Sparked by Words

Archive for June, 2016

Inspiration for My WIP

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As promised in my June 9 post, I’m presenting a nip of The Milkman’s Horse, my newest WIP. It’s an exciting undertaking for me, and the provocation for the book is the stories my parents told.

Most of us hear stories from our parents about who they were before we were part of their lives. My parents told me the first story – about where I came from – before I turned three. I believed them at the time but that was before I learned enough about human biology to realize they were fibbing, just a bit. They told me they’d found me in a cabbage patch. They didn’t of course. They’d actually found me at Thomas Jefferson University where my dad was studying to become a physician – in the lunch room where he picked up the wrong brown bag and found me instead of the sandwich he expected. At least that was a story I could swallow.

The next story also concerned human biology. We lived in Hawaii then as dad interned at Tripler Army Hospital. Mom was pregnant with their second child. I was a very curious four-year-old and I wasn’t going to buy that cabbage patch story a second time. So for her next performance, she told me about a little door in her tummy where the baby would come out. A mysterious opening, sorta like the tiny caves carved into every mountainside that we saw when driving around Oahu. My parents said they were inhabited by Menehune, the mythical island pixies who hide from everyday folks. I stretched my neck outside the car window each time we spotted a cave, hoping to see a Menehune. The fact that I never saw one was proof enough for me of their existence. I wanted to see the door in my mom’s tummy immediately. She denied me but later went to the hospital in the middle of the night and came home with a tiny red squalling baby brother. I didn’t trust either of my parents after that. Door in her tummy – give me a break. He’d been left by the Menehune.

Maybe my distrust of their inception stories is why I didn’t listen very well to the rest of their stories. I was already jaded by the unreliability of their narration. Over the next eleven years they shared a few more stories, each of them choosing moments to tell me something about their parents and grandparents and themselves. After wondering where we come from, probably the next most important story is the one about how our parents met each other – so they could then go off exploring to find us kids.

As teenagers my parents lived in Trenton, New Jersey. My mom, “Naomi,” was the youngest daughter in a family of seven kids. She was best friends with “Evelyn” who came from a family of five kids. Naomi and Evelyn belonged to the same temple youth group. The girls arranged a double date. Naomi would go out with “Alexander,” Evelyn’s oldest brother. Naomi’s big brother, “Sammy,” would date Evelyn. That’s where the story ended. I asked many times where they went, what they did, when did my parents realize they were in love, and I was always met with the same foggy answer. Mom couldn’t remember the details. All she knew was that Evelyn and Sammy never hit it off, but my mom and dad had found their life’s mate in each other. They were married 63 years until my dad passed away six years ago.

Last week I spoke on the phone with my Aunt Evelyn – who told me that the double date never happened at all. She’d never dated any of my mom’s four brothers. How could this be true, I wondered? How had my mom told me so often the story about how she and my dad met on a double date with siblings, yet it had never been true? Thing was, she had not been trying to pull a cabbage leaf over me. She absolutely, 100% believed that she and my dad double dated with his sister and her brother. I’m disappointed to know that the double date story was a fabrication. I’ll never know the true story. Evelyn doesn’t know how my parents met or where they went on their first date. My mom now has Alzheimer’s disease.

The most horrible thing about Alzheimer’s is everything. It’s a disease whose victims die twice, once from their life when well, another from the life after the onset of the illness. The loss of dependable communication assures that my mom is an unreliable narrator. However questionable her recall ability decades ago, she now has no memory left at all. I may as well start searching through old lunch bags for the truth of my parents’ story.

I lived in New Jersey through my elementary school years, and all my family was born there or just across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Nearly all of my generation still live along the East Coast. Other than my parents who wandered with us kids about as far as we could, from Hawaii to Alabama and back to New Jersey, again to Hawaii, eventually to end up in California, only a few members of our sons’ generation also now live on the West Coast.

Aunt Evelyn disclosed that my dad’s family, who lived for a time in Lambertville, New Jersey, worked at the same period in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My dad delivered groceries on his bike for his dad’s mom and pop market. I always knew about the grocery delivery service but not that the store was in New Hope, which was my most favorite place to visit when I was a kid. I loved the town’s art vibe even at a very young age. There I was in New Hope, seven, eight, ten years old, eating handmade stuffed knishes*, thinking I was in Lambertville. They’re both charming artist colonies spread along the Delaware River across from each other, the river that separates NJ from PA.  My dad’s family traveled between them every morning, driving across the bridge to Bonin’s Market and then driving home each evening. My dad delivered groceries to a famous artist; now I have a better chance of figuring out who the man was since he lived in New Hope, not Lambertville. Cool, yes? A photo on Wikipedia shows the green steel bridge built in 1904. How did I not see the bridge we crossed when I visited? A child’s limited view from the back seat of a car, I guess.

I went searching for confirmation of the few stories my parents had told me and discovered most weren’t true. But I found the famous bridge over the Delaware and rebuilt a relationship with an elderly aunt whom I’d loved when I was a kid. I may never know the truth of those early stories but I learned that families survive all kinds of experiences. As for The Milkman’s Horse – I’d always intended it to be a series of loosely connected stories based on a few true snippets I’d heard in childhood. Thing is, truth depends on one’s state of mind. Now I know where I get my storytelling instincts. Sadly, I can never tell my mom how alike we are – she can’t understand such complex thought. Stories communicate ideas between people, bridging unknown worlds. Alzheimer’s has made communication a strange vacancy for my mom, a gap she can no longer bridge.

Still, I thank you, Dad of blessed memory, and Mom. to

 

*My grandpop’s knishes were baked dough balls filled with savory concoctions of potatoes and onions or onions and ground meat. Best thing in the world to satisfy a hungry kid.

 Bridge image courtesy: public-domain-image.com

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X is for X-tra Effort

 

 

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X is for X-tra effort to make it perfect – what, you thought it would be Xtorbulating Xminogus in stories? Oh, please, Xtor-Xmin is so commonly discussed these days – you knew I’d have to find a unique topic.

We moved from blizzardly New Jersey to tropical Hawaii when I had just entered sixth grade. It was a bad year for a kid to move, but any year is a bad one for kids. I had to start all over trying to make friends, when I’d only learned the art of social graces the year before and still needed lotsa practice. But my dad was sick and tired of shoveling snow out of the driveway at ten p.m. to make a house call for someone with a cold who thought the weather too dastardly to have come to my dad’s office. What, the blizzard was kinder to my dad late at night than to them earlier in the afternoon?

So I stood at my bedroom window overlooking the driveway and cried while I watched my dad’s bent back, scraping and lifting, scraping and lifting, while the drifts of snow roared down like waves at the ocean, crashing over him in thick inches of icy blanket. I don’t even remember what time he got home that evening, but it must not have been long afterward that he said he’d had enough. He and my mom told me we were going to have a one-year adventure in Hawaii, and then we’d return to family and friends on the East Coast. I had all summer to spend with my New Jersey friends, and I blabbered endlessly about how much fun it would be. I never thought about how much I might miss everyone because I didn’t yet realize it would be the last time I’d see them.

We made an X-tra effort to have a great time those last six months. We hosted and were hosted. My friends even managed to coax me into a basement, though I was terrified of their darkness. There I was greeted by a gaggle of girls yelling, “Surprise,” and we celebrated our friendship a few weeks before leaving the East Coast. Did they miss me as much as I missed them? Probably not. My letters “home” were much longer and more frequent than any that were sent to me. Still, I figured I was the one having the adventure, it should be my responsibility to write all about the island paradise where we lived.

Of course, it wasn’t. Paradise that is. I couldn’t understand pidgin English and the Hawaiian kids couldn’t understand my New York-New Jersey accent along with a smattering of Yiddish. It was more than the thick accents on either end. It was also the local slang that defined our unique patois. Da kine meant something to them, mostly that they couldn’t understand me. My exclamation of oy vey iz mir meant I hardly knew where to start. They used their catch all phrase to let me know I wasn’t making any sense. My X-tra effort to understand not only their language but also their Hawaiian culture was often met with disdain, and I was left in tears. Woeful indeed was I.

A white plumeria tree grew over a tiny pond my dad built in our front yard in Oahu. A waterfall trickled down a tumble of lava rocks, adding the sound of splattering water. Five flitting sparks of black, orange, and yellow koi lived in the pond.  They learned to swim to the center of the pond to wait for dinner at the sound of the sliding door opening but ignored the front door opening, even though it was just inches away from the slider. I’d spent dozens of hours sitting patiently teaching the fish to come to the sound of the slider.

Many years after we moved back to the mainland, (California) my dad planted a single pink plumeria stalk. Twenty five years later it had become the queen of the yard, gracing us with a wide canopy of shade and thousands of blossoms wavering in the breeze like pink koi. The house is long sold, my father long passed, and one of my sweetest mementoes is the lei he made me of those plumeria blossoms, now a dried bundle in a ceramic pitcher. So much X-tra effort on my dad’s part.

A story should be something special, a surprise like the one my New Jersey friends gave me with a going away party, like the plumeria blossom lei my dad made for me, like teaching fish to come for food. I hadn’t been able to make human friends in Hawaii, as much my fault as anyone’s, but I’d made friends with five koi who lived in the shade of a plumeria. Writing is as much a memory of events as a fabrication of senses. X-tra effort brings it to life.

 

Plumeria image courtesy: commons.wikipedia.org

The Garden

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Seeds pushed into soil crumbled by fingers

Late spring heat already cracking the ground

Parcels of dirt too poor to grow anything

Still we plant the germ for tomato and chive

Out of the dry, fissured clods, food to grow

 

Perhaps we look in the wrong places for peace

Expecting it to claw its way above the earth

Perhaps we must soak less the anger of our fears

That fuels the fires of hate, rage, and blindness

If we hope to harvest a season of sustenance

 

No wall can contain my own or leave yours behind

Nor should I expect a kernel of hate to produce

The food to nurture a body, to grow a heart

Only by opening the hard surface of ground

And that of one’s soul can anything grow

 

I will listen, I will look into your eyes

As long as you also listen, do not look away

My feet may dance to different music

But the blood in my body pools red as yours

You may not spill it for your produce of hate

 

Neither of us will bloom in a garden of death

No child will thrive beside stumps left by fire

You may not plant those craven seeds

Cower instead in your ruined clot of earth

Let my garden grow

 

Remembering massacres in Jerusalem and Orlando and Paris and San Bernardino and Charleston and Fort Hood and on and on and on too far

Black mourning ribbon image courtesy: publicdomainvectors.org

I Remember It Well

My parents, especially my mother, told me stories about their families when I was growing up. Stories about them when they were growing up, and stories about their own parents and extended family.

I wish I’d listened better. I wish I’d remembered more. I wish could now ask them if I’ve remembered correctly and to fill in the details. How ironic that just as I wanted to know more about who they were before I’d ever met them, they were both gone.

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My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago, though I’d figured it out at least four years previous to her physician’s declaration. Six years ago my father died, and it became necessary to have my mom placed in a memory care residence. For the next eighteen months, as my mother and I struggled to construct an entirely new relationship based on her awareness of her illness, her widowhood, and my new position as her durable power of attorney, I also tried to help her resurrect her life’s memories. My father is gone in fact; my mother now lives with a brain so fractured that she cannot remember anything that happened even one minute before. My opportunity to question her about her childhood is long past.

Most of us know ourselves through our direct memories of the events that impressed us as we grew up as well as through the stories that other people tell about us. At dinner this past weekend, I told a sweet, funny story about our son to his children. Our son didn’t recall the event from his own personal memory, as he would have been too young to have it impressed upon his experience memory. But he’d heard the story before and remembered earlier tellings. No matter how many times I tell him this story, I can’t force the original incident into his own memory for him, I can only reinforce that he’s heard me tell it before.

As my adult children age and my grandchildren grow up, I realize the old family stories only I know are going to be lost. In fact, the incidents my parents told me so long ago are glimpses into lives so distant that their lifestyle is recognized as being archaic and quaint. My grandkids, for instance, can’t imagine a time when everyone didn’t carry a cell phone. I’m not even certain when my parents’ parents would have gotten the first phones in their homes, but it’s a safe  bet my parents would have ecstatically celebrated those old phones getting installed into their childhood homes when they were very young. I can only guess about the telephones, however, because neither of them ever told me about a time when their families might not have had a home telephone. In fact, it’s very possible that both of my parents had telephones in their homes even before they were born. I know this because I looked up the development of the telephone on the Internet and discovered that phones were relatively common household appliances in the 1930’s when both my parents were kids.

I remember from personal experience the telephones that were installed in our home in Trenton, New Jersey in 1954 because no one else was fortunate enough to have six phones with their own phone numbers. We were a very unique family.

My dad was a physician, just starting his first private practice after two years of internship in Hawaii and Alabama. We’d “come home” to Trenton where both parents had all their family members living nearby. My dad’s conducted his first medical practice in a section of our two-story Dutch Colonial house, converted to waiting, x-ray, and examining rooms, and my dad’s office. We needed two phones because one had to be dedicated to his medical practice, but the technology for putting more than one phone number on one device didn’t yet exist. In our kitchen, the two phones sat side by side, one for our family and one for my dad’s practice so patients could reach him in an emergency any time of day or night, 365 days a year. Also for non-emergencies, but that’s another story. The double telephone system was also installed in my parents’ upstairs bedroom and of course in the medical office.

I’m the only person left who remembers the wonderful day those phones were installed. My brother was too young to know how extraordinary our situation was, my sister wasn’t yet born. With my father gone and my mother’s disease having long savaged her memory, only I recall the splendor of those two machines. None of the other kids at school had two telephones in their homes, plugged in side by side, with two different phone numbers, and in fact, we had six! I memorized the two phone numbers, one for our family of course, and one for my dad’s medical office, which I was never supposed to use unless no other adult was near enough to answer. I can no longer remember the numbers but they were something like: MA (for Maple) 2-5873. Some folks still had party lines, phone lines they shared with neighbors, where they could rudely listen in to someone else’s phone conversation and save a few bucks of monthly phone service for the risk of no privacy.

The few times I answered my dad’s office line, I used the professional voice and demeanor I’d practiced for just such an occasion, “Hello, this is Dr. Bonin’s office, can I help you?” I learned to write messages from people in distress, to get their names spelled correctly, to copy down their phone numbers, and to promise them I’d have my dad call them as soon as he came home. Big stuff for a six-year-old. Strut worthy. I saved lives. OK, maybe not, but I saved messages from patients.

Many families today don’t even have a land line. Instead, every member of the family has a cell phone with more technical intelligence than the space ship, Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. In the mid 1970s, the early days of mobile phones, owners looked exclusive walking around holding devices about the size of a quart milk box, yakking important information about plane flights and dry cleaning. Then phones became as small as a credit card, easily concealed and imparting status to folks planning dinner dates. Now they’re larger again but no thicker than a knife blade, and loaded with enough technology to sustain a computer, music, shopping, games, GPS,  movies, TV, personal calendar, Internet access, reading apps, a camera, and a – wait for it – cell phone. Sixty years after the installation of the six amazing, modern phones in our home, and today most people no longer need anything so clumsy and old fashioned. Archaic and quaint in less than a hundred years. Of course, no one talks on their phones anymore – they text. Too often while driving and ignoring present company.

Here it is – my first memoir, written down for grandkids, friends, and total strangers, now made laughing friends.

In my next post I’ll tell about the newest novel I’m writing, inspired by my parents’ memories.

I want to thank Irene A Waters for describing the place of memory in our lives. You can read about her on her blog, Reflections and Nightmares, https://irenewaters19.com/

I also want to thank Judith Westerfield for helping me come to terms with my memories. You can find her on her blog, The HeART of Spirituality!  http://judywesterfield.wordpress.com

 

Old phone image courtesy Public Domain images. clipartlord.com