Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My First "Second" Mother

The year I turned five, my dad left for a long time. I don’t remember how long, but he was back to celebrate my sixth birthday in September. I’m not sure about the fifth, or Christmas, or the spring. My mother told me I didn’t cry, or ask for him, but once when I was trying to learn to tie my tennis shoes, I knelt on the cold basement floor and tears flowed from my eyes. She thought I was grieving my father, but I never said a word.

When my father returned, he pulled in the driveway in a new car. He loaded my brothers and me in and drove us to his new house. It was much nicer than ours. He introduced us to our new stepmother, Fa, and our new baby sister, Samantha. I’d never heard the name Fa before. It was short for Mary Francis, a name she hated and looking back, it really didn’t fit her. It was 1967 and not only had I never heard the name Fa, I‘d never met or heard of anyone who actually had a stepmother. I’d heard of stepmothers in fairy tales and Walt Disney movies, but acquiring one for myself wasn’t even at the bottom of my life agenda.

Fa had a robust laugh and stood with her arms folded and legs braced shoulder width apart, to support her already swaying back. She was young; younger than my mother, but she was definitely a mother, so she was fine with me. My mother was a very pretty woman who always looked younger than her age. However, my mother had a more serious demeanor; she was a single parent in 1967 with three children to raise. She had her work cut out for her. Fa, on the other hand, laughed quite a bit. She was fun to be with. She liked to throw parties and do silly things like tie packages of Double Mint Gum to a tree so the girls could skip around it and pretend to be the Double Mint Twins. I looked forward to my week in the summer and after Christmas visits.

Fa was the first of my three stepmothers. I loved her because she gave me the one thing I wanted most in the world, two baby sisters. I loved her because I was five when we met, and my father handed her to me like a gift, so I accepted. My father was good at that, handing us wonderful gifts after a long absences, and I adored him. No matter how long it was between visits, or how wealthy he became while we remained staunchly middle class, I adored him. Fa and the girls were my first big gift, and I adored them too. The two weeks a year we spent together, we were a family. We sat down at the dinner table together every night, in the dining room, as a family. In addition, I got to be the big sister to two precious little girls, which somehow made up for the fifty weeks a year my mother and brothers and I sat down to dinner, alone. I didn’t miss what I couldn’t remember.

When I was transitioning from child to teen, Fa was my second mother, and she very wisely guided my father toward developing a relationship with me. He enjoyed hunting and other male bonding rituals with my older brothers, but was at a bit of a loss with a preteen daughter. Fa instructed him to spend a day with me, shopping and going out to lunch each time we came for a visit. It became our tradition, and luckily for me, my father had exquisite taste in clothing and jewelry. He was also the funniest man I’ve ever met, and those afternoons were always full of laughter.

Fa passed away last week. I will always remember crawling into her bed and watching Johnny Carson when I had trouble falling asleep, and eating lamb with mint jelly at her dining room table. Watching television late at night and eating roast lamb were things I never did at home. The odd thing about having a step family was; my first family, my mother, was perfectly adequate. In fact, there was never any competition for my affection between the two women. For whatever reason fate had thrown a second family into the mix for me, and I was lucky to have been given another mother who cared about me and looked after me while I was with her. I will always be grateful to Fa for the years she cared for me, and for the gift of my sisters.

By the time I turned fourteen, Fa was no longer my stepmother. Once again, Dad surfaced after a long absence with a newer, more expensive house and a new wife. He kept the Mercedes convertible though. Over time I didn’t really keep in contact with Fa, but knew of her through my half sisters. The few times I ran into her over the years were always pleasant and full of laughter. Even at my Dad’s funeral almost fourteen years ago, she made me laugh. That is what I will remember most about her, her ability to make me laugh, no matter how sad I felt, or how bleak the situation. Fa radiated an energetic, joyful love for her daughters. She was my first “second” mother, and I thank her for the legacy she left of devotion to motherhood and finding a reason to laugh each day.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Acknowledgement of Squalor

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because
fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.
Mark Twain

Day 3 in Writer’s Workshop we compared three short stories by J.D. Salinger. I’d realized, while pouring through the assigned reading in Salinger’s collection of short stories, that I love his work. It wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t love “Catcher in the Rye” in high school. Like many men, Salinger has aged well, or possibly my perspective has matured. Suddenly, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” caught my attention, and by the time I finished “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” I was hooked.

In this story, an American soldier in England meets a thirteen year old war orphan named Esme in a civilian tearoom on the eve of his deployment to the front. Learning he was an author before the war, she asks him to write a story for her, stating, “I prefer stories about squalor”. She reiterates the request as they part, “Make it extremely squalid and moving,” Esme suggests. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?” She agrees to write to him and the narrative swiftly takes the sergeant to his post V-E Day living quarters in Bavaria, where he receives Esme’s first letter.

It is the longing to find someone, anyone, who will allow us to display the squalor in which we find ourselves that lures me. Esme shares the protagonist’s need for acknowledgement. With bold trust in illuminating the truth, she opens the door for him.  Esme not only requests a look, she demands a front row view of his war experiences. World War II has immersed both characters unwillingly into horrors they can not relate to in the social circles they exist in. Orphans and soldiers from well bred families weren’t to discuss such things. Yet, with through corresponding with one another, and through the possibility offered by fiction, it was safe and ultimately healing.

It is the rare friend who is willing to see us in our squalor. To sit with us and wallow along side us, to just acknowledge that it happened, that I think is the essence of why I write. In the bible, we learned Job’s friends certainly weren’t up to the task. They wanted to fix it, to clean up the mess, ensuring nothing would tarnish them in the process. That’s the problem, why squalor and friends don’t generally mix. Potentially, squalor could be caught, like the flu, a nasty spring cold, or even spinal meningitis. It could travel in microscopic spores on the wind – we might be inhaling it as we speak. Squalor is too risky. If it could happen to our friends, people who are like us, it could happen to us too.

Squalor, when intermixed with the joy and beauty we experience in life, creates the thread of human existence that literary fiction strives to share. Uniquely individual threads which are woven into the tapestry of a great story; a story that will continue to repeat itself, in slightly altered hues and patterns throughout history. The truth of the experience interspersed with the possibility of fiction. This is where the story of Job intersects our lives, in the truth of the existence of squalor. God allows it. He allows squalor to descend upon the lives of faithful people who love Him and obey His commandments. He allows it without explanation. We are to rest in the knowledge that He, the creator of the universe, is in control of the greater good. “That all things work together for good to those who love Him” Romans 8:28 

We also see a God in the story of Job, who patiently listens as Job demands acknowledgement. He wallows with Job; God is the friend we long for. Demonstrating the possibility of that truth, is the fiction I hope one day to be able to write. In that respect I am grateful to have experienced generous shares of both squalor and joy along the way.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Almost Right Word

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word 
is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Mark Twain

“An opening sentence should indicate conflict and structural incongruity. It should introduce a reversal of expectations.” This also sounds like the makings of a good romance. Conflict, the reversal of expectations, these are the elements of a relationship that keep us coming back for more. They are also the elements that shatter us if not kept in check. I enjoy Professor Stewart’s lectures. He relishes his words and uses them well. As a class, we review several opening sentences from various works of fiction and essays. This group analysis helps keep me engaged, and as a group we are beginning to open up a bit.

“An opening statement should be direct; there should be no attempt by the writer to infer a statement. No analysis – let the reader get it.” This is tougher then it sounds. The line between ambiguity and innuendo is often difficult to tread. I am usually surprised at critique groups to learn what readers failed to understand in my story, or read into the plot that I didn’t intend. This is where the concept of “show, don’t tell” gets tricky. I begin to wonder where in the story I am working on I  have intended the reader to see lightning, but only accomplished the flicker of a  lightning bug. It’s a pity Mark Twain isn’t available as an editor. Professor Stewart has offered his services to the workshop participants, but I’m beginning to get the feeling I may not be up to the criticism.

“Cross out all sentences until you get to the first sentence that actually has power and start your story there.” This is great advice. Not new, but the reinforcement of an already known technique is reassuring. Opening sentences really haven’t been a stumbling block for me, it’s the conclusion that’s a challenge. Professor Stewart ends the lecture with this statement, “Premature evaluation of the creative gift cuts off the flow. We have no choice but to accept what comes to us.” Then apparently we are required to chop it to bits, to ensure we strike directly. I think I’m still wandering a bit, straggling after lightning bugs. We leave the seminar today faced with the challenge of preparing a story for critique in workshop, some of us energized by the challenge and others shrinking with the fear of exposure. By tomorrow, our self induced seating chart will be cemented.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What I Learned from Mark Twain: Day 2

“All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure.”
Mark Twain

     Professor Stewart, who facilitates the poetry and creative non-fiction workshop, gives the first lecture of the day. Professor Pritchett welcomes him with another praise filled introduction, followed by our enthusiastic applause. Although unfamiliar with this practice of applauding before and after every lecture, I am quickly becoming aware that this is “how it is done”. I assume at real literary workshops, the ones real authors attend, applause is standard, possibly required for admission. Professor Stewart is the editor of New Letters Literary Magazine; the obstacle blocking our path to literary success. If we can get past him, we’re published. We’re in. I’m hovering on his every word.

     “Writer’s need to respond to the minute experiences with joy.” Professor Stewart quoted extensively in his lecture from Rollo May. I am assuming Rollo May was a joyful individual; Professor Stewart seems to be a man who understands the concept of joy on an intellectual level, but doesn’t embrace it much. “We must have the courage to create.” This is a truth I can latch on to. Finding the courage to create is my goal in attending the workshop, now we’re talking. “When an individual is afraid of the irrational they surround themselves with business.” I’m never sure if it is “business” or “busyness”, neither one looks right on the page, I become distracted with this internal debate and fail to pay close attention to the remainder of the lecture.

     “We are to strive not to avoid the anxiety of solitude.” Distracted, I’m not entirely sure who Stewart is quoting here, but it’s good quote, so I write it down. Looking around the room, it appears many of the students are hoping for some sort of solitude in this newly formed, fledgling community of writers. They line the perimeters of the classroom, despite both professors extensive use of the overhead projector built into the center of the ceiling. In coming weeks most of the perimeter dwellers will decline the opportunity to participate in workshop discussions and will not submit material for critique. I will end the class never saying more than hello to most of them. Here again, mission accomplished.

Vocabulary word for the day: Esemplastic
- adjective: having the ability to shape diverse elements or concepts into a unified whole: the esemplastic power of a great mind to simplify the difficult.

     I didn’t write down the context in which it was used in the lecture, but this word does not register in Microsoft Word Spell Check so only really intelligent people use it. People more intelligent than Microsoft Word slip this into ordinary conversation: I’m all over it.