What happened to my earlier first chapter?? I ditched it–too confusing and kind of boring. This writing life is a real adventure.
NEW YEAR’S 1980-1981
The conversations that sear your soul happen in ordinary places. In public spots, at normal times—in an office on a Tuesday, outside the grocery store late one morning –but off at the side of the action, in a space that for some moments feels like a blister on the surface of the world. The conversations that change things are rarely really private. Once people are in business or in bed, decisions have already been made.
I ran into Randall Kirchner in a cruise ship gym. “Randall, is that you?” I said, watching as he sat down one weight and, with an exploratory jerk, picked up one that was heavier.
He turned. “Barbara? Barbara!”
The gym was an inside room no bigger than a trailer. Behind Randall, a muscular man grunted as he lifted weights above his head. Beside us, a young lady upped her treadmill speed in grim determination.
Randall dropped his dumbbell back on the rack. “Give me a hug.”
His tall frame was hunched, the gleam in his eye dulled. His chest when we hugged was softer than I remembered. Still, the warmth of him felt wonderful. It had been years since I’d held anyone so long.
We had met in the early fifties back in Midburg. I was a Boy Scout mother and he was a Boy Scout uncle. He was married without children–nothing rare or suspect in those days. I was cheerful, Randall was charming: both social virtues, both choices. We were workers in the same field. Once in a while we spotted each other across the teaming grains and waved. Then things got serious. Something of the predator, perhaps, in him. Something of the coy victim in me. Male and female, embracing their traditional roles. That little flutter in my chest, my quick breath. The boys would return from clambering up some obstacle, shirts off, foreheads gleaming, and I might have envied their energy and youth, but Randall made me feel like them.
Now, in the gym of the Northern Star, Randall and I stepped back from each other, eyes down, and started talking about our former Scouts–my kids, his nephews–then moved on to fellow Scout leaders and places weʼd had campouts. Finally I blurted, “Howʼs Linda?”
“Fine. We just had our fiftieth anniversary. Weʼre on the Promenade Deck.” Speaking very quickly.
“Fifty years, oh my. So when we were wandering around Red Hawk Gorge it must have been, what… twenty-seven-eight years ago?”
Then, heʼd been married over twenty years. He was the plant manager for a hardware manufacturer and was friendly with the plant manager of Humm Industries, my husband’s family firm, although he’d never met my husband . I said, “Glenn and I only made it thirty-six years. Heart attack. He keeled over one morning in the bathroom. Twelve years I’ve been alone.”
“Iʼm sorry,” Randall said. “Are you cruising by yourself?”
I ignored the quiver in his voice. “Iʼm with Neil’s family. My grandsons and I are sharing an inside cabin. We donʼt even have a porthole.”
Randall’s forehead twitched. “Itʼs a celebration trip for me and Linda.”
Fifty years. I wondered if he and his wife were sharing a bed. They didnʼt way back when–or so he said.
Once Iʼd seen Randall at a picnic scooping potato salad onto his paper plate. Already his chin was slackening and his belly growing. But I absolutely ached for him. When he wrapped his arms around me, I felt as if nothing could hurt me. “Iʼve always wondered, thinking back,” Randall said with sudden resolve, “Iʼve always wondered if you really would have…”
I glanced at the weight Randall had set on the rack. Eight pounds. I could lift that much. “What?” I said, more sharply than I intended. The floor beneath us seemed to shift, and I wondered about the ship and its famous stabilizers. I said, “I read everything I could about San Antonio.”
“Barbara.” Randall’s company had opened a new plant in Texas, and he had moved to run it . At the time, I thought there would never be better time for the boys and me to part from Glenn. Neil was heading to college and Geoffrey wanted to change high schools. Randall said, “But you had the boys.”
“I would have gotten custody.” Because—not at first, but after the stillbirth and my broken arm–Glenn’s mother was on my side.
Randall’s gaze shifted. The treadmill stopped. Randall held out his hands, palms down. “You would have gotten tired of me, see? I have a tremor.”
The lady jogger excused herself to step between us and out the gym door.
Randall slapped his face with his hand. “I have spasms! Iʼm a mess!”
I placed a foot on the edge of the empty treadmill. The man with the weights was grunting. “I guess it all worked out. I can’t imagine Geoffrey in Texas. Heʼs a confirmed bachelor.”
Now Randallʼs hands were really shaking, and I imagined them breaking off and flapping around the room like giant bats.
“You know, I think Iʼll walk outside. Iʼm glad I saw you.” I removed my foot from the treadmill and opened the door to the corridor, realizing belatedly that the Promenade Deck—Randall’s deck—would no longer be a safe place for my strolls. “Iʼm glad youʼre well.” Although we hadnʼt spoken of his health at all.
Our evening family dinner in the Kismet Room. “You saw Mr. Kircher? Neil said. “On this ship? Neat.” Neil explained to his sons and Natalie who Randall was. “Great guy. I used to think he had a crush on you, Baba.”
Carl smiled. He was only fourteen, but he paid attention.
“He worked with the Scouts to help out his sister with her sons,” I explained, “because their father was a drunk.”
“Mr. Staub was a drunk?” Neil looked surprised.
“A crush on you?” Angus said. Angus was my older grandson. Despite his being the laziest of students, it appeared he would indeed at least start college.
Carl said, “Angus, men can have crushes on Baba.”
“I wasnʼt old then, Angus.” Some of the Scout fathers used to call me “Mrs. Dish.”
“Remember…?” Neil crossed his eyes and exposed his bottom teeth,
an expression that Randall pulled when the Scouts got too much for him. The face pierced me. My sons had never imitated any face of their father’s.
“Baba was married then,” Natalie pointed out. “A crush wouldnʼt have mattered.”
“It could have mattered,” Carl said, and I tried to hide my smile. From the time he was a baby, Carl’s head had made me think of a doll’s: perfectly round, button-nosed, with a small mouth and shapely pink lips. As he got older, his body stretched and thinned but, still, his head was perfect. I touched it as often as I could for reassurance, like patting a Buddha’s belly.
On the cruise, I never saw Randall again. As if the sight of me had made him jump ship. The next evening Neil bought a bottle of wine for the whole family, and, after dessert, Natalie headed off to a juggling show with the boys, leaving Neil and me alone at the table.
Neil waved his hand at the dark window. “You think Geoff’s having a good time, out there on some island pansying around?”
Geoffrey, Neil’s big brother, indeed was travelling with his chorus friends, but pansying, like Liberace? Geoffrey left the room whenever Liberace swanned onto TV. I said, “Your brother has his own life to lead.”
“I just wanted him with us.” Neil poured me a slug of wine. “Listen, Geoff and I have a plan. We want to expand the solenoid business. All youʼd have to do is sell some land. Thereʼs over a hundred acres you never see. And real estate is going now and Geoff and I will get the place anyway when you…”
I glanced at the mauve carpet, and for an instant I fantasized about curling up under the table. Of course, that would be the moment Randall walked in. “I wish Geoffrey were here,” I said.
“Baba, I begged him to come. You know how he is.”
“I know,” I said, wincing at the sadness in my voice. The day of his father’s funeral, Geoffrey had locked himself in his apartment. Too weird for me, he said.
“Baba. Geoff and I are responsible.” A five year plan. Expansion. Infusion of capital.
I said nothing, staring at the window. Such small windows on a boat! I had no idea where we were. The wine and the absent wife and sons must be part of the plan. And here I’d believed Geoffrey and Neil understood.
My husband was not a gentle man. Not that the boysʼ misdeeds were major—not that Glenn would have killed them–but there were times that Glenn did not hold back, and I knew what he could do. Once, it took me almost a month to turn my head. Not infrequently, I had to take to bed. Once, a dreadful woman at the club said I was the sickest person she knew. And then there was my arm. But Glenn’s and my life together was prosperous and the envy of many, and I wanted my sons to join their father in Humm Industries. A family business was secure. A family business tolerated oddness. If the Midburg symphony had been a family business, dear Kevin would still be on the podium, his too-small tuxedo jacket stretched taut over his right shoulder, and the orchestra board would not have been horrified—horrified—at the news of his body wedged between logs and branches in the sluiceway of the Midburg dam.
I said, “Don’t ask me to give up a hundred acres.” A waiter poured more water in my glass. Glenn had left the business to Geoffrey and Neil and the lake and land to me. Justice for all. Payment for my years of silent service. Once, when Glenn and I were lying in bed after intercourse, the time when it was safest for me to speak, I mentioned how beautiful the lake had been that afternoon, how it surprised me that his mother, who stayed in the cabin all summer, spent all her days inside. “For crying out loud,” Glenn said, “it’s not Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Itʼs just Lake Humm.”
That was a typical conversation between us: my statement, his correction. But at that moment I understood that I loved Lake Humm more than Glenn did. And now Lake Humm was mine.
“Ask me to sell stock, not land,” I said to Neil. I had plenty of stock. The boys bragged about me at Rotary—my research at the library, my watching Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, my selling and buying timed to technical factors Mr. Rukeyser called The Elves.
Someone tapped Neil on the shoulder. “Could you get all our picture?”
“Of course,” Neil said, standing, and the family he took photos of was delighted with him, they thanked him so so much.
“The stocks are for your future, Baba,” Neil said as he sat back down. “The land you can give up. That whole area south of the county road: how long since youʼve been there?”
Sometimes, Neil sounded like his father. “I visit the trilliums every spring,” I said. “They canʼt grow anywhere. You put houses on that land, itʼs bye-bye trilliums.”
“Baba, do you know how many family shops are left in Midburg? Itʼs down to Humm Industries and the Goebbels, and Junior Goebbel’s driving around with a bumper sticker that says My other car is up my nose.”
“Why do you think they call it real estate? Itʼs dirt, itʼs trees, itʼs water, itʼs ten thousand bulbs Iʼve planted. It may be play money to you, but itʼs real estate to me.”
The mother of the family Neil had photographed tapped him on the shoulder and waved. “Thank you again!”
“Forget it,” Neil said. “Iʼm sorry I brought it up.” And the cruise went on, and the band played, and I got back to my condo in town and the phone rang. “Barbara?” Randall said, and I hung up.
I got in my car and drove myself to the cabin, a place I’d never stepped inside in January. The lake was the lifeless grey of a cookie sheet. Inside the cabin I made enough noise to scare off any snakes, then lay on the sofa in my coat and boots and looked up at the beams and log ceiling and across the room to the two windows set high in the wall. Black limbs crossed the grey sky. It was five in the afternoon and almost dark. I thought of things I hadn’t thought about in years. The empty bottles Iʼd buried, the fender I told Glenn that I had dented. How Geoffrey, after Iʼd bailed him out, stared at the kitchen floor of our big house as I suggested better spots to meet his friends. Near the stream at the back of our property. At the club in the woods near the seventh tee.
A more dignified time. Men wore brimmed hats, not caps emblazoned with the names of sports teams. Even close friends kept some things private. There were things you might suspect all someoneʼs life, yet never know for sure.
“Mrs. Humm,” Randall used to say, nodding.
He and I would never have been happy together. The guilt. And, if I had run off with the boys to Texas, Glenn would not have trusted them in the business. I pulled over me the cloth quilt my mother-in-law had made, thinking how the dampness never left it, and after a few moments I roused myself and started a fire in the fireplace and scared the mice out of the nest theyʼd made from toilet paper under the bathroom sink. I used a pail to tinkle in, because the water was turned off. I got back under the quilt. Soon, there was nothing coherent in my head: Glenn’s big fist above me; tropical drinks served on a tray; road signs. The pillow under my head had the comforting smell of mildew and a nubby texture not unlike the airplane seat Iʼd sat in earlier that day. The fire was warming up. Oysters being gently, gently steamed.
When I woke, the light through the windows was bright and the fire was out. I got up, used the pail again, and re-lit the fire with old magazines. Back under the quilt, I debated about taking off my shoes. It must be mid-morning. Twenty-four hours before Iʼd been playing yahtzee with my grandsons at an airport gate in Florida. I wondered why I wasn’t hungry. The crisscrosses of branches outside the window were beautifully the same. Why should I have to change? If Neil pressured me again about selling land, I’d refuse. If Randall tried to contact me, I’d hang up. Simple. I switched on the light and climbed the plank steps to the bedroom, then pulled down the bearskin nailed to the wall. Downstairs, I laid the furry skin on top of my mother-in-law’s quilt and slipped myself back into my sleeping cavity, still slightly warm.
I dreamed. I was twelve years old again, sitting with my parents at dinner at a resort hotel in Saratoga, and the beautiful lady from the next table was approaching me, her long fingers fiddling with the clasp of the starburst brooch pinned to her dress’s wide collar. I knew what she was going to say (such a lovely girl you are, it was my grandmother’s) and I smiled as she drew closer, but something in my smile was off, and instead of attaching the brooch to my dress the lady poked its pin into my chest.
I woke up in the dark, my hair sweaty and matted. I threw my covers on the floor and sat up, uncertain for a moment where I was.
The boys were long gone from our big house in town when a heart attack knocked Glenn over. I was fixing breakfast when I heard the crash above me. Glenn’s body seemed to take up every inch of the bathroom floor. His razor, bristling with cut hairs, perched at the edge of the sink.
There had to have been a better way for him to end. He had to have hoped to die in bed, head on his own pillow, maybe even me beside him. As a toddler, his mother told me, Glenn liked to suck on the knob of flesh at the end of her elbow. “Glenn?” I’d said. “Glenn did that?”
At the winter cabin the next morning I stepped out into a quiet world sheeted with snow. I scooped up some to melt on my tongue. There was no food in the cabin, and I was finally hungry.
The four other Merry Widows talked about their health; I didnʼt. They talked about men; I didnʼt. They worried out loud about their children and grandchildren, but I kept my worries private. The Merry Widows would have been startled to learn that on our cruise Neil had found me difficult. To them I was the content one, the calm one, the one who had it all together.
Iʼd tell the Merry Widows that Iʼd gotten home and slept for thirty-six hours. W wouldn’t mention Randall Kircher or Neil asking me to sell my land. I must pass along that brooch. My final encumberment. How much longer did I have? Five years? Ten? I was almost sixty-six. I was healthy and physically fit, but neither of my parents had made it past seventy.
Inside, the fire was out. I folded up the quilt and draped the bearskin over the sofa. I closed and locked the front door. Brushing the snow off my car, it hit me that Randall was a coward. Phoning when he was back in Texas and not when I was three decks down. The wavering, the qualms, the hesitation–what kind of man was that? Glenn, for all his faults, had known what he wanted and gone after it. He had shot the bear in Alaska, back when the place was still a territory. I could still feel its skin on top of me–heavy, warm, oppressive. A bearskin let you know that you were covered.
Here’s my first essay. It recently won the Carolyn B. Lorenz “Best of Beginners” Prize at the Dayton Woman’s Literary Club creative writing awards, an honor I feel conflicted about because 1. I’m not a beginner; 2. I’m the current president of the group, so ick. But The Dayton Woman’s Literary Club is a delightful and vibrant group of people–you should check them out. And the club is 125 years old! I like this essay but I like the group more.
THE ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST
Recently my husband’s father—Pa, age 90–was hospitalized twice for urinary tract bleeding. Shortly after this, at home in the Florida condo where he and his wife live, he became suddenly short of breath. The emergency room doctor discovered that Pa had blood clots in his lungs.
Because of Pa’s recent bleeding, he was not a candidate for clot dissolvers or blood thinners. The usual thing to do in a case like his is to insert a strainer–aka an “umbrella”—via the groin into the vein leading from the lower body into the heart. Clots caught on this umbrella can’t travel to the lungs. Clots in the pelvis or legs are nuisances, and the body will slowly break them down. Clots in the lungs can kill people.
The clots in Pa’s lungs were discovered around noon. He was admitted to the ICU and told that a special doctor would be coming in to insert the clot-blocking umbrella. My husband flew to Florida the next day, believing that his panicky mother had failed to report when the umbrella had been inserted, and not wanting to scare her more by asking about it. That evening, my husband phoned home. Pa had not had his umbrella placed, although he’d been in the ICU 30 hours. There was no doctor around, only a nurse practitioner who didn’t seem to know what was going on. For several hours my husband had been sitting outside the ICU trying to calm down his mother.
I went a little crazy. How could Pa be in the ICU without a doctor? Was the doctor’s name “Dr. Nobody”? Did the hospital plan to bill for ICU “care” when they had done literally nothing? How would my husband feel if his father threw more clots to his lungs that night and died? My husband—a physician himself–said, “I know, I know, but what can I do?” That’s when I went really crazy.
An hour later, while my husband was on the phone with a hospital administrator, the umbrella doctor waltzed in. He’d been too busy to get there earlier, he said. The hospital had no back-up plan in case he was not available.
Thank goodness, Pa survived. Because he remained short of breath—did other clots reach his lungs before the umbrella was placed?–he was sent to a rehab facility. My husband wrote a letter of complaint to the hospital. He sent it via e-mail. I would have sent it by flaming arrow. Or lawyer.
A few days after this episode I went with two friends to the first session of a course I’ll call “Tender Talk.” I do volunteer work with young people in a part of the world where there’s a lot of conflict, and learning to be a Tender Talker sounded useful. The course was held in a local church. When my friends and I arrived, the teacher, an older woman I’ll call Ms. Whisper, asked us to write our names and e-mail addresses on three separate papers. “Three?” I said. “You’re not going to send me e-mails selling vitamins, are you?” This was the first indication to both Ms. Whisper and myself that I might not be her best student.
We sat. Ms. Whisper led the introductions. I was impressed with my ten fellow participants (one had learned to walk after a head injury, another worked with ex-cons and prostitutes) and increasingly irritated by the softly coercive manner of Ms. Whisper. Our first task was to come up with a list of non-physical human needs.
“One need is wanting to feel like you fit in,” someone said.
“That would be inclusion, wouldn’t it?” Ms Whisper replied, writing INCLUSION in big block letters on her easel.
It became clear that Ms Whisper was looking for certain words. We were meant to fill in a crossword puzzle, not speak our minds.
After wresting out of us students ten one-word Human Needs, Ms. Whisper asked us to split into groups and identify more needs. My group came up with openness and acceptance to healing in whatever guise it appeared. We were pretty excited about this.
Ms. Whisper was not, although I admit that our idea was a wordy one (see above.) “So you mean ACCEPTANCE?” she said.
The group members flanking me shook their heads.
“Well, not really.” I foolishly attempted to re-describe our group’s appreciation of healing.
“So you mean RESPECT?”
“Sure,” I said, recognizing in my voice the dangerous tone my teenage sons had used when they wanted me to just shut up.
Ms. Whisper pointed to a word on her list. “Now you’re feeling RECOGNITION.”
“Yes,” I said. My teeth were clenched, as if I was saying: Yes, I am a member of the Communist Party. Or:Yes, I shot the sheriff.
Next Ms. Whisper read from her little (not red) book. The little not-red book was written by the Founder of Tender Talk, a man. The story Ms. Whisper read was right at the book’s beginning. The Founder wrote of speaking publicly about Tender Talk at a meeting in the part of the world where I volunteer. In this region there is pain and fear and violence, and during the Founder’s talk a man stood up and shouted that the Founder was an assassin and a murderer. Oh my! Happily the Founder, by dint of his empathetic listening and a few well-chosen words, was able to disarm the angry man and his complaints of injustice so completely that the Founder was invited to the man’s home for dinner—as a guest, not as a menu item.
When Ms. Whisper finished reading the story she dropped the book and stared around, clearly expecting us to share her amazement.
And I was amazed. I was amazed I was so angry! “Wait a minute,” I said. “That sounds like a nice story, but looking at it politically, what happened after that? The only thing the Founder did was placate this man. Did anything change for this man? The Founder got a good story to put in a book to make himself look impressive, but what happened to that man? I’d love to hear what that man said later on about that day.”
My outburst was a revelation. I had no idea that I was an activist.
Frankly, at the time I didn’t speak as well as I’ve quoted myself, but I did spit out those basic ideas. Someone else in the group talked about the movie Selma, and how in that movie an action—demonstrators crossing a bridge—was required for change, because just talking about change wasn’t enough. Then people said that maybe members of a powerless group, in order to be listened to, have to behave better than those in power, and…
We were really off-topic. Ms. Whisper pulled us back to Human Needs.
It’s a course, I thought. Ms. Whisper has a lesson plan. And for the rest of the class I (pretty much) shut up. Tender Talk itself, I told myself, was fine. I could use more Tender Talk. For many reasons, including living in a house of males and working for years in a male environment and being perhaps (don’t quote me) the only sane living member of my family of origin, I can seem pretty heartless. Absorbing other people’s dismay and anger—that was something I’d need training to do. But I doubted I could ever be solely an absorber. It wasn’t my nature. I came home from Tender Talk appreciating my anger.
“How was it?” my husband said. “Fine,” I said. The two of us are not big talkers, tender or otherwise.
That night, I couldn’t get to sleep. Tossing in bed I felt like I was boiling. Why was I so agitated? I got out of bed and paced the hall so I wouldn’t disturb my husband.
Wait a minute. I take a lot of pills, among them half of a half-dose of an anti-depressant. Every four weeks I replenish my pill organizers from my bottles. But filling the organizers two weeks earlier: hadn’t I given up looking for the bottle containing my anti-depressant? I went into the bathroom to check. Hmmm.
Was I right about Pa’s poor treatment? Was I correct to realize that I am at heart an activist? Yes, but partly I was off my medication.
(my new novel, first chapter)
Carl and I met because Marissa was black. Or so Neil said.
Normally I would have smiled and ignored such a silly comment– I was a nice white girl from Ohio, I wasn’t groomed for confrontation–but Neil was Carl’s father. The next day he would be my father-in-law. Also, Carl and his brother both worked with Neil in the family manufacturing business. Tomorrow I’d be an official member of the Humm family. I needed to fit in. So I said: “Really? How interesting!”
Marissa was my friend as well as my landlord, and Carl and I had indeed met through her.
“It was me,” Neil said. “I did it! I hooked up us Humms with Marissa and then Carl met you and now you and Carl are getting married. And Marissa’s one of your bridesmaids. Isn’t that a great story?”
Neil and I—together with my future mother-in-law, Natalie–were standing with drinks at Carl’s and my rehearsal dinner. ““Great story,” I agreed. “But something I don’t understand: how does the black part fit in?”
Well, Neil had wanted the best real estate agent possible for the Lake Humm property, and one day he was looking through the Parade of Homes section of the Midburg paper and saw an ad including a headshot of Marissa in her dress-for-success suit and hair. “Whoa,” Neil had thought. “No one handed her anything.” So he phoned her.
Natalie said to her husband, “Neil, you’re like… who’s that matchmaker? Yentl.”
“Yenta,” I said. “Yentl is Barbra Streisand.”
“Ugh.” Neil made a face. “Great voice, but…”
For this dinner, Carl and I had decided that I would handle Carl’s family and he would handle mine. Families, we’d noticed, improved their behavior for outsiders. Of the two of us, Carl had the harder job. The Humm world was largely a peaceful one, but Carl had to deal with my four siblings and my mother. He had already trailed my mother out of our private dining room, and I could see my siblings clustered together casting worried, mildly hostile glances toward the door. Maybe they thought Mom’s behavior was Carl’s fault.
“You know Marissa grew up on one on those horse farms in Kentucky,” Neil said. I nodded. I knew pretty much everything about Marissa. She was twelve years my senior, and I’d met her back when she married my big brother, when I was only nine.
Natalie chimed in, “Her mom was a maid and her dad was a handyman!” I winced, glancing around to be sure Marissa wasn’t near us, but she was in a corner talking with the other bridesmaids.
“She grew up in an apartment above the garage,” Neil said, his eyes darting briefly to a passing tray of mini-quiches. He patted his belly and shook his head before rolling his eyes to indicate the tallest and oldest of my siblings—Marvin, Marissa’s ex-husband. Neil dropped his voice: “How’d your parents take it?”
It took me an instant to understand this question, and then I glanced at Natalie expecting her to look embarrassed. But she looked eager.
“My father loved Marissa,” I said. “He was devastated when she and Marvin got divorced. Especially because by then they’d had Daniece.”
“Your father must have been such a gentleman,” Natalie said. “We’re so sorry we never got to meet him.”
“It’s been ten years,” I said. “But he’d love Carl.”
“We love Carl, too!” The creaky, emphatic voice of Carl’s grandmother made the hair on my neck stand on end. Her skinny arm zagged like a bolt of lightning between Neil and Natalie and me. All three of us stepped back—what on earth was she doing? oh, a tray of bite-sized meatballs…–and I felt oddly pleased that Baba’s son and daughter-in-law were as leery of her as I was. As far as I could see, Baba scared everyone. In fact, Neil’s big brother, who had flown in from Mexico for the wedding, refused to stay with Baba at her cabin and was parked at a hotel.
“I adore these.” Baba held up her meatball like a head on a spear. She marched off.
Carl would protect me. Despite their recent difficulties, Carl loved his Baba beyond reason, and Baba loved him back. “Doesn’t Carl have a perfect head?” Baba had said when I first met her. She’d stretched out her hand to clutch the back of it, and Carl beamed.
“When Marvin first brought home Marissa,” I told Neil and Natalie, “I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t Miss America. I wanted to grow up and look just like her.”
Neil and Natalie’s faces softened. I flushed, realizing I’d said something endearing. “Vive la difference,” Neil said with a smile, pronouncing the first two words in Midwestern Spanish and the last one in Midwestern English.
“I do think you and Marissa have similar earlobes,” Natalie said in a cozy tone, and it took me a moment—wait, weren’t Marissa’s earlobes longer than mine?– to realize she was joking.
So: “Carl and you met because Marissa was black.” Technically true. But the line made me uneasy. I never repeated it to Marissa, and not just out of fear of her thinking Neil was a fool. Partly I wanted to protect her from Neil’s obvious self-congratulation. The bright young daughter of the former Humm Industries janitor had grown up to become the company accountant, and Neil loved to tell people how he’d sent home his sons’ leftover books for her and paid for her SAT. The story was sweet, in its way, but Neil’s inserting himself in it seemed insulting. On top of this, Neil’s line, like any attention-grabber, left out a lot. That Marissa was more my big sister than my big sister was. That one morning just four years before, escaping from my mother’s house, I had mistaken Marissa for a figure in a fairy tale, and that moment had changed my life.
Still, the real injustice of Neil’s claim—the dismissive pain of it, which Neil himself might never see–didn’t hit me until years later, when I woke up in the ICU to see Marissa and my husband and Baba having their party in the air above me. Marissa, Carl, Baba and myself: we were indeed an odd group. But on that night, in that dark room, our origins and encasements didn’t matter. To us, we were nothing but people, waving our little soul-hands at each other.
Years later. That knowledge took me years.
Why do I start almost every writing class by asking people to write a letter to someone they miss?
–Writing a letter is easy and natural.
People are generally comfortable saying things that start with “I.” A letter is written directly from the writer, so it’s a good use of the first-person (“I”) voice. If you’re intimidated about writing anything–a report, a paper–they can start out by writing it as a letter.
–Writing a letter “to” someone or something the writer misses gives the writer a point of focus.
The writer isn’t writing about life in general or how WiFi works or the life-cycle of raccoons–he/she is simply writing things he or she remembers to someone he/she knows.
–Writing to “someone or something you miss” elicits feelings of loss and yearning.
People writing this prompt sometimes start to cry. Sometimes they sit staring in the air or fiddling with their pencil. They may or may not want to share the whole letter. Feelings of loss and yearning are real and human. They are something every reader can relate to.
–It’s easy to pick out the details in a letter and “feel” how they support they support the feeling of loss. Details I remember from classes through the years: the difficult bed-bound aunt who used to ring a bell when she needed something; the uncle who made hot pickles; the big brother who carried his little sister around on his shoulders so she could pick oranges. These aren’t details I experienced or thought up, but ones that were vivid enough they live in my mind today. The root of vivid, by the way, is the Latin “vīvidus” meaning animated, from “vīvere” or “to live.” Vivid is a word I love to use.
I’ve started writing workshops for teenagers, adults, older people, and children with “write a letter to someone you miss.” The only group I’ve had problems with is American children, because some of them said “But there’s nothing I miss” or ” No one’s died.” So to them I said: write about a friend who moved away or a lost pet or even a stuffed animal you’ve lost track of. The first time I taught in Israel I worried about children not having something to write about, but everyone did, immediately–either they had some relative who had died or someone close to them had moved to America or Europe.
Write a real letter to someone you miss. Use details to describe what you remember/miss about them. If you’re stuck for details, think of your senses–sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Remember, sensory details call up the real world for your reader. And that’s where the reader lives.
Dear Grandma, I miss you so much since you died. I really really love you and miss you. I used to love playing cards with you.
Dear Grandma, I miss you so much. I remember playing cards with you in the summer when it was too hot to move.
Dear Grandma, Remember the time we played cards in that summer rental on Lake Cumberland? It was too hot to move and Jerry knocked over his Coke and you grabbed the bottom of your shirt to wipe off the table. The cards were sticky after that but no one cared.
Thanks to my friend and fellow Dayton author Sharon Short for tagging me!
Below is my “tag” Q and A.
1. Title of your current book? Sharp and Dangerous Virtues
2. Where did the idea come from? Driving home from my (suburban) grocery store in 1998, I saw tanks coming down a side street. I’m not used to visions, so I paid attention. I thought: why couldn’t a war happen here? About that time, I’d been reading about Dayton history and the history of water in Ohio, and making frequent drives over the flat fertile land between Dayton and Lake Erie. The possibility of future American water and food shortages came to my mind. From that I got the idea of a possible solution: The Grid, a huge dedicated agricultural area in the middle of–but isolated from–the rest of the country. And from that a whole host of problems and characters came to mind.
3. Genre? Speculative fiction
4. Who should play your characters in a movie? Chad and Sharis (the index couple, a surburban couple with two sons): John Goodman at the age he was in Rosanne; Anna Kendrick Lila (the aging, lonely local commissioner of water who yearns to be part of the Grid): Janet McTeer. Tuuro (the church custodian who believes that General Nenonene, the head of the invading forces, will understand him): Chris Rock, minus twenty pounds. Charles and Diana (the good-hearted naturalist and his troubled paramour holed up at their nature center): Jack Black, Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith on Downton Abbey) with an American accent. The city of Dayton and its rivers: themselves.
5. One-sentence synopsis. If a war was threatening your city, what would you do?
6. Publisher and agent? Publisher, Ohio University/Swallow Press. Agent, Elisabeth Weed of Weed Literary.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft? About three years. I used to sit in my writing chair and feel like my head was steaming.
8. Book you would compare this book to? Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale
9. What inspired you to write this? This book was a labor of love for my four sons. I knew this story was outside my usual “upmarket women’s fiction” genre and that it was a big, risky feat for me. I suspected my usual publisher might not want it (true) but I had health issues in 2001–when my sons were ages six to ten–and I believed (still believe) that there are big, hard things in this novel that I wanted to be sure my sons thought about. Even if Sharp and Dangerous Virtues would never be published, I thought, I had to finish it for them, so that someday they could find the manuscript in the back of my closet and see the sort of things I wanted to pass on. And now it’s published and they’ve read it!
10. Anything else to pique a reader’s interest? a. Since the novel deals with war and war as I understand it is random, in the middle of writing the first draft I put the names of the major characters in a paper bag and had my sons pull out names of characters who would survive. Everyone who dies was left in the bag. b. My sons love the book. c. A couple weeks ago at a Mt. Vernon, Ohio, library event, one of the attendees said, “My friend and I spent three hours arguing about this book!” I thought: Oh my. I am living the dream.
For next week, I am tagging Lucrecia Guerrero, the author of Chasing Shadows (inter-related short stories) and the novel Tree of Sighs. In clear and lovely prose, Lucrecia writes distinctive tales about tough things. For more, go to www.lucreciaguerrero.com.
I’m a self-taught writer of fiction. I did study writing poetry in college, but I’ve never taken any courses in writing any sort of prose.
On my own through the years I’ve learned things about writing fiction (and writing in general) that I’m happy to share.
This is a blog about writing, not about getting published or marketing. Three things I believe:
- the first job of a writer is to write
- inspiration is magic but writing is a craft
- good writing is thoughtful writing
Find out more about my work with translator Jamal Assadi and the English summer camp we started in Israel and that now continues with students from Deir al Assad visting Dayton! Visit the In Israel section for more, including photos and updates from 2012.
Jennie Szink of The Dayton Jewish Observer writes about Sharp and Dangerous Virtues and the writing process:
Moody described a recurring theme in the feedback she’s received: It makes readers examine the ideas they had of America’s security and of human nature.
Read full article »
Listen to interview with Martha Moody by Barbara Gray on WVXU (Cincinnati NPR): Listen here »