Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Photo with the Missing Head

As featured in ESRA Magazine, this short autobiographical story is only a small portion of a larger piece. 

Ten years in the making and this account is still not finished. A difficult time in my life, equally difficult to write. And more so, I contemplated long and hard whether to share it with the world.

Well . . . here it is.

I hope you enjoy reading.

The photo with the man’s head missing
For as long into the past as I remember, there hung on the wall above my grandparents’ bed a glass-framed black and white photograph which I could almost reach when I stood on top of the bed itself. In a large chest of drawers, more photo albums were kept in the bottom drawer, where the past could be paraded in disjointed events before my eyes. 
The photo above the bed featured the head of a younger version of my mother next to the head of an unfamiliar man, but who closely resembled my uncle. Boobe’s eyes welled up whenever she looked at the picture and then at me. Everybody cried around me: an uncle who came from America to visit every two years, my uncle and aunt who lived in Binyamina, Boobe’s sister who lived in Haifa, and my cousins. What was this sadness about? I waited for some sign to explain the offenses they believed I had committed against them.I was a walking question mark.
Was it a weekend or a summer holiday? Who could remember now? But I do recall my older cousin’s question, uttered so suddenly that I was struck by the oddity of it. We had been sitting in the kitchen, illuminated by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling by an electric wire. The air in the room was warm and fragrant with my aunt’s rhubarb pie. Outside heavy drops of rain fell against the kitchen window and struck the ground. My cousin’s deft fingers were braiding my long curly hair. 
“Do you want to go to the cemetery?” she asked. 
Later—a week or two, or a month—my cousin and I walked to the cemetery. After a short walk through thorny weeds we stood in front of a grave upon which stood a headstone skewed by time and weather. I knelt down to place on the grave the wild flowers we had gathered along the way. Then I saw it: the inscription on the stone read my grandparents’ last name. 
I looked up at my cousin with questioning eyes.
“Ask Boobe,” she said. “She’ll tell you.” 
One late July evening, my grandparents and I were sitting on the porch. The air was warm. Insects buzzed in the darkening day. My grandfather held a Yiddish-language newspaper. The pages flapped gently in the warm breeze.  
“Zaide,” I said, “Why is the newspaper listing names of people? Is someone looking for them?”He peered at me; rimless glasses perched on the tip of his nose. His blue eyes were sharp and clear, eyes that looked. An army of furrows had settled deep in uneven lines across his forehead.“Many people lost their family members during the war,” Zaide replied in Yiddish. “Survivors have no other means by which they can discover if their families are alive.” 
My grandmother nodded.“Truth is often painful, but I hope that it alone will save us,” my grandfather continued. “It is important for you to know the truth.”At that moment I had thought that by asking about the mysterious grave, I might be able to understand something about my history. I never dared ask. 
Many years later I was able to acknowledge the persistent guilt I felt toward my family—the family I would need to leave in order to discover myself. And what compounded the guilt was the suspicion that in leaving them behind I would be leaving my identity as well, in a perpetual state of imposed exile.  
In those earlier days at my grandparents’ house, I wandered among the ruins of my family’s past as my eyes relentlessly traveled to the wall with the picture of my mother and a dark-haired stranger. I knew my parents were lying when they said the missing head in the picture albums was a dear friend who had died. Then why cut out his existence? If he was dead already, why annihilate his memory further?
Indeed, the albums contained vanished family members, but the missing head, which was mostly next to my mother’s smiling face—their bodies tilted into each other toward the center of their gravity, remained their deepest secret.
Information came in bits and pieces; I greeted each with increasing disbelief; each a separate blow. Their words furthered feelings of pity for unknown ancestors whose Litvak tribulations had been foreign to me. Yet my connection to them was deeply entrenched. There were hushed and unfinished stories about atrocities in concentration camps and missing family members. Many vanished; few survived. My grandparents lost a daughter and her six grandchildren. My mother lost her parents; my father’s mother and younger brother were murdered, a slew of cousins and friends. 
The missing head with the rest of the body intact remained a mystery until I turned thirteen.There will always be that certain incident that will remain more prominently than anything else during my childhood. If it had only happened a few years later, or even a few years earlier.
The two of us, Boobe and I, were sitting on a stoep. Insects lurched wildly against us. A gray cat gazed at me warily from the edge of the garden. ‘You are old enough to know the truth,’ Boobe said, enunciating each separate syllable slowly with voice unsteady, remote.
I leaned forward.  
Her words had a persistent stubbornness that kept entrenching me deeper and deeper. I was bathed in sweat and dazed by the heat; my clothes hung limply against my skin. No longer was I secure in my commonplace aspect, secure in my lackluster nonentity.These words offered the knowledge I craved for myself, but now unsure I wanted to know. Except that there could be no going back. - nothing to go back to. I had become what the world outside made me; I had to live in this world, as it existed. 
I was thirteen years old, for heaven’s sake! What was I to do with this information? “He’s been killed,” she said. “And he was only twenty-four years old. He had just arrived in Palestine with a young bride and seven-month-old daughter. He’d survived the hardship of war”and had somehow succeeded in securing a passage to the Promised Land.He had been drafted to dig fox holes shortly after his arrival, and had been killed doing so. He’d lived in Palestine for two weeks,” she said. “And your mother was left alone with you.”
I shouted out, “No! No! That is not true!”
I was wiped clean as a slate, emptied of history. My grandmother had taken it upon herself, against my parents’ wishes, to reveal the family’s secret. My father was not my real father.
Up until that moment, I could not understand why Boobe was my grandma. She was not my mother’s mother; neither was she my father’s. My father had his own stepmother. His mother had disappeared in some concentration camp. 
For years to come, I found myself imagining my real father, constantly comparing everybody’s features with the features of the man in the one saved photo. What was he like? He, of course, was kind; his eyes filled with the light of kindness. My birth father became a being of huge dimensions, a creature moving among the stars. He, of course, was generous: he loved to share, to guide; he would have taken great pleasure in initiating his daughter into entire domains of which she knew almost nothing. I had made myself according to the limitations I had understood. 
So it was that once, long ago, the death of my father, Boobe’s son, my mother’s husband and her first cousin, had imposed the verdict of silence. The father whom I had never known was my mother’s husband and first cousin. That made Boobe and Zaide my mother’s aunt and uncle, and my uncle and aunt once removed, and my grandparents. 
And there is irony here as well. My parents’ attempt to obliterate my father’s existence had not succeeded since the father I never knew resides in my own son’s face—my son who is now nineteen years older than my real father was. 

It would be many years before Henya saw the complete picture, which revealed the missing head of her birth father

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Passion for Hiking

As my husband and I are planning a full schedule of hiking in the pristine wilderness of Yellowstone, Teton and Rocky National Parks in September, I am struck by the idea of traveling to a natural environment and nurturing my appreciation of the non-human world.  

Over the ages painters, writers, and photographers, whose work became widely appreciated, vividly illustrated beauty of wilderness. These works invited visitors to experience these settings personally and intimately.

Hiking is a passion of mine. My husband and I have hiked in several national parks. Though I enjoy and appreciate nature, I abhor seeing buses and hordes of people where unsullied wilderness should reign. Which brings me to the next point, there is an essential tension created between nature and human. The idea of fusing them together means a crowdedness of sorts. Therein lies the battle of territory and survival. But I am not the only one who appreciates and enjoys nature.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

When we take on writing, we are daring the challenge

 The reason is obvious: to prove that we can, that we can ride this kind of roller coaster. To exert a remarkable control over the images which our eyes look at day after day and we find a way to write what we see. We write it in all five senses and in colors. We rummage in our heads for words to describe all of it. The possibilities are endless.

Imagery helps readers understand the fictive world, and, to create mood. Here is an example of that from the opening of my novel, Blow Forward.

“Lizzie’s gut clenched as she headed for the entrance, coffee mug in hand. She checked off a mental checklist of responses, the ones she always used after dispatchers gave her a hard time when first meeting her. She shoved her hand in her pocket. The feel of the mace canister—its cool, dispassionate solidity—comforted her. Some of the tension of having to face the outside world seemed to dissolve.”

This particular imagery creates a mood of foreboding. Lizzie’s “gut clenched”. We immediately know that something is wrong. The story further goes to tell that she checks for the mace canister in her pocket. Why does she feel that she needs to protect herself? It is a good example of imagery that the reader is able to immediately pictures the kind of mood and setting in which the scene may take place.

Here is another example from Shakespeare’s famous play MacBeth.  He used a type of opening to elicit a response of looming danger from the reader when the three witches in the beginning speak of the, “thunder, lightning [and] rain” and the “fog and filthy air.”

Ah, but the act of writing and then presenting the story to the world is a very peculiar sort of challenge, indeed. This kind of world building becomes the reader’s property with which to form all sorts of interpretations and analysis. In short, your work may be subject to scrutiny -- public lynching or praise. But you’re willing to take the chance.

Friday, April 24, 2015

This and That about my Writing

I am on my second and third novel now.

The first one was an experiment. I’m in love with the story, with the characters. I know them well. The pacing and building is off, though.

Second novel is better. Spent five years working on it. I’m in love with the story, with the characters. I know them well. The pacing is better. The blueprint is a tad short of perfect. Tried for a few months to get the manuscript published. No bites. Decided to shelf it for one year and went on to novel number three with some more knowledge and a better understanding of story building.
One hundred pages into novel number three, I got stuck. So I went back to BLOW FORWARD, novel number two and spent six more months on perfecting it. Tell you…I think it’s going to be a winner.

Writing is challenging. Thank goodness I love the whole journey. I love to take sentences rearrange them, then take paragraph and reorder them as well. Cleaning and moving furniture around. See what makes sense. It doesn’t get better than that.

I have been writing daily for seven years. I know…a drop in the bucket. A couple of my friends  have been at it for twenty years.

For me, writing is the easy part.

The difficult part is taking my writing career to the next level. And that means having to extend myself beyond my comfort level. I’m willing to do that. But that’s another step in the growing process: learning the business, learning how to write queries, synopsis, go to conferences and pitch.
I could do without all that, if you ask me. I could just be happy in front of my computer all by myself.

No! On second thought, I’m lying. I’m driven. I AM a hard worker and I would like to reap some reward for my efforts.

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Celebration

For the last six years, my husband and I have made ourselves a promise to usher in the New Year in a comedy club, laughing. This year we decided to change things a bit and begin the year singing along with our favorite Jazz singer at a restaurant in Kent, Connecticut.

We drive from our apartment in Manhattan to the country home in Massachusetts with stars in our eyes and empty stomachs, anticipating a huge meal later. We get to the house at about 7:30 PM. I have one hour to get ready for a 9:30 reservation, which is almost an hour from our house. We drive dark windy roads...
My nerves are shot by the time we reach our destination.
new year's eve sparks stellina

We get seated at the furthest corner of the crowded bar, by the door...thirteen degrees outside, cold air rushing in each time the door opens...bodies pressed against our table. My husband and I make a quick decision and we leave. 

It is now 9:45. Tired and hungry, we drive the same dark, windy road back to our town. Nothing in the house to eat, we’re on a quest to find a restaurant or even a pizza place in a town where everything shuts down at 10:00 o’clock. Sharp. But for some reason we neglected to remember that. Still, we keep our good spirits up and eventually we end up at a liquor store seven minutes before closing. We stock up on crackers and cheese and salami and cookies, a dietary consumption that goes entirely against everything I believe I should be putting in my body. I choose not to be choosy.

We end up back home, in front of the TV, eating junk food and watching the ball drop.
It’s not my style to make New Year’s resolutions, but I’m changing the  pattern this one time.
And that is…
Next year we’ll be walking the three blocks to our favorite comedy club in Manhattan – and begin the year laughing.
Happy New Year

Monday, December 29, 2014

Cleaning Up for the New Year

2014 is almost over, marking a time for a new beginning. No. I’m not talking about resolutions. I find them too easy to break. And setting goals can be overwhelming. We all have things that we want to accomplish in our lives — getting into the better shape, making more money, writing a best-selling book, etc.

For me it’s a time to discard all the pollution from the last 12 months that is overcrowding my life. Like throwing out all the stuff I don’t need or use anymore. It frees up needed space for all the things I’ll be able to throw away at the end of next year. Like murdering bad habits, like shaking off the negatives; like uncluttering my inbox of all the important emails I was going to read one day. As of today, I’m ending toxic relationships to free myself up for potential mistakes in the future. And maybe—just maybe—today, I will throw away some the shoes and boots I've amassed over the last twenty years. They don’t fit me anymore anyway.

Now, this is not much to ask for, right?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanks You!

To: All the readers who have ventured in here to give me your silent support.

A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.

Cicero (106-43 BC), Roman philosopher, statesman & orator