lots to think about.

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      • Check out Helen Jones blog too – Journey to Ambeth…

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      • Thank you, Suzie, I will. But I think I’ll do that tomorrow. Wait, that’s today. But later today. It’s 2 AM, I’m going to get some sleep.
        Zzzzzzz….

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  2. Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

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    • Thanks, Linda. You are the person I want to talk with about the project because your family stories are most likely a bit parallel to mine. I think you were more attentive to your family’s history and you spoke Yiddish with your own grandparents, something I couldn’t do. OK if I give you a call? We could meet around a tea cup and a bagel.

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  3. Definitely sounds like an exciting–and important–project. I wish I knew more about my family’s background. If only I’d thought to have sit-downs with my grandparents to learn more about it before they passed. But when we’re younger we often don’t think of these things. Best of luck with this!

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    • I feel much the same, Carrie. I really know very little about my grand and great grandparents. I didn’t know when they were alive that I should have asked more, listened better. So, the characters in the stories bear different names from my family’s, and where they live may be similar to their homes but not the actual places. Most of each tale will be invented but inspired from a scrap of a true event. Some of the true events might even be created because I can’t verify anything. Stories, not history, but I’m excited about writing them.
      Thanks for your support of my project.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congrats, Shari! What a great title–never change that. I want to read it already. Is “Where’s Mama?” finished?

    Oh never mind. We’ll cover all my questions over coffee.

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  5. Shari,
    This post is exquisitely penned. There were even a couple of words I’ve never heard of and I have a decent vocabulary.
    We share much of the same history. The secrets of my family lay buried with their bones. At one point in my life I regretted not knowing. Perhaps it was more that I regretted not having asked. Yet, I’m not sure if family members would have responded even if asked. It was their journey to keep secret or share. Now well into my “senior” years I understand the value of secrets.

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    • Funny, Judy, but now that I’m in my senior years, I see the value of sharing. My great and grandparents endured so much that I wished I knew more details. My dad said the same thing to me once – once he was old enough to know to ask more questions, his grandparents were already gone.
      Thank you for the compliments – always a good feeling to know your work is appreciated.

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  6. I wrote a novel loosely based on my family history, too–although I was luckier than you. I was able to get hours of interviews recorded from my family–members of the greatest generation, all. I hope the endeavor results in nothing but good for you. 🙂

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    • Lucky you, Cathleen. Which book is it?

      By the time I was curious, our nuclear family lived fifty five hundred to three thousand miles from the rest of our family (Hawaii then California.) I only saw my grandparents a few times after the age of eleven. Who ever knows they may be too late?

      Thanks for the good wishes.

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  7. Great post. Researching our ancestry can be fun as well as challenging. And I loved your finale. That is a great thing.

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    • Thanks, Andrew. It is fun, challenging, and interesting. Have you undertaken research about your family? I bet there’s a trove of info about them but accessing documents from Cuba might be difficult. I’m truly excited about my new project but have to make sure I don’t let it take over from the queries I need to write about my earlier books. How are things working with you and your querying? It’s a long and wearying process, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not bothered with it. Since it was only me and my parents never got into that stuff. I would have to go to Cuba as you say. Imagine that task. Right now I am more concentrated on sending out short stories to magazines to see if I can get some published credits on my list. The querying will begin in Mayor June. Time is such a killer. Yeah, this whole writing thing is a process. How are you with queries?

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      • You’re right, there’s only so much time and so many things to devote ourselves to, that choosing what’s most going to benefit us and our family is always the best choice. I’m also working on short story submissions because I’ve learned that previous publication is a necessity. The Milkman’s Horse might end up this way, an entree to the bigger publication world.
        As for the queries – ugh, that’s all I can say. You?

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      • Queries = Ugh times ten. I believe the best route for us is publishing smaller works so we can a better author bio on your queries. You know I write these little shorts with little description (as I fret over word count. I know bloggers don’t have time to read long posts). I am currently fleshing these stories out and prepping them for magazines and contests. I think that is our best bet. That and my screenwriting angle. Nice post.

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      • I’ve been trying to shorten my blog posts, and have an idea I may slice them in two in future, and fill two blog posts with one idea. You are absolutely correct that people get weary even looking at a long post, so my thanks to you are even deeper. You keep reading my lo-o-o-o-og posts. 😀

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      • Oh, please don’t feel it necessary to push yourself with my word count obsession. But I do follow quite a few writing blog. And whenever there are stories or chapters posted, the shorter ones get real feedback and comments about the post. The long long ones get a handful of generic comments like “great read” “can’t wait to read more” “this just keeps getting better.” Few comments of real substance. So, my attitude it to try to write the action and emotion in short blogging posts. The real story with fleshed out characters will go to contests and magazines. But it gives me a chance to test my work on audience. (You’re posts aren’t long). Trust me i have read muuuuuch longer. Waiting to read some fiction from you.

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      • You’re not the first to point out that shorter posts generate more comments, and I’d figured it out for myself anyway. It’s another one of my many goals, writing and otherwise. I really enjoy learning from you, Andrew.

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      • You already know this. I just see it more and more. Poets get their stuff read. Us novelists and short story writers not as much.

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      • True on a blog – but in books published in any format, story wins the day. Audience as fickle fan and finicky follower. Weird, isn’t it?
        So it’s midnight plus in NYC – are you up late because your back hurts, (hope not) or it’s just a good time to write (better reason)?
        Are your eyes healing? (OK, now I’m sounding like my mother.)

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      • Haha I was doing final edits on today’s post. Back is what it is? Eyes are getting better. I think I am ready to start reading books again. Thanks for asking. As for story today – we are in an age of instant gratification. And people are finicky. Cell phones, ipads, the internet have changed everything. People want it NOW. Writers who fail to realize that will forever remain in shadows. We don’t have the luxury like writers of the past to go off on long paragraphs of description or get the novel rolling in chapter three. Not trying to scare you, but our goal is getting tougher everyday.

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      • You can’t scare me. I’ve been aware for as long as I’ve been writing how difficult it is for writers like us, who don’t come out of university writing programs or with other traditional credentials, to be recognized. My age scares me more. I don’t have the luxury of time to wait for my moment, but I do know there’s an audience for the type of books I write.

        Glad to hear your eyes have improved, Andrew. Bet you’ve got a stack of books waiting.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t ever let age bother you either. A query letter doesn’t indicate age. What genre?? You made me curious with that comment.

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      • Age matters more than it should. Very famous story about Olivia Goldsmith who wrote First Wives Club: she died while undergoing plastic surgery to improve her photo shoots. There’s way too much pressure on writers to be attractive and young, and I fail miserably at both.
        I write historical fiction (one book,) mainstream commercial fiction (one book,) literary or reality fiction (one book.) Internal conflict, identity crisis, family issues, personal redemption, the stuff that drives book clubs. These genres are mostly read by women and don’t usually show up as movies or TV shows.

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      • Publishing is fickle. One of these days those genres will be the craze again. At one time it was aliiens. Then came vampires. Now we arer reaching the end of the zombie phase. Who knows what is next. So never give up.

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      • Worked too hard to give up. Thanks. 🙂

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      • (Imagine this graphic: Thumb, held high)

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  8. Hang on, for a writer that sounds like a v ery good thing! Good luck with your book, it sounds worthwhile.

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  9. An exciting wonderful project bringing your relatives back to life in narrative. It sounds too as though you are breaking ground in genre. I have read a few hybrid memoir/fiction books and they have stayed with me as standout tomes. Another blogger wrote a fiction book “Please say Yiddish for me” which I felt was based on her family history although she didn’t say that and a PhD student is looking at her family history (Hungarian Jewish background) where the family did exactly what you described kept everything deep in their memories for safety, including raising their children as gentiles. Like you she only has bits and pieces. Both these have already whet my appetite for more and I’m looking forward to reading yours when you have finished.

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    • It was common for Jewish immigrants not to talk about those they’d left behind in Europe. They were often afraid that spies in the US would report their words or actions to the tsar and harm family in Russia or Poland (where my family is from.) A degree of superstition was also attached, the threat of the Evil Eye close at hand. My mom is 100 % Jewish but I think her real religion is Superstition. Every other sentence ended with Kinehorah, (kin ah hor ah, all short vowel sounds) which translates sort of as, “Keep the Evil Eye away from me.” Looking over her shoulder as she speaks. Might sound funny or peculiar but imagine living one’s life in such fear.
      Loving the project, though some of the stories are quite sad.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is good when you can get your teeth into something you are passionate about – even though sad. It was a part of history I knew little about. Superstition I think is common in many religions. Did the superstitions rub off on you?
        by the way I got the name of the book wrong – it was Please say Kaddish for me.

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      • I’m much more religious and spiritual than my mom, so the superstitions don’t affect me, except that I used to get aggravated with her. No amount of intelligent discussion could persuade her in any way. Lots more to this than I want to expose on my blog, but someday it may make it to a story. Do you feel that your faith makes you feel more calm even in the face of danger or sorrow?
        Please Say Kaddish for Me makes more sense. It’s the memorial prayer we say for our loved ones, and it means you’re being remembered. I can easily see how it would mix up anyone who’s not Jewish. Kaddish isn’t as common a word as Yiddish. Thanks for letting me know, Irene.

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      • I’ll look forward to that story when it is the right time for you to be out in the world. My Dad was a minister and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt it gave him a calmness, tranquillity oozed from his pores and he seemed to cope with sorrow (I don’t know about danger because I don’t think he had a lot of danger in his life) much better than others around him. It was as though he was still sad for himself and missed the person but he didn’t see it as nothingness for the deceased person. He had faith. I sadly don’t have the same level of belief that he had. I strayed when I was younger but in later years made efforts to return and became so disillusioned by the various ministers and congregations I came across. On an individual level I feel I follow what was taught to me as a child but I don’t worship and I know something is missing but not enough for me to make more of an effort. That was a very long winded reply but I hope you get what I mean. Actually I know you’ll get what I mean as you do with everything else. 🙂

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      • Anyone who thinks for herself will investigate that which motivates and is meaningful to them. We have to reach our own conclusions and travel our own paths. I’m much more spiritual than either of my parents but I don’t fit a classic Jewish profile. I’m still exploring, changing, finding meaning, and Judaism comes close to defining me. I know what you mean about being disillusioned, but to me, that’s the flaw of humanity and isn’t a flaw with God. I’ve learned to separate what I feel spiritually from what I see around me; not sure other people look at me that way. To most other people, I seem insincere or lacking. Please don’t attribute too much insight to me, but I do feel a connection with you – person to person, friend to friend.

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      • I agree its the flaw of humanity but it is the reason that I don’t attend a church as such. I feel I can be possibly more genuinely spiritual out in nature by myself than surrounded with hypocritical people. Gosh I don’t think anyone would see you as insincere – you come across to me as a person who is honest and says what she believes even if it goes against the accepted norms of what should be said. I think that is a great attribute. I too feel the connection and feel that friendship.

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      • A bit of the rebel in each of us? I am so looking forward to reading your exegesis, Irene.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. The Milkman’s Horse. What a great name for a book, Shari. I am so looking forward to reading your work. I too am grateful for the ones who came before me. I wait upon many a knee hoping for a story from days gone by. Much to learn there about who I am. Best of luck on your writing!!

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    • Thanks for the support for this new venture, Audrey, I really appreciate it. I’m not a fast writer because I research and write and think and re-write. The process is very long but I like the results I get with it. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.
      I’m looking forward to your next poem and your next photo gem.

      Like

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