My first published story appeared at the age of 7. The Rainy Picnic marked destiny, not because it had rained, but because my second grade teacher asked me to sit on the floor for hours and carefully letter my little story onto poster paper for a display in the front hall of the school.
It didn’t seem remarkable at the time. Our large goofy family convened for breakfast and dinner at the table. Appearance was mandatory for all young adults, and grandmother presided. Children were to be seen but not heard, unless they were invited to share their stories. So, we heard stories. Letters from distant relatives were shared around the dinner table, and there were more stories, jokes and songs. At 7:00 sharp half of the group in the room bolted out for rehearsals of upcoming productions in Elmira Little Theater or the Chemung County Symphony Choral Society. Grandmother finally got to settle into an easy chair with a book.
Grandmother bought me books, lots of them. She special ordered the Victorian favorites that she had enjoyed as a girl. Everyone had read Black Beauty, but she went on to find “Old Joe” and “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.” Shelves full of books began to appear in my room, Albert Payson Terhune animal stories, Richard Halliburton wonders of the world, and Louisa May Alcott. And at the age of 11, my Godparents sent a white leatherette diary for Christmas. I began writing.
We kept letters and photographs in albums and boxes. The stories continued. My thoughts went into random pages of notebooks. I drew as much as I wrote. My mother’s disasters with lovers began to invade my heart. She experienced one shattered hope after another, seeking to find the family life that was our strength. When the other girls were chasing boys, I shut down.
I learned to sing, songs of people, songs of life, and songs of work. The folk movement seized me. The songs led to a full scholarship to Occidental College. Rigorous Comparative Literature courses overwhelmed me. I flipped pages for days at a time, not sure of what I was supposed to learn from them and afraid to participate in class discussions. I ran for Glee Club rehearsals and the costume shop the moment I could to pursue work that had a visible result. I fell in love. Ouch. And then began a six-year relationship with a young man who helped me find myself as a writer and reader. He encouraged me to think for myself and to present my work. I moved from a struggling “B” student to a solid “A” student under his guidance. We were invited to professor’s homes for dinner and conversations, and to share Alice B. Toklas brownies. The notebooks filled.
Adult life began – career, marriage, motherhood and the death of the family members who had meant so much to me. Boxes of old letters and photos were shipped to California. The antique furniture came in moving vans. I moved into a future, dragging a kicking and screaming past along with me. The journals, letters and photos began to fill four drawer filing cabinets. My husband is a talented actor and a voracious reader. Dinnertime stories came back, rooted in the traditions of both our families. Our son filled out conversations with “Errr, Uh, and I dunno” but he purchased his first thrift store filing cabinet when he was 15. He would bring home short stories scored 100/100 from his Honors and AP English classes. “You know mom, you need to sculpt each sentence.” Finally, we had someone with true talent. He headed out to Boston University. A year later he was dead, Lymphoma.
So we are damaged goods. We finally sold our lovely home and moved just so that we could leave some of the grief behind us. There are words for someone who has lost a spouse, widow, widower but there is no place for someone who has lost a child. We still love young people.
It was time to open up the filing cabinets and to make all the papers into stories. Off the Tracks: A Beatnik Family Journey was constructed from that white and gold diary, my mother’s memoirs, re-mastered party tapes from 1961 and countless interviews with folks who were part of our lives. Mom wanted that story “out there” but not until after she was dead. She didn’t want to deal with the blowback about decisions that she had made 25 years earlier.
Another cabinet held my father’s papers. We had been estranged for 20 years, but he wept in the corner of the hospital room during Eric’s illness. Shortly afterward he wrote out 21 pages of narrative summarizing his activities as a military intelligence operative in World War II. The 50-year non-disclosure clause was now released. Islands of Deception is constructed from those notes, many visits from my aunt, and photos.
What’s next? Scrap Lumber will be the working title of the next project, until I find something I like better. In 1985 an old house at the bottom of our canyon was abandoned and vandalized. With a big career and a baby, I was impelled to relocate and restore the structure. A year after the house was moved, the love of my life showed at the front door and we spent the next 25 years restoring the 1909 home. The old lady’s resilience and ours are woven together into a story of risk and commitment. I’ll be opening that filing cabinet next.