06/15/14

Remembering my Dad on Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day. This afternoon I will dig a grave for my father. When I have made the hole sufficiently wide and deep, I will pour in his ashes. A willow tree will go over them. Willows have always been my favorite symbol of death. They remind me of cool lakes with sweet breezes and a soft place to rest. If there’s anything I wish for my father it’s a soft a place to rest.

It’s hard to find words to describe my father. I don’t know if I would call him brave. I’ve always thought bravery was courage in the face of fear, and I don’t know if my father was ever afraid. He swam with giant mantra rays and sailed around the world. Once he was held against his will in a foreign hospital. Knowing his ship would leave port soon, Dad climbed out the fourth floor window before hailing a cab back to the dock. Maybe he was afraid then, but I doubt it.

I only half believed my father’s stories about gangsters and working the Brooklyn waterfront. Like him, they seemed too big to be real. It wasn’t until my sixth grade teacher told the same stories that I changed my mind. Against all the odds that teacher was a long lost friend of my uncle’s. He’d been there for the shady goons with guns and mysterious shipments.

It’s no surprise to me that I write Noir. Moral gangsters, beautiful women, and high stakes cons made up my bedtime stories. But Dad loved science and science fiction too. I knew Asimov’s laws of robotics before I knew the Our Father. I’ll never forget the night we spent on the phone separated by miles but drawn together by our mutual love of monster movies. We watched Mega Python vs. Gatoroid in rapt silence, talking about how great it was during commercials. Godzilla, Cloverfield, Night of the Lepus, the list went on and on. Dad was always up for another movie.

My brother could not come to our father’s death bed. My mother came in and out, doing more than most divorced wives would, probably for my sake. The burden of his death fell squarely on my shoulders. No one will ever know what happened on Thanksgiving. Did he eat too many carbs on our national holiday of gluttony or did he take his pills a second time by mistake in the midst of celebration? The result was the same, a deep sleep that became a coma that turned into brain damage. It took a week with no brain activity for the doctors to agree he’d moved on, and another week for his strong body, always a work horse despite its flaws, to stop living.

By then I was filled with rage at so many things, I couldn’t appreciate the task of cleaning out his home. Sentimentally gone, I brought garbage bags and intended to stuff them full. Instead, in one closet, on the highest shelf I found a box sealed tightly with packaging tape. It wasn’t much to look at, a label proclaimed it held 500 pages of copy paper, beneath it, in Dad’s very tight handwriting a second label read ‘Rachel’s first book’. I’d told him at least a dozen times that it’s a manuscript until it’s published, but Dad didn’t believe it. It was a book to him, and the first printing of a book is special.

So was Dad.

11/22/13

Telescopes and DIY Flying Saucers

Flying Saucers aliens landed in my yard a week before Halloween. I expected them to be giant spiders, but then Phil Plait posted this article about people who had never seen the stars. The nearest science center is more than an hour away, and the neighborhood kids were as unfamiliar with space as the people in Phil’s blog. So while putting Tiger’s almost 4ft tall Dobsonian telescope in the yard on a night known for mischief might been crazy, it was something I’d looked forward to for months.

saucer and aliens

 

crashed ship

Hence the two flying saucers – a 7ft landed and 4 ft crashed, each with flashing lights and remote control smoke machines, and a pair of aliens made from found items.  The aliens came out first, a week before the big night. Neighbors immediately started asking us what our plans were. We just told them to bring the kids. Then on Halloween night we set out the telescope and the sign. We blew up alien head balloons so the really little kids could take part in the fun.

Before too long we had our first princess.

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A few of the adults didn’t know what a refractor was, or where you looked from. We decided everyone should have a look. It turned out the kids were more patient. This Amazon Princess even let her Mom go first.

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The telescope is on a pivot system, just about anyone can move it. Parents expected it to be too heavy, but the kids grabbed it with both hands. Each one of them announced what they saw. We had a rather impressive amount of comets and asteroids for a normally calm night. I suppose I should’ve corrected them, pointed out the real stuff, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop them from smiling.

It’s November now. The skulls and pumpkins have been put away. We try not to start planning for next year until December, but there’s already been talk, just vague thoughts about pirate ships or Wonderland mushrooms on the lawn. Funny thing though, every conversation ends with the same question, but how would we tie in the telescope?

02/5/13

Dancing in the kitchen

 She’s there in old family films, her tan legs kicking just a bit higher and straighter than all the other Aunts in a kick line. They’re laughing but something about her face, about Aunt Lucy’s face, as she dances is transcendent, even during a silly little fake dance, trying not to run into the BBQ grill while kids in swim suits run around them. She doesn’t see the backyard filled with family or smell the smoke. When she dances, Aunt Lucy sees something else, and it makes her smile wider than all the other Aunts.

My father tells stories about her, and dancing is always in them. Walking to dance class in the snow carrying her dance shoes wrapped in newspaper in case they somehow fall into the wet slush. She danced in wet shoes once and ended up with dozens of tiny blisters. Dad broke them for her, with the sadistic glee that only a little brother can have. She went back to class the next day, moleskins on her feet and her shoes half dried.

She danced through school and high school, danced with the boy she loved at prom. There are pictures of him, before he was Uncle Jimmy, with a goofy ruffled shirt under his prom tux. I wonder if she danced the night she left him, danced before she told him it was all over, that she loved dancing more than she loved him. Danced and then left on the train to New York City, with poor Jimmy standing by the platform saying he would wait forever.

He didn’t wait forever.

She ended up near Broadway in a shoebox of an apartment shared with three other girls. Dad saw her there, once, before he shipped out to Vietnam. She was so happy, he said, as if happiness was the saddest thing that could happen. So happy to dance in a little off Broadway show and wait for her big break.

And then that big break happened, that audition that finally went right. She got the part. Giddy with it. Dancing not just on stage but in front of hundreds of people. So happy she sent Dad a telegram and called home to say she’d get everyone tickets to come see her.

Dancing on air on her way to the first rehearsal, where they showed her the door to the dressing room and she saw all those other women, and a few men here and there. Everyone getting naked together. And suddenly, she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t strip down in front of everyone and have some man she didn’t know help her into a costume. She’d grown up in a small town that valued modesty. She just wanted to dance, not be naked in front of all those people.

So she took the train home, and found Jimmy again. Made him Uncle Jimmy, and then made my cousins. She only danced in the backyard kick lines, and sometimes in the kitchen on Saturday nights when we kids were supposed to be asleep. She always looked happy when she danced, but I always wondered if she thought she’d made the right choice. Happy wife and mother, modest to the end, or dancer on the stage, I always questioned if she picked the right one. I asked her once, about dancing, to see if she remembered everything my father did. Her voice was quick and unsentimental, “I went to New York once, but they made you change in a great big room, so that was that.” Then she did the dishes as if they were somehow more important than dancing.

01/21/13

Love in Winter

Once when I thought the best relationship of my life was over we ran away to St. Augustine and I showed him all the places that meant so much to me.  We walked along the beach and saw a baby shark. Perfectly formed, destined to be terrible.

 

 

But even the fiercest things die.

Afterward he offered to buy me a bouquet but I wanted something that lasted longer, that wouldn’t fade in a week. I was worried about things that faded and how they could be held fast.

We went to a nursery, a place filled with stone goddess and bubbling fountains, where he bought me this, a Brazilian Justicia with pink flame flowers.

The flowers lasted more than a week. Then there was work to be done and it didn’t flower for a year. Longer maybe, while we talked and talked, buried someone we both loved, and lived without realizing the hard work we were doing.

Until he took me back to St. Augustine and asked me a threefold question that would define my life. So that one day we became, formally, friends, lovers, and companions, sealed man and wife. But still the plant didn’t flower. Not until we got back from the honeymoon and months after that, just before we packed it up and took it to the city, changing all our lives.

Pieces of it broke off, long stems. I couldn’t part with them, with what they represented, so each one went into water in jelly jars, Champagne flutes, whatever glass I put my hands on, hopeful. They rooted all, and now the progeny fill my house. And there is a house, a permanent place after twelve years of wandering, and three of the multitude have gone in the ground.

They say it is too cold here, that tropical plants will not bloom. But I know my plants are stronger than that, and into the ground they go. Flowers all summer, but then fall and I falter. I keep the little ones inside, saying they’re too small, when really I’m hedging my bets. Even then I’m too sentimental, and spend more money than I should to build a strong boxes against the cold.

The neighbors say it’s too much. After all, there are other plants. They’re right and so very wrong.

10/31/12

October 31st

Happy Halloween! Joyous Samhain! A Blessed Día de Los Muerto!

My house has been decorated for almost a month the a six ft spider’s web hung by the door, a window dressed with glowing flames, a pair of ghosts on the garage, and a trio of jack’0’laterns on the porch. In the highest window my favorite part of the decorations: a single skull and a bouquet of dried roses.

The falling leaves always remind me of the people I’ve lost. Tomorrow is the day set aside for them and all the others who have passed.  I’ll make their favorite dishes, this year it’s Hungarian chicken paprikash, mashed potatoes, and a homemade apple pie. I set a place at the table for them, a symbol of how I wish I could have one more meal with those people.

And I’ll give out candy, too, taking part in the fun side of Halloween, that dancing delight in the fleeting moments of life. My costume is a fairy princess, I’ll take any excuse to wear my wings and a sparkly tiara. Hurricane Sandy rained on my parade, canceling the haunted hayride but it’s still my favorite holiday, the best time of year.

However you celebrate I hope your night is exactly how you want it to be.

09/18/12

Storms and Tree Limbs

It’s raining out now, and cold for a girl raised in the tropics. I’ve started the first fire in my new home, the first fire of the season. I know I’ve been neglectful, not quite making the every two weeks rule I set for myself when this blog started out. I owe at least a short story, if not a short story and a recipe, or some blurb. But the fire is crackling, the rain keeps coming down, and the night is dark. So maybe I can make it all up in the next hour, or maybe, even if I don’t, it won’t matter.

The rain started yesterday, the downpour so unexpected I thought for a moment there was leak in the house, some high pressured pipe flooding me out just as I settled in to write. But a moment later I recognized it, a driving rain on the roof. Fall for Florida, summer for where I live now, but the same rain, unannounced, loud, and insistent that you stop to admire it. It took me back to this summer, when I was still in boxes in my new house, driving everywhere looking for furniture.

I took a trip back to DC, to the big city stores. The rain had come the night before, but after I cleaned up the limbs from the yard and shook my head over the lake forming in my basement I was off to the highway. The drive took me twice the time I expected, and once I got there I found no power and lots of hot frustrated people. The storm was called a derecho, ring of fire, and it was only half over. I had lunch at place packed with sweaty people, the air conditioner working overtime while everyone without power packed into plastic booths. I drove home in the second downpour.

Small rocks of hail pelted my window. Lighting forked across the sky every few seconds, offering brief glimpse of fallen trees resting on power lines. Rain poured down, sometimes coming sideways, sometimes looking like it was raining up from the ground. The radio warned of tornados in the area and I strained to hear if that freight train noise was coming toward me. Stuck on a highway for four hours, at paces alternating between the speed limit and a crawl, it felt like the hurricane evacuations of my youth.

Cresting a hill in one rural stretch the flickering lightening revealed a strange sight: not too far in the distance cars began to swear wildly, then slow to a snail’s pace. I could see a tree down over half of the two lane road, but why swerve so far for a tree? The fallen branches weren’t blocking the whole road, and unlike a lot of downed trees no dancing electrical wires played in front of it. The cars on the highway had virtually ignored the downed power lines and tree limbs across the road so far, what made this any different?

I sped along until I could see the tree, and then I broke hard. The problem wasn’t power lines or the tree, not an animal caught in the storm or something natural, but something very human. A group of cars were pulled to the side of the dark highway. With no lights or flares, the drivers were trying to move the behemoth of a tree from the lane it blocked. Men gathered on one side of the tree, pulling it with a concentrated “one-two-three-now” effort. I gawked as one man climbed up on a limb the size of my waist and began to bounce up and down in the flashes of lighting. He jumped with concentrated effort, never realizing that if he succeeded he’d fall nine feet to the pavement below while cars crawled by in the darkness.

With no light but lightening I watched the scene: someone doing his best to solve a problem, but doing it all wrong.  It left me wondering, when am I the one bouncing up and down on that limb in the dark, so determined to make it break, so unaware of how much I need it to hold me up?

I’ve changed a lot in the last five months: new job, new city, bought my first house. I’m just now realizing how all that is affecting my writing. I don’t know yet if it’s the storm or the tree limb. I owe this blog a short story, but I don’t plan those out. They come to me, usually in dreams or from some scene on the sidewalk, a photograph or a phrase. I can feel half a dozen of them in the back of my mind, churning, proofing like bread. I promise you’ll know when they’re ready. And hope you’ll tell me if you find me jumping on the thing that’s holding me up.

 

07/21/12

Beneath the Surface

When I was thirteen my parents bought a table at a garage sale.  At home we discovered there were four leaves and a fabulous corkscrew mechanism with a leg that dropped down from the center to support them. To us the table was enormous, too big for any of Mom’s tablecloths but we quickly accepted the table into our routine. Years passed. My parents divorced. Dad got the table. He kept it folded up to its smallest size, and used it as a hall table. The last I saw it was covered with car keys, spare change, and the kind of debris that collects in the men’s pockets when there are no women to herd them.

When I came into my own house, I felt a longing for the table. I come from a family that loathes possessions. There will be nearly nothing for me when my parents die; as there was almost nothing for me when my grandparents trickled out of existence. I have a rosary from one great-grandmother, nothing from the other grandparents. My family would tell you that’s how it should be.

But for me, now that I have a nest of my own, I want things – wonderful, unique, quirky things, things with a history, things that tell a story. Moving most Julys for the last 10 years (7 times) means I carried very little with me. While I could buy things to fill my new house, they would all be new, and lack the connection I crave. So, after no small amount of dickering, I convinced my father to sell me the table.

Of course, that left the table in Florida, and my new house in Virginia. A generous family member took it from Dad’s house to the shipping center, only to be told that they couldn’t find a box to fit it. The table made its way to my mother’s house, where it sat for a month while I struggled to find someone to take on the job. Move a whole a house? Sure, you can find people for that. Move a household out of state? No problem. Move a single piece out of state? No.

But finally, the owner of an antique furniture shop agreed to take a look. A few days passed before I got an excited phone call. The table it seems is not just some odd cast off, but a mid- to late- 19th century antique. Fully restored it would be worth a great deal.

I authorized the restoration, but my initial excitement gave way to wariness. Promises of “You won’t even recognize it!” meant the best part of the table might be gone by the time I received it. I was peppered with questions. A dealer in Miami has replacement hardware, should we put it on? What color for a stain?

Each decision seemed to get farther and farther away from what the table was: a place for my family to take meals, play cards, celebrate, laugh, and cry. It was the table featured in Thanksgiving dinners, financial discussions, and the everyday life of a home. I opened my college acceptances letters at that table. I wrote a thousand words on its surface, spreading out my pages to fact check as I went. I feared all that history would be lost.

The table arrived today, and despite the changes I still see all those memories. It seems that our history is carried not in our surface, but in a place that can’t be sanded away, and no matter how we change the people who know us always see it.

03/20/12

What comes first, the book or the bookmark?

This tweet flew across my feed earlier today:

Poor Linda is struggling with crafts, while I’m worrying over contract issues. Judging by the blogs, internet articles, and comments on social media, these aren’t the only concerns on writers’ minds. What happened to the days when all we had to do was write, and write well? When did becoming a writer turn into becoming a marketing expert, attorney, public relations specialists, graphic artist, and a manufacturer of promotional materials?

Ernest Hemingway is one of my literary heroes. I toured his home at least three dozen times as child. I (briefly) owned a descendant of his cat, a wonderfully fat polydactyl tom. I admired his pool, and the last penny he embedded in the tile as a jab at his wife. I shivered at the sight of his wine locks, amazed that a man so famous could have to be so careful.

In all those tours I never saw the spot where he made bookmarks. I remember his office with tall windows letting in sunlight, animal heads glaring down, and an antique typewriter, but not a single filling cabinet of promotional materials. None of the bookmarks Linda is struggling with or the pens, pencils, notepads and other ‘giveaways’ I hear about at writing conferences.

Two years back I heard a well published author speak about her giveaways: post it notepads. She went on about giving them to people in the line at the grocery store, to her friends, leaving them in libraries. A good author, she proclaimed, is always marketing. What about writing? Shouldn’t it come first, last, and in the middle too?

When it comes to balancing the business part of writing with the creative part I don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure if we should be promoting with 10% of our author time, or 50%. Every minute I spend not writing seems like ten minutes I’ve actually lost. For me, for now, I’d much rather worry about plot points and characters than bookmarks and sub-clauses.

 

(Thanks to Linda for being such a good sport about her troubles with craft paper and scissors. You can learn more about her writing, and how much better it is than her crafting, on her webpage: http://www.lindapoitevin.com/)

 

03/13/12

Random Musings Charleston

It’s been 15 months since I last moved. My feet itch. The clever north wind whispers to me of towns yet to be seen, friends yet to be made,  battles yet to be fought…

I’m looking for the next place, the new home. Because I’ve begun to catch myself feeling  like this:

No story left to tell ~ Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, SC

There’s something attractive about the anonymity of hotel rooms. The way you shut the door and no one can find you. The new place, safe from everyone who knows you. The place where you can say you’ve always hated something and no one will remember when you loved it.  A place to reinvent yourself. A place where, when trouble comes to you, you sit under the branches of a tree and feel connected to everyone else who has done the same.

300 year old oak tree, Magnolia Graveyard

Because sometimes you find it’s time to close one door and knock on another one.

Lion Head Door ~ Meeting St. Charleston

 

11/15/11

Storytelling

We are natural story tellers. We tell our tales around the kitchen table, with grand gestures that make people laugh or in halting, toneless stammers. Every person recounts something, little or big, how the grocery shopping went, how they lived their life. It’s all a story to be told. Children’s tales of adventure, adult tales of woe, young dreams of success, weave themselves into a tapestry of stories that create our life.

Everyone has a story. You may not agree with it, or appreciate it, but it’s there. Some where under the heavy weight of day to day life there’s a dream that makes a tale. Sitting on worn couches, in rooms with the hiss and beep of medical equipment, resting on trees older than you are, it doesn’t matter where you are, you recognize the story – the life song of a person.

But all stories must end. Songs may linger, but melodies always fade. Immortality comes in the telling of the tale. The smell of coffee, the laughter of people who never knew you, the worn hands recreating your gestures, they all keep you alive. It’s the stories that keep the people we love alive, and I’m glad to have the tales to tell.