Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘family stories’

Traveling Back East – Sort of

I have been honored as a guest writer by Adrienne Morris who blogs at Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained-Period Drama on Paper at Middlemay Farm https://middlemaybooks.com/blog/

My story, Jelly Glass, was featured there yesterday. It’s a peek into one family’s life.

I would be doubly honored if you would mosey on over to her blog and read it there: https://middlemaybooks.com/2017/08/06/keeping-kosher/

One of the most incredible parts of blogging is getting to meet people from all over the world, from all walks of life.

You’ll enjoy traveling around Adrienne’s blog, reading about her life in upstate New York on a wonderful farm and learning about the books she writes.

Thank you, Adrienne. Got a big grin going on over here in Southern California.

 

 

Basket of roses photo courtesy Pixabay

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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

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

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