Encounters With The Unexpected

When I left my home Monday for Baltimore’s Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life and Learning at Beth Tifloh Congregation, part of my head happily sang, On the Road Again while the other half hummed with a measure of dread. I admit I enjoy presenting my work. Over the last couple years, I’ve crafted a talk that people seem to like quite a lot, so the dread wasn’t performance anxiety. No, I’d none of that.

There were layers and layers to what was plaguing me. I’d been to Baltimore twice before and each time, the security lines for the return trip were endless. I’d wait in a stationary position for half an hour in a line that simply did not move while people around me wailed about missed flights. On top of that, there were rumors of icy rain or snow on the day of my return which filled my head with unwholesome images of spending the night trying to sleep on Gate A5 chairs. But the vagaries of air travel were not my only concerns.

I was paired to present with Sonia Taitz, most lately author of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, universally praised by Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Report, O Magazine, whoever else you want to come up with, whose curriculum vitae includes a law degree from Yale and a M.Phil in 19th Century Literature from Oxford, the Lord Bullock Prize in Writing, etc.etc.etc. You can find the definition of the etc’s at http://www.soniataitz.com. Now, I don’t even know who Lord Bullock is, or more likely was, but I’m intimidated. Her book is a memoir of growing up the conflicted child of Holocaust survivors, one critics laud as both funny and heart-wrenching. Not only that, she writes a regular column for Psychology Today.com.

Oi, I thought. Forget intimidated. This woman plain scares me. Then I note in one of my emails from Sandy Vogel, the savvy Director at Mercaz, and Debbie Liebowitz, her irreplaceable assistant, that Sonia Taitz is the opening act. What???? For me? How am I going to follow all that?

Double Oi.

Well, I get to Baltimore swiftly enough and am picked up at my hotel by Sandy Vogel to have a nice kosher Chinese dinner before the show. I chew a couple of GasX to quiet my stomach if not my nerves and off we go.

There are two women waiting for us at the restaurant. One introduces herself as Lynn, The Driver. The other, a handsome, petite woman with auburn hair and startling eyes, warmly greets me and tells me she’s Sonia. Quickly two other women enter, Debbie Liebowitz, and the brilliant book club facilitator who will be introducing the authors, a woman who’s also created stimulating question guides for readers of the texts, Halaine Steinberg. We settle into a delicious meal and along the way, the penny drops. With suave aplomb, I interrupt somebody to loudly stutter: Oh! You’re THAT Sonia? Sonia Taitz?

Despite my clumsiness, we get along like gangbusters and I learn also that The Driver is Sonia’s old friend who’s offered to squire her about, Lynn Auld Schwartz, a playwright and twice winner of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, who can be found on her website http://www.writerswordhouse.com, where she offers writing workshops, private coaching, and story development editing. This lady’s remarkably pretty too with strawberry blond hair and a perfect Renaissance face and she’s sweet and self-deprecating and suddenly instead of having new causes of intimidation, I’m beginning to feel quite at home and comfy, one of the girls, so to speak. Quite unexpectedly, I’m flying with eagles.

Eventually we get to the synagogue. I’ve visited smaller college campuses. It’s huge. It’s glorious. Think wide marble hallways and towering glass windows and doors. It’s modern orthodox. I’m accustomed to Brookline, Massachusetts’ orthodox congregations, uniformly in old stately buildings conducive to holiday cramped quarters. At Beth T’filoh, there’s space and beauty enough to imagine how high the soul can soar.

As we settle in to make our presentations, I tell Sonia it’s really not proper for me to be second. I am definitely her warm up act. After all, let’s be real here, you can’t trump the Holocaust. Not even with One More River’s Klu Klux Klan violence and historic 1927 Mississippi flood. Besides, my talk has a lot of laughs and that’d feel unseemly after what I imagine her talk will be like. She demurs. Tells me her talk has laughs, too. But whatever I’d like. I insist.

So it’s settled. I make my speech first and the crowd of 50-60 people seem to love it. Yay. Then Sonia takes the podium. And dang, if she isn’t right! Her story is full of humanity and wit and wisdom and charm and yiddishekeit along with the tragedy of the 6 million. It’s more about resilience than being crushed. I think that’s unexpected encounter number. . .four?

When I get to the airport the next day, nearly two hours early to satisfy my fears, I have another surprise. There’s no one there. I mean there are security agents galore but no passengers. My line is a single other person ahead of me. And the skies are clear and dry.

As I travelled swiftly home on a (thank God) non-stop flight, I had time to replay my last 24 hours of unexpected revelations and I decided the best one was this: Never judge anyone by their C.V. alone. It’s the person that counts.

Now, why didn’t I know that?

Mercaz Dahan Jewish Learning Center

That’s Debbie Liebowitz, moi, and Sandy Vogel. Unfortunately, Sonia and Lynn left before we remembered to take a photo! Dang!



I recently finished a new novel, Marching to Zion. I wrote it in a little over a year, maybe 13 months. They were an intense 13 months, too. I toured. I promoted. I took care of business at home. My mother died. So it feels like quite a feat I’ve accomplished, especially since in my younger years I was never such a quick study, taking to ruminating over minutiae endlessly and calling it work.

I was writing in the dark the whole 13, too. I’d started out with a concept I quickly abandoned. I turned up the drama volume early on and wondered: where the hell are you going to go after that? My husband reminded me I should follow my own advice: listen to the voice, the voice never lies. So I did. And the voice took me places I’d never considered before yielding a depth and scope that, according to my agent and publisher, represents my “finest work yet”, and “a triumph”, taking my prose “to a new level”.

Like that old penny that keeps turning up, once again my husband was right. But then as those of you who know me will agree, he almost always is.

Now here I am, pretty drained and taking some time off. There’s a strange kind of hush that happens to authors in the time between finishing a MS and getting ready for the edit that precedes publication. You know your mind’s not done with your story. You can’t push it out and start something new easily. You can catch up on your reading. Why, I’ve got at least ten books waiting for me on my iPad, but I have a feeling they’re going to wait a while longer. I’ve got travelling to do for business and family. That’ll take time. And oh my Lord, there are projects around the house I’ve simply got to get off the ground somehow. My garden’s a mess and the azaleas have budded. I’m not ready for them. I’ve got to reorganize my kitchen to make room for Mom’s china and silver that’s come to me. I should get my eyes checked. And I’ve got to get someone in for the windows, although my garden in disrepair is best seen through a scrim, so maybe that’ll wait. Oh, I want to take a nap. But if I do, I’ll be up all night. I’m left to consider that downtime isn’t downtime anymore. It’s a state of suspension, more like being under glass or boxed in jelly than resting or rejuvenating.

And when you’ve finished a novel, even after one’s editor’s had a whack, it’s not over at all. You need to sit around for a while and wonder: what was all that about anyway? Where did it come from? Why did you do it? You know, all the questions people are going to ask you anyway. I’ve been doing some of that.

I realized along the way that I’m a lot braver than I used to be. I don’t ask myself whether or not I have the authority to write about this or that, I just do it. These people that live in my head, the places they go, the conflicts they find themselves in, they just come whether I think I’m up to the task of explicating their stories or not. But I figure if they went to the trouble to surface through the mire that is my unconscious, I can do it if I work hard and listen to the voice.

And even in the downtime, the voice is whispering, whispering, whispering.

Sometimes A Survey Is More Fun Than You Think


When I was tagged for the Next Big Thing by fellow writer Soniah Kamal, I thought, o.k., nice way to self-promote. Soniah is a book critic, novelist, short story writer, and blogger extraordinaire. She’s also programming director of the Atlanta Writers’ Club. Her blogspot is: http://soniah-kamal.blogspot.com/ I figured she knows a lot more than I do about how to get a buzz going and I thought it couldn’t hurt to join up with an enterprise that’s gone global.

Then I realized I was stuck at the first question (see below). So I put it on the shelf and used the holidays as an excuse not to post for a while. Today, I can procrastinate no longer but in the meantime something great happened that changed my attitude. At the beginning of December, I tossed out a section of my work in progress. I have a deadline of March to finish this thing, self-imposed, but vital to my peace of mind. Tossing out a few thousand words represented a detour, a traffic jam, a sumbitch fender-bender between me and my chosen path to glory. So I’ve spent most of December cranky, charging away at rewrites until just two days ago, I noticed: This thing is going great again and I’m only 1,500 words shy of my goal for December! I can do that, I can surely do that over the next five days with time to spare for Champagne and nibblies on the 31st. So here goes, Soniah!

These are the questions Soniah asked me to answer about my work in progress. After that, I’ve tagged five other authors so you can learn about their Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your new book?
Tough question. Wish I knew. I think it’s going to be called Marching to Zion or maybe Fairer Worlds on High or Let Those Refuse to Sing or A Song of Sweet Accord. Problem is my publisher didn’t like my working titles the first two times around and the novels found fresh ones once the editing process started. They do like the idea of using lyrics from spirituals, so I’ve been searching for one that’ll fit my plot.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I like recycling characters from one book to the next. For an author it’s a way never to say goodbye to characters you’ve grown to love, even if you’ve killed them off. I knew I wanted to spend more time with Aurora Mae from One More River and cover the years she goes missing in that novel. But I started out with her Cousin Mags who has maybe three paragraphs of her very own in that novel and Lord, did she wind up having a lot to say. Then Bailey, Aurora Mae’s fancy man from Memphis, stepped up and that man, well, he’s hard to ignore. Next, I found myself some refugees from a Ukranian pogrom that muscled in on the action. The rest of it’s been pretty much stirrin’ the pot, stirrin’ the pot. You know, the best fiction is character driven and with that lively, curious crew, I think I’ve got the makings of The Next Big Thing for sure.

What genre does your book fall under?
I think of it as Southern historical literary.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Haven’t a clue. Movies are somebody else’s business, not mine. I’ll wait and see who Jim Kohlberg casts for Home in the Morning and see how that works!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A story of love, betrayal, and redemption set against the racial and religious divide of the American South from 1917-1939.

Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m represented by the great Peter Riva of International Transactions.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
When I’m done it’ll be about 14 months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Oh, it’s sui generis, I’m certain!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I couldn’t tell you. It’s a compulsion.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It completes the ideas expressed in Home in the Morning and One More River. I think of the three of them as a trilogy, a consummation, even though each one has a narrative arc that’s all its own. It’s whole, it’s a stand alone, but if you’ve read the other two, you’ll say: Ah, so that’s where she’s been going. And sigh with great satisfaction.

Here are authors I’ve tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing:

Sandi Krawchenko Altner, author of Ravenscraig, 2012 Carol Shields Book Award Winner, named Best Book of 2012 by the Winnipeg Free Press. http://www.altnersandi.com

Debra Ann Pawlak, author of Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy. http://www.debraannpawlak.com

Dennis Fleming, author of the literary true crime memoirs She Had No Enemies and The Girl Who Had No Enemies and the serial memoir The Sex Life of Andy Ashling. http://www.dpressingnews.blogspot.com

Sande Bortiz Berger, novelist, short story author, essayist, author of The Sweetness and Split-Level. http://www.sandeboritzberger.

Susan Morse, memoirist, humorist, author of The Habit, http://www.susanmorse.org.

Thank you to Soniah Kamal for tagging me!

Chicagoland, Spertus Style, Traffic and The Midwest Work Ethic

Before I went to Chicago, my friend, Anthony Giacalone, told me: “Chicago is that iconic town that’s in your head when you think ‘American city’. It’s not vast and hectic like New York City, but it’s not provincial like Boston. And you can get a cab anywhere, anytime.” He was right. What a remarkable place! The architecture, like a necklace of glittering diamonds draped around the neck of sublime lake shore, stunned. When you come from a city like Charleston with its refined antebellum garden homes and walk Chicago’s wide boulevards of soaring steel and glass, you feel as if you’ve stepped through history from one era to another and maybe you have.

I have to sincerely and deeply thank the Spertus Institute, Chicago’s leading center for Jewish learning and culture, offering graduate degrees in Jewish Studies, Jewish Education and Non-Profit Management, for inviting me to the One Book/One Community program which featured my One More River this year. Beth Schenker, their program director, knows how to put a party together. We had phenomenal crowds, around eighty at one of our venues, and they were informed, engaged, and appreciative.

But the truly remarkable part of the size of the crowds has to do with Chicago traffic. Every time we stepped out of the city or tried to roll into it, the traffic beat Manhattan and Boston’s combined! The hour, the day of the week didn’t seem to matter. There were rows and rows of vehicles snaking slowly either into or out of the city virtually all the time. One of our drivers told us you could leave Chicago at two in the morning and wind up in a jam.

So how to explain the size of my crowds? I have to credit the programs Spertus offered leading up to my talks, showing the film Shalom Y’all with a discussion following by the superb Rabbi Capers Funnye and hosting a book talk by the insightful Rachel Kamin, Director of the Gray Cultural and Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. There was also provided a brilliant study guide created by Spertus’ Lisa del Sesto. Talk about warm-up acts!

Spertus put Stephen and I up at The Standard Club, a private club established in 1869 by Chicago’s German Jews, which exudes both in its structure and service a rare old world charm and attention to detail. Think marble steps, wrought iron balustrades, intricately coffered ceilings, wood paneled walls, a dining room to rival The Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge and you’ll have it about right. It’s in the financial district of The Loop and across the street from the Federal District Court, which proved convenient as Stephen has an old student, his best student from his days teaching law school, who is now a federal district court judge, Judge Sam Der-Yeghiayan, who we were most excited to see in Chicago as he’d promised a tour of the federal court, his chambers, and as a special bonus, he happened to be hearing a criminal case during our stay to which we’d been invited as observers.
So there we were, nested in the warm embrace of the old world with a view out the window of the shining, spanking new. We open the curtains of our room and across the street is an office building. At eye level, a grey-haired lawyer sits working in his shirtsleeves, files piled high around him. It’s late on Saturday night, after we’d arrived and been taken out to dinner by the Judge. “He must be preparing for court,” I tell Stephen. “Yes,” says he, with a bit of a shudder. “Reminds me of how late I’d work back in Boston. . .”

Throughout our stay, we kept checking on this hard-at-work fellow. Every time we opened the curtain, no matter what the hour, there he was, sometimes in the lone lit office window (out of hundreds), plugging away. I get up at seven on Sunday morning to get ready for the folks at Anshe Emet on Chicago’s north side, and there he is, spinning in his wheeled office chair from one end of his long desk to the other. I get back around noon and there he is, still at it. When we leave for Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard at one, we check and he hasn’t yet had a break. We’re back around four thirty, after the Bears game, and the city’s emptied out. We breathe a sigh of relief. Our workaholic’s not there, although he’s left the lights on. We head out to grab some Italian at the legendary (amongst lawyers) Villages and when we return, we check on him just for fun. He’s there! Staring at a monitor. Still in shirtsleeves. I’m thinking when he wasn’t there before, it must have been a quickie bathroom break or maybe he was that harried guy downing a pizza next to us at the bar at the Villages. Monday morning, Monday afternoon, Monday night, Tuesday morning, same story. By this time, I’m wondering: does he live at his office? A nasty divorce in progress, maybe, and a wife that’s kicked him out? No place else to go? Or is this indeed a man preparing for a very important case? Whose life and liberty depends on him? Is it a tax case that could ruin a business and family? Or a murder that cries out in the night for resolution? Whose angel of justice is he anyway?

Of course, I’ll never know the answer. What I do know is that although Stephen worked throughout his Boston legal career like a dog til ten p.m. most nights (ok, he didn’t start til eleven or twelve in the morning, so what?), this Chicagoland lawyer is the hardest working sun of a gun I’ve ever witnessed. I raise my hat and glass to him and to the values of a Midwest whose work ethic could inspire such devotion to cause and career.

Unless he just couldn’t face the traffic.

The Lonely Art, A Little Less Lonely

I’ve never been a joiner of clubs. Not since the Blue Birds, the Campfire Girls, and Horizon Club. Maybe the weight of all those beads dragged the joiner in me under at a tender age. I’ve never regretted my refusnik status. My banner is emblazoned with the old Groucho Marx riposte: I’d never join a club that would have me as a member. Never until this weekend, anyway.

Enter the Atlanta Writers Club. I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when the AWC invited me to speak on my (very) long path to publication. Who were these people? Why did they bother to gather monthly to talk about writing when everyone knows the only way to write is to sit down and do it? There’s a reason writing is called the lonely art. The first thing that’ll kill it is to have someone looking over your shoulder while you’re trying to work.

So I went there with a few preconceptions. (Always a bad idea.) I figured I’d be speaking to the young and uncommitted. While I crafted my speech, I worried they’d be too young to comprehend a couple of my cultural references and I played up my matronly status,thinking that if the young’uns could identify with me as a sweet ole mama, I’d be golden. I stressed perserverance and good luck as the keys to my success but I hoped the first quality was the one they’d remember. You know how flighty the young can be.

And then I walked into the Student Union at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody and saw my audience. About fifty or sixty writers, if my dismal ability to assess such matters can be trusted, most of whom were grey-haired, if they weren’t dyed, white, or bald. There were a smattering of people in their 30s, I think, but only a handful in their 20s. Probably young in this crowd meant 40 on average. Clearly not the group I expected.

These were serious, accomplished people. Witness George Weinstein, author of Hardscrabble Road, a Pulitzer nominee. Romance author, Nicki Salcedo, who if the sample of her work provided here http://www.8headedhydra.com/readers-life/maize is any indication will take romance to a literary level in her debut novel, All Beautiful Things, soon to appear out of Belle Bridge Books. And Soniah Kamal, whose short story available on Kindle here http://www.amazon.com/Runaway-Truck-Ramp-ebook/dp/B008NY55TG, gives one a taste of her raw, edgy take on a cross cultural love affair that takes one on a rollercoaster ride of the unexpected at every turn.

But if you know me, you know I’m used to being wrong. I sat down and listened to the preliminary speakers, a grammarian who talked above my head – I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about but maybe my frequent and intentional breaking of rules has something to do with that – the aforesaid George Weinstein who spoke on recycling and revising older work. There were awards given to the winners of a recent writing competition. And then I was up. In the end, I’m sure it was Southern hospitality in part, but the group seemed to like me. They laughed at all the right places, anyway, and their questions afterwards were cogent, incisive. They bought my book and chatted with me while I signed. Apparently, I was inspiring! Informative! Spot on!

And that was very nice to hear. I think I’ve come to comprehend why people join clubs. How good it is to hang with the like minded, focused on the same goal. I can see how these people help each other, support each other. And if only my thick-headed self hadn’t been a refusnik all those years, I like to think maybe these folks would have had me in their club. And that would have been a very good thing.

Home Improvements

My husband is a very smart man. According to his I.Q., he’s in genius territory. When I was a girl, women were just beginning to assert that they could do any job a man could do, and many of us still looked to a man to take care of them, to guide them through life’s thickets. I was no different. I sought out men who could teach me something. If they were good-looking and possessed of a degree of charm, all the better, but what I looked for was smarts. When I met Stephen, handsome, brilliant, accomplished, and with a certain odd panache, I hit the motherlode.

“This guy is better than an encyclopedia,” I’d tell my girlfriends. “You can ask him anything – I swear to God, anything – and he’ll give you chapter, verse, and exegisis!”

Honestly, before Google, there was nothing sweeter for a writer than to be able to ask from across the room: “Hey, honey! What’s the capital of Kafiristan again?” And to hear the reply: “Ancient or modern?”

Over forty years of Q&A, however, I learned the downside of life with a mastermind. He’s hardly ever wrong. When occasions of domestic discord arise, it’s a misery to always be on the losing side over matters of recorded fact. So I confess when we were standing in the Outdoor section of Home Depot that day and Stephen gravitated to the big stand-up grill with some assembly required rather than grabbing the cook ready little Smokey Joe, I felt a cheap, petty thrill.

He’s got an Achilles heel, you see. The man’s a bit challenged when it comes to mechanical perception. When he had his induction physical during the Vietnam era, he took the Army intelligence test. The test consisted of a drawing of an engine with its parts spread out and labeled by letter. The chore was to decide where the parts fit. Stephen flunked. The grunt next to him who needed help figuring out where to put his name got a 98%. It was a transformative moment for a proud young man unaccustomed to failure and the beginning of a life-long respect for the mechanically inclined.

Not that his deficiency stops him from taking on home projects. I appreciate his courage in this regard, but what I hate is being drafted into the role of assistant when I know the enterprise is going to be a long, drawn-out exercise in frustration for both of us. So before we went to Home-Depot’s check out line, I said: “You buy that monster and I am not helping you put it together. Just remember that. You’re on your own.” Himself, balancing his oversized box over the top of his shopping cart with loving care: “Gotcha.”

Box sat in the garage for about four weeks before he decided to tackle assembly. Then last Tuesday, the hour had arrived. I was upstairs at my desk trying to get some work done. I hear the box ripped open. I hear the removal of items, the trashing of wrappers, and the soft, low cry, “Oh no.”
I’m a bad woman sometimes. I start to laugh quietly. Then: “Mary! There’s at least a hundred pieces in here!”

“That’s ok,” I say. “I didn’t want to use that ‘til Saturday. You’ve got time.”

Poor guy’s down there working furiously. There’s a lot of clatter and bang, a few curse words, and once or twice: “Ouch!” Over the next four hours, more clatter, bang, curse, “Ouch!” End of Day One and he’s got the hood assembled.

Day Two. “Where the hell is the ash receiver slide? What the hell is an ash receiver slide?” Then: “Mary! I have to go to the hardware store! They didn’t give me enough wingnuts! I need six more!”

Day Three. I hear the words I’ve been waiting for. “Mary! You have to help me!” I don’t bother reminding him he promised not to enlist me in this project from Home Depot hell. I discover I am, after all, more compassionate than vindictive. In a flash, I’m at his side. Poor darling looks miserable. He hands me the 12-page assembly guide. “I can’t figure out where the charcoal grid support rods go.” I study the diagrams. “Well, honey, that’s because you’ve got the side shelf fastened where the control panel goes. That’s why the side shelf wobbles. The rods are supposed to go through those holes you’ve put screws in.”

A couple of hours later, we’ve each done some swearing. I think a couple of times I stamped my foot. We had to get the magnifying glass out to be able to follow the little dotted lines on the diagram that tells you where to stick what. But the job is done. And I hear the words that are sweetest to my ear, signifying a rare triumph over forty years of always being wrong:

“Thanks, Mary. I couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t told me how.”

In the end, a blessed occasion. Only the side shelf still wobbles. And we’ve got six left over wingnuts.

How Hannah and Ralph Came to Love the Shiksa

I met my husband the same year his first marriage fell apart. Theirs had been a short union, under three years, but in that day divorce was still scandalous in most circles and cross-cultural unions considered dangerous or an indication of an imbalanced mind. Which is why my my husband’s parents, Hannah and Ralph, did not want to see me, know me, hear about me, or so much as consider my existence when Stephen told them he’d fallen for an Irish-Polish Catholic girl whom they would come to love as much as he.

This was before the house in Delray Beach. Hannah and Ralph were snowbirds, spending a month or two every winter in North Miami Beach, at the old Colonial Inn. They had a regular social crowd there, a group of five or six couples, New York or New Jersey Jews all, who palled around together. They played Hollywood gin rummy by the pool, went to jai alai, ate at The Famous (kosher) restaurant downtown, took in the revue at The Americana. A few months after Stephen and I met, Hannah and Ralph, worried about their eldest coping with his failure in the marital department, sent for him to join them for two weeks, which he dutifully did, taking a room on the opposite side of the pool at the Colonial.

Now there was nothing Stephen hated more than a Boston winter. He should have been delighted to bask in the sun and enjoy maternal attentions and paternal pride. But he was lonely. After the first week, he sent me a plane ticket then told his parents his plans: I would arrive the next Tuesday. They were aghast. Not the shiksa! they cried. How can we show our faces around here if you bring the shiksa! But I love her, he told them. I want you to know her. They were adamant. We will not speak to her. We will not meet her.

Alright, Stephen said. Do what you must, but she’s still coming. I’ll check out of the Colonial and move into the Suez. The Suez was the motel next door. There were tears and protestations from Hannah, scowling disapproval from Ralph. But their son was a grown man. He did what he wanted. When he told me of their opposition, I said: Maybe we can win them over. No, I do not think so, he told me, somewhat mournfully. And maybe it was his tone of voice, of this man I loved who had already suffered enough from the break-up of his marriage, but I decided to punish these cruel parents for their refusal to meet me. I thought: Get in the way of his happiness? I’ll show them!

Basically, my plan was this: They expected a blond, blue-eyed, slut of a shiksa who would ruin their son’s life. Well, then that’s what they were going to get. I dyed my dark brown hair platinum, I bought a very short black crepe suit. I bought false eyelashes, upper and lower. Luckily, my eyes were already blue.

When I got off the plane at Miami International, Stephen was waiting for me. I saw him some ten yards away and my heart leapt. I click-clacked towards him in my black crepe suit and spike heels. He glanced at me, then looked beyond me. I had to stand in front of him and pluck his sleeve to get his attention. Uh, Stephen. I’m here, I said. He started and dropped his far off gaze to the bleached out hussy in front of him. Mare? he asked, is that you? Well, yeah, I said, fluffing out my hair with an upturned palm. Do you like it? He was drop-jawed but covered quickly. I like you any way you choose to be, he said, his voice low and heavy with subtext. I laughed. We hugged. We kissed. We got my luggage and to the hotel in record time.

The next day, he told me he had to go make an appearance at his parents’ hotel next door and then he’d be back to spend the day with me. He returned after fifteen minutes, shaking his head with wonder. They want to meet you, he said. Who knew if I called their bluff, they’d crumble like a house of cards. Who knew?

Now it was my turn to feel anxious, guilty. I brushed down my bouffant Marilyn Monroe do. I put on minimal make-up. Unfortunately, I hadn’t packed the one bra I had that I’d not burned in ‘71. All the skirts I had with me were mini. My shorts were short shorts. But I did my best in to dress respectfully to meet the Glickmans. With what I had to work with.

Our first meeting was stiff, formal. Much as I’d tried to tone Ms Slut Shiksa down, I knew I still shocked. Yet they were polite. I could see what it cost them to make the effort and I was ashamed. They told us they were going to the Bahamas for a few days with their crew of friends, returning after we’d leave to go back to Boston, but they wanted to have dinner with us first. I thought this a radical victory of young love over old world prejudice.Then we drove for dinner. Far far away from North Miami Beach. To the most out of the way, nobody-knows-you’re-there delicatessen in all of Florida. It was so out of the way it’s possible we were in Louisiana.

When we got back home, I dyed my hair back to its natural color. Three months later, Hannah and Ralph came to Boston to visit us. Our buzzer was broken, so I ran downstairs to answer the front door when they arrived at our apartment on Beacon Street. Hannah was climbing the steps, her hands busy with shopping bags full of New Jersey delicatessen and bakery goods she was certain were not available in Back Bay. Ralph was at the car, half way in the trunk, unpacking yet more provisions. Hannah took one look at me and without pausing to say hello, she called to her husband: Raaalph! She’s not a blond anymore!

It was an odd weekend. Everyone played nice but I knew there was still a lot of parental resistance. Then on Saturday night after dinner, someone suggested we play Hollywood gin rummy. We pulled a card table out of a closet and played. Hannah and I won big time. She was so excited at one point, she called me by Stephen’s first wife’s name. Good hand, Julie, she said. And we all ignored it because after all, it was a sign of acceptance, wasn’t it?

The next time they visited, she brought me gifts. Two pantsuits. Two polyester pantsuits that were Hannah’s idea of fine dressing and mine of please-God-don’t-let-anyone-I-know-see-me-in-this. We went out to dinner at a high-profile restaurant. I wore one of the pantsuits for that one and only time. On seeing me, Hannah and Ralph sighed. She looks beautiful, Stevela, they said. Their son beamed.

And they loved me ever after.

Cain, Abel, and Everybody Else

Everybody knows the Cain and Abel story. Good son, bad son, jealousy, murder, exile. Then there’s Jacob and Esau.Trickery, betrayal, more exile, guilt, reconciliation. Mix up genders and there’s Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom.Innocence, rape, revenge, exile yet again, rebellion. All of it meaning there’s a motherload of complexity when siblings disagree and rarely do siblings disagree with more passion than when the parents are in extremis. That’s a fact, Jack. And I’m here to say Amen, brother, Amen.

There are two parts of this, I think. One is that individuals bring their own manners of coping with trouble to the table and one man’s rosy dawn is another’s night of the dead. The optimists and the realists, the half glass full crowd and the half glass empty crowd each get to bang their spoons against their plates. Which is where it ought to end because we’re all tolerant, aren’t we? Of opposing views in 2012?

But then heads bang against the second part: adolescent roles are revived quantum style when Mommy and Daddy are fading away, abandoning the field, leaving the troops to their own devices. Where childhood’s roles resurrect in adult bodies, no one’s safe.

As I’ve been pondering this awhile now, without coming up to any useful conclusions, I thought I’d go to an expert. That’d be Susan Morse, author of The Habit, a humane, humorous memoir of coping with her very unique and elderly mother’s battle with cancer.

Here’s what she said:

“I really can’t comment. In fact I have no idea what you are getting at, and honestly I resent the implication that my siblings and I have any trouble getting along whatsoever. My siblings understand perfectly that I was sent from heaven. I am the one with boots on the ground, the Good Daughter Who Takes Care of the Aging Parent, and they know their job, which is to do exactly what I tell them. If they behave themselves (and that’s a Big If) they are allowed to occasionally offer advice, and then duck when I lunge around ready to bite their heads off for interfering. We all have our roles in a family. We just have to figure them out.

“So I feel for you and your problems with your adult siblings, Mary, but they have nothing to do with us. By the way has my sister been talking to you? Oh, man, she is asking for it; that’s it, I’m calling her…..”

Ah well. As Tolstoy said: All happy families are alike. Not sure about those unhappy families. Neither Susan nor I know anything about them.


Gals n’ Guns

In the South, people take the 2nd Amendment very seriously. It’s a cultural thing. Maybe it has to do with the Civil War. Whatever else the Civil War was about, the threat of federal troops in one’s backyard left an indelible impression that bleeds into notions of self defense.

So many Southerners are rather fond of their guns. After all, the South has a culture that can support a magazine called Gardens and Guns. Many daddies teach children how to shoot at a very young age, by overall national standards. I’ve known young women who’ve received pistols as graduation presents, tucked away in the glove compartment of the traditional graduation car. They’re meant for self-protection. The bluest democrat I know, a gentlewoman of great compassion and charity towards her fellow man, can shoot the flame off a candle. (She’s also a little deaf from target practice back in the day before ear protection became mandatory.)

While I learned to shoot up North prior to a trip to Jerusalem (long story), when I moved South, I got myself a Concealed Weapon Permit. Why? Because I could. Later, I bought a gun, a 38-revolver known as a Pink Lady for its pink laminate grip and its light weight. It took me a while to find the time and occasion to fire it.

Then a friend asked if I’d like to accompany her and her husband to a local shooting range and at last get to fire that new gun of mine. I said yes. We went to a standard indoor range, satisfied ourselves that our weapons worked, our aim was serviceable, and our nerves still intact. The women tired first. My friend and I went to a lounge to wait for her husband to finish up. It was there we were treated to an only-in-the-South moment.

One of the ranges had been closed for a private party. NRA bigwigs? Hunters’ confab? No. Out of that door fluttered six twenty-something women, each flushed with pleasure, each in her own pink t-shirt reading “Caution: Gals with Guns”, each carrying pink ear and eye protection, pink targets, and huge smiles. I asked if they were a club. No, says they, we’re a bachelorette party!

Well, I thought, here’s something new under the sun. Let me investigate.

Me: So you’ve shot before?

Them: Only Shirley!

Me: How about the bride?

The bride: First time today!

Me: So, did you like it?

All of them: It was great! I never felt so empowered!

Me(to the bride): Does your intended shoot?

The bride: No.

Me: Keep it that way.

As their happy pink backs skipped out the door, an old man approached my friend and I. Very smart gals, says he. We concur. Know what you do with them pink targets? he continued. I’ll tell you. You put ‘em on the wall where a man lookin’ in from outside can see ‘em. Ain’t no low-life goin’ to enter a house that tells him from the git-go ‘There’s a gal in here with a gun. And she can shoot.’

He had a point, I suppose. But I don’t think even our bridal party would get past the idea of used targets, especially pink ones, as living room décor. Earth tones work much better there. Pink is for t-shirts and grips.

In Memento Mori – a guest blog by Felicity Carter

I once read a novel about mortality, about an apocalypse that was wiping out earth and heaven simultaneously. The central conceit was that the dead only exist for as long as they’re remembered; once the last living person forgets them, the soul disappears forever. So a well-known historical identity like, say, Socrates might go on and on and on. A nonentity who never reached the history books, on the other hand, might be forgotten about after a few years, and wink out of existence altogether.

This week, Mary’s mother died, which is why she isn’t blogging today. I’m Felicity, a friend of hers who lives in Europe, and I’m filling in for her. I thought about that book again this week, because Mary and I have been discussing grief by email. One of the things we’ve talked about is how physically painful it is when the people close to us die. It’s like the deceased hack away a big chunk of our flesh on their way out the door.
There’s probably a physiological reason for this. I’ve read that grey cells – the same ones that can be found in our brains – also live in the stomach and the fingertips. We literally process emotions in our stomachs, so it’s not surprising that when we’re under extreme emotional pressure, our stomachs twist and clench and make us feel like hurling. Grief can feel an awful lot like the urge to vomit.
But I think there’s something else at work as well, and it’s to do with memory. Except the novel got it the wrong way round. It’s not that we the living forget the people who have passed on, it’s that the dead take their memories of us with them. People who have played an important role in our lives, who have witnessed us at crucial times, take their witnessing with them when they go.
Like most people, I’ve passed through several distinct phases of life. For example, one of my major goals in my 20s was to stand on stage in a red velvet recital gown and sing something operatic, to huge applause. While I never managed to get the huge applause, I did at least accumulate a series of voluminous recital gowns, in a wide range of eye-catching colours.
Those gowns are now in storage somewhere. Today if you asked people to describe my personal style, they’d probably say ‘middle aged and boring’ and they’d be right. I could protest and tell people about my inner yen to parade through the streets in a Baroque gown, swigging from a bottle of wine, but they wouldn’t believe me. That’s not a side of me they’ve ever met.
Sometimes even I feel like I should grow up and accept the fact that I’m tediously middle aged. What saves me is that I have a handful of friends who remember what I was like back then, who have experienced at first hand that I have a wilder, more bohemian side. Their first-hand knowledge of me is my assurance that I really do have more dimensions than meet the eye.
I need people in my life who can put me in touch with who I was, who I’ve been and who I might still become. Without that, I’m literally no-one.
Having a novelist as a friend is always fraught with danger, because you never know if something about you is going to be used for creative purposes (a character called Felicity Rose Carter, anyone?). But novelist friends are also capable of reflecting our deeper truths back to ourselves, which is why I value Mary’s friendship so much. Good friends help you remember who you really are.
And mothers, well, mothers literally define who you are. What could be more physically painful than losing a mother, even if she was very old and died peacefully, and we’re long past the age when mothers are supposed to mean so much to us? Because who knows us better than our own mothers? Who else saw us when we first came into the world, when we made our first mud pie, or when we first went off to school? Those are parts of our identity that we ourselves usually can’t remember. When our mothers die, those important parts of who we are, held within her memory, die forever.
Mary, no wonder it hurts.