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Posts tagged ‘celebrations’

Celebrate, Celebrate

Prod any little kid to see what she loves best and you’re likely to hear “Christmas, birthday, Halloween,” though perhaps in a different order. Prod her mommy and you’re likely to hear the same, with the addition of “family.” Prod me and you’ll definitely get family and holidays. I look forward to holidays with the anticipation of fun, feast, friends, family, and food. Calendars include all religious, cultural, and national holidays, the entries growing every year. With such emphasis on celebrations it’s hardly unexpected that we writers would include some kind of holiday in our books.

All my books revolve around family and the complex relationships that drive individuals to investigate their personal histories in order to pursue their futures. Every book I’ve written employs at least one holiday, including my current WIP. This one is about two Jewish families struggling during the Depression with declining incomes, local prejudice, educating their children, and the bar mitzvahs of oldest sons. But The Milkman’s Horse is not the book I want to talk about at the moment.

About twenty years ago I played with the idea of pursuing a multi-generational family over several decades, using the Jewish holiday of Passover as the vehicle. Passover is a holiday of fours, the symbolism of four showing up in its four names, four versions of telling the story, four children, (sons, if you’re Orthodox) four questions, four cups of wine, (sips, in my house) four promises of redemption, the four mothers who worked like crazy at the back of the tent to make the first Passover meal, and the four billion mothers (and fathers) who cooked all the meals that followed. If you’ve ever prepared a Passover seder, you know what I mean about the food. For one thing, leavened bread is forbidden – try cooking dinner for twenty or so folks without preparing anything that’s leavened. Yeah, you need a grove of fruit to keep things, er, regular, and that’s part of the metaphor as well. With such a trove of meaning, how could I not find a story to write?

The story would follow as families squabbled, kids grew up, marriages failed, and people confessed their secrets and sins until something extraordinarily mindboggling happened, drawing the plot to a close. I could never figure out what that extraordinary event would turn out to be. There’s only so much that can be done with unleavened bread and Manischewitz wine. After a while the concept bored me, and I knew it would bore readers.

Still, that initial idea provoked me until it metamorphosed into The Inlaid Table, a story of generations separated by an ocean and a war. The book opens with a family celebrating Passover, a holiday branded with the idea of rebirth and freedom. However, the rituals of the holiday take a back seat to the exasperating family quibbles and gripes that end up tainting every diner. The story is here, in the tenuous family dynamic torn asunder. The flight to religious freedom? Not at this Passover.

This newer iteration of my original idea employs Passover as loose webbing, not the steel scaffolding first envisioned. The book’s focus is two women who are emblematic of their time, one an eventual victim of the Holocaust, the other an American indecisive about her future. No one need know anything about Passover to understand and enjoy the story, and that’s crucial. Some of my previewers knew a great deal, others nothing at all. Their reviews commented on the strengths of the story and noted areas of concern, much of them addressed in re-writes.

A book must first of all entertain, must engage and trigger imagination sufficient to prompt the reader to turn pages. My first idea would have failed because of a propensity toward preaching, the this-is-how-it’s-done approach. Locking any story to a stiff spine of telling someone how to live according to a set of rules, and stitching characters to that edict, won’t create enthusiasm or sympathy. Characters need to be quirky and individual, plodding through their lives with enough klutziness and self-delusion to be endearing. A little nobility helps as well as a tendency to forge a new path no matter how prickly the brambles overhead. Redemption isn’t possible if one has nothing to redeem, and who wants to read a story about a protagonist with nothing to learn? No one likes their heroes perfect. Even Moses had a speech defect.

The more I dropped the focus on the Passover holiday in Table, the more the holiday became background, messy and believable, and the story richer. That was the lesson for me, to create a story around characters that celebrate and fail rather than a holiday that directs the plot. Passover became a sidebar. The drama ramped up, the characters grew, fell apart, grew some more.

Calendars help us note our holidays but our achievements make us who we are. Whether your characters celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, or Mergatroid Crowning Day, let the holidays in your story whisper but not preach, let them reflect your characters but not manipulate them, and let your story find its own truth. It may not be about the holiday at all; failures and disappointments mark our days as well as sublime moments. The story may be about Angetha and Rufert living in a swampy world where hippopotami rule. That’s the tale you may just want to write.  Be sure to include the celebration of their annual Creeping Root Slither Frolic.

 

 

 Wedding Dance in the Open Air by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1566

 

 

 

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To Grandmother’s House We Go

We’re trying to get to Grandmother’s House. We’re trying to take her home, even though she’s lost.

Those of us who love and care for our family members who suffer with Alzheimer’s disease know that when they say they want to go home, it’s unlikely to be the last place they lived. Because they probably can no longer remember that more recent place, and taking them there may instigate even more despair for everyone. Grasping their desires is a moon shot from making them content. They want to go back to when they were seven and felt safe with their parents; to when they were sixteen and flirting with independence; to when they were twenty-four and exploring young adulthood; to when they were thirty-two and involved with marriage, children, and mortgages; to when they were fifty-eight and celebrating the birth of a first grandchild, a  child’s marriage, another’s college graduation; to when they were sixty-four and enduring their final career years; to when they were seventy-eight and Alzheimer’s knocked down all the retirement ideas they ever thought possible. All of their life collapsed like a block tower that can’t be rebuilt.

The holiday season arrives wrought with expectations and memories that tangle our celebrations by not meeting our high hopes. No matter how much we declare not wanting presents, parties to attend, and over-the-top fashions, if we’re caring for someone who is ill, we’re likely to have our plans changed, our hopes derailed, and at least one event cut short by a crisis. Tears, anger, aggression, bathroom accidents, bathroom refusals, eating problems, repetitive motions and comments, sleepiness, anxiety, total confusion – they all show up like a beggar at our feet. It isn’t Grandmother’s fault. It can’t be, because someone ill with Alzheimer’s is no longer in charge. The disease is in charge – peculiar and heavy handed, blistering with fever and glittering with promises that can’t be kept. I hate you, they say, I love you. You must not love me or you wouldn’t leave me here. I want to go home. And we, the accused, we cringe and cry and dig our nails into our hearts. We have to leave you here at this assisted living residence because we no longer have the strength or skills to care for you “at home.” Their home, our home, someplace other than the residence where they reside – we can’t.

My friends and I discuss whether or not we’re bringing mom (or dad or our spouse) home for the Christmas Day gift exchange or lighting the Chanukah menorah. If we’ll instead replicate the event at the residence where they are cared for by professionals, then abide the guilt of the empty place at the table, the missing voice of the blessings. Can we enjoy the home celebration when they aren’t there, the absence painfully obvious but so much more sane because they aren’t? Will the rest of the family blame us for their inclusion or exclusion? Will extended family support our decision, knowing we’re crying either way?

We do what we can to reconstruct the holidays and celebrations of the times when we were younger and our loved ones were healthy. Some create second weddings so dad can be present because he couldn’t attend his daughter’s nuptials in Arizona. Others arrange for a caregiver to bring grandma to three hours on Christmas morning so she can see her great-grandchildren unwrap gifts. I’m facilitating a Chanukah dessert party at the place where my mom lives, for her, the other Jewish residents, and anyone who wants to stop by for a cookie.

We put together albums with name tags on the photos so our loved ones whose minds are drifting in and out of reality can identify their spouses, their kids, their closest friends. We collect mementos for the shelf in their room, things they can hold and turn in their hands – the carved shell from the anniversary trip to Hawaii, the bronze award for signing the most contracts twenty years ago, the lifetime membership pin for the service organization to which they’d devoted so many years of altruistic fervor.  We coax them to recall names even when they forget them ten seconds later. Even when they are our names. Even when it’s hopeless.

These are the waning years when their moon has left its natural orbit and traverses an alternate route through space. We try to fill their mutilated minds with lifelines and safety nets and touchstones, hoping for memories to be lastingly imprinted. But it is only on our memories they’ll survive, and we wearily know that too, the failures of all our efforts. My mom’s brain will continue to retract, to default to a younger and younger self as she seeks familiarity.

And I’ll find solace in my memories of the occasions when we all gathered to light candles and say blessings for the wealth of our lives. When Mom was well a very long time ago, when my dad was with us. We take our ill loved ones to Grandmother’s House wherever it might be, and there we wait, praying for a few moments of shared joy and the flicker of recognition that makes all the work worthwhile. See you at home, Mom, see you at home.

 

 

Note: I’ve written a novel about the devastation Alzheimer’s forces on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Image courtesy Pixabay