That feeling when she realizes the scope of her project

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia practically moves into her father’s studio during her teenage years. Her goal is to discover just who he really was before he vanished in that avalanche. More critically, she hopes to see just how important she was in his eyes and his heart.

~*~

Here’s a moment that was cut out of the finished novel. It’s more succinctly presented in the published version:

There, I’ve said it. My Baba, the missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been constructing. Or missing pieces, more accurately, is at once revealed by everything he touches – and everything that touches him. What I’ve been pursing as a negative shape on a visual field instantly turns positive before my eyes. So amid all of our outward chaos, what he more and more perceived in our family was this potential in all of its give-and-take connectivity – and that hopeful impression was his reason for whole-heartedly leaping in with us. Maybe we’re all icons – mandalas and tankas, too – in that holy mountain, which in our small way we rebuild in something we’ve called Olympus.

If this is, as I now presume, the direction to a breakthrough where all of his life’s work is about to converge and proclaim, I’ll need to reassemble the parts I’ve already collected. Reevaluate all of the memories, bits of writing (probably leaving the published volumes for other scholars). The photos, especially – the world seen through his more than his eyes alone.

On the material plane, Baba was never facilely sociable … not like Dimitri, for sure … but he managed.

~*~

I can think of a few daughters who are their talented fathers’ best champions. Cassia would be among them.

Maybe because I’ve done extensive genealogy research, I see some of these influences going much further back than a single generation. Until his youngest sister told me, for example, that my father had once dreamed of being a sportswriter had I connected his father’s collecting all the local newspapers during World War II (“They’ll be important someday”) with Dad’s grandmother’s detailed reading of the daily papers and then linking it to my own career as a daily newspaper editor. Not that anybody ever said a word to me that they were proud of what I’d chosen to do.

I can look to many other similar streams of unseen, even unknown, influence.

If you had a chance to meet one of your ancestors – a little bit of time travel – which one would it be? What would you want to ask? Or would you rather want to tell them off?

 

It doesn’t matter which you heard, so he says

As we were cleaning up after our monthly turn of cooking and serving dinner at the local “soup kitchen,” I turned to a trio of high school students who help our Quaker Meeting crew in the project.

“Hey, stick around and you can hear a performance of ‘Messiah.'”

They gave me glazed looks of incomprehension.

“You know, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ I’ll be singing in it.”

One of them changed her expression. “Oh! I know that!”

And she started to sing, but it wasn’t Handel.

My turn to smile.

“Ah, Leonard Cohen. My choir has a lovely arrangement of that, and it’s fun to sing.”

And then I sang a few measures from the classic oratorio, which they did recognize.

The evening’s event wasn’t my choir but an ad hoc assembly of singers from everywhere in the region, all of us stepping in with no rehearsal – you may know of similar Messiah Sings, a tradition that’s spread widely. It’s a blast and a great community celebration.

Meanwhile, the repertoire of my choir has a couple of dozen Hallelujah pieces. One’s in Russian, others in African tongues, and several in English. Funny thing, the word is part of nearly every language. That, along with Amen, Coca-Cola, and OK.

By the way, Cohen’s lyrics are powerful, honest, and heartbreaking, deeply grounded in Biblical incidents yet also personally confessional. His is a truthful and humbling counterpoint to Handel’s majesty.

Which experience better fits your reality this season?

What a right adjective will do

As the vocalist in a  lovely jazz trio at a party the other night led us in “Silver Bells,” with its echo in “It’s Christmastime in the city,” I was struck but the beauty of the lyric’s repeated sibilants. They simply sparkle and produce a visual impression of tiny white lights on an icy night.

The song returned to my mind while shoveling snow a few days later, and this time I was captivated by the appropriateness of the adjective “silver.” Not “gold” or “brass” but silver. Again, there’s a visual impression, but this time, also a suggestion of bright clear sound. Gold, in contrast, would somehow make me expect something more velvety or reserved or distant, while brass would point toward a louder, stronger, more industrial tone.

Yes, the poet in me is still wowed at that choice of “silver.”

Would any other word do the trick?

Rolling out the Streetcar

In my novel What’s Left, the family’s signature dish is a sandwich sliced down the top, rather than along the side. Maybe with two slices, rather than one.

It started out as a Cubano but took off on its own. As I recalled, the name was suggested in jest by a comment on the Red Barn way back when, but I’m unable to trace it now. Let me say, if I’m overlooking an inspiration, I’ll be happy to give credit where it’s due.

In the novel at least, it’s a collaborative effort.

Cassia’s uncle Dimitri, with his MBA, is big on marketing and creating a niche appeal. So that’s where we start.

Add his grandmother Maria, from Cuba. Along with his brother, Barney, the master chef. And everyone else in the family, plus a few others.

Can this actually work? How would I know? Maybe if Harry Potter waved a magic wand and uttered some incomprehensible syllables?

But whatever they create sounds heavenly. Wouldn’t you agree?

~*~

The flavor was off in this round:

Few customers would realize we really offer five or six different Streetcars, depending on the season or our supplies. They’re all scrumptious, so nobody as far as I know complains.

~*~

That possibility, by the way, stems from an interview I once read for the chief taster for Chock Full o’Nuts coffee, who had to keep blending whatever beans were available into a consistent taste of java. Why not extend it into a sandwich?

Still, I love the image of creating something distinctive for a rural college town.

Look closely and you’ll see different parts of the country do have unique dishes. It’s not just baked beans in Boston, either. (Anyone else enjoy Indian pudding?) Or special spices, like Old Bay in Baltimore.

Think of seafood, if you live near a coast. Or wild game, if you can. Or even variations on pizza.

What’s a distinctive food where you live?

An alternative to suburban sprawl

For a while, she yearns to live in a normal neighborhood, somewhere near the golf course, rather than in their family’s little compound between the courthouse square and the college campus.

In my novel What’s Left, her close-knit extended family revolves around a large pink Victorian house her great-grandparents purchased when the neighborhood was falling into decline. In Greek-American tradition, though, it was perfect for housing more than a nuclear family, plus any number of guests. Not just grandparents or great-grandparents, either, but siblings and their spouses and children. What a circus!

I can’t really imagine this in a typical suburb, though maybe a little further out on a farm. But then, in Cassia’s case, they’d be too far from the restaurant where they work.

I’m so glad they saved this from becoming a funeral parlor or law offices, aren’t you?

~*~

The neighborhood’s one thing. The homes within it, another.

What’s your favorite place in the house?

Why tribe? As a poet once asked … 

In my novel What’s Left, she has every reason to proclaim:

Nobody breathes a word about hippie. We’re simply ever so hip.

She and her brothers and cousins had their own style and direction, apart from whatever their parents had done. And the quip didn’t survive into the final version of the text.

Still, though, if you look to the time of the pivotal Woodstock music festival , you might ask if we were trying to be neo-mountain men or newly converted Amerindians or spaced-out yogis or cool Victorians (without the inhibitions) or liberated urbanites or … ? Well, a huge stream of historic inspiration fed into the movement, and we were willing to play with just about any wild expressive fashion.

What’s easily overlooked is how huge the role of the Gypsy – or, more correctly, Roma – was.

The very term Boho or Bohemian – as in Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, dealing with starving underground artists in Paris – has far more to do with the Roma than with any geographic region of eastern Europe. Even Brahms’ famous Hungarian Rhapsodies are code words for Gypsy violin music. As for Spanish flamenco? Ditto. Play your guitar, if you will, or dance wildly.

So underground artists are …? You got it.

And here, drafting and revising my novel I found myself forced to ask:

Why are they so widely romanticized?

And why are they so widely reviled?

As Cassia investigates her father’s reasons for moving into the extended family where she’s grown up, she digs far beyond his counterculture inclinations.

Well, for a hint, here’s something else I cut from the final version:

The scandals, according to Nita? I’m not going there. Not that any of it was bad, on the contrary. There’s just too much to delve into now. And then, despite herself, she does.

~*~

Like Cassia’s father, I did live in a rundown farm where we all split the rent. And like him, I later lived in a monastic setting, where ours was based on yoga and its Hindu writings rather than Buddhism.

Not all hippies veered off in those directions.

Have you ever wanted to live in a Gypsy wagon? How about a tree house?

Tackling the family photos together

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, her aunt Nita becomes an active instigator of the project that leads the adolescent girl to closely examine her father’s photographs. Another change is that Cassia’s best friend and cousin, Sandra, joins in with second opinions.

Here are some passages that were no longer needed like this in that final edition:

What happens in that process flips our usual pattern of interacting.  Strengthens our bond. Forget Theos Barney and Theos Tito – they’re usually too busy to answer my inquiries, but after listening closely to Thea Nita, I have a sense they just don’t know as much detail as she does. Not just the Baba years, either. She’s filled me in on Ari and Perry and Athina and Dida and Ilias and Maria and Stavros and Bella. She knew them all, and was old enough to see much. Even so, she’s anxious to uncover as much about them as much as I do, which adds to our working together as a team.

~*~

She was particularly close to Dimitri, too. When they were apart, from college on, they corresponded in long weekly letters that often included newspaper clippings, and she’s promised to let me examine that collection when I’m ready. There’s so much on my plate already.

~*~

Bit by bit, the puzzles fit together enough to hint at the bigger picture, even around huge gaps that remain.

~*~

Always the news hound, Thea Nita confides to me the difficulty she’s had in digging up the few details she passes on, and, as she emphasizes, some of the conclusions remain conjectural. Add to that a few documents passed down in the family and some letters we still need to translate. A timeline takes shape.

~*~

So much of what I’m telling you comes down through Papou Ilias, Thea Nita tells me, explaining how many times they’d sit down together and his observations would flow on and on in response to her questions. As she says, he obviously admired Ari and Perry – and as a philosopher, he had to be true to the line of questioning, no matter how discomforting the conclusions may seem.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

In assembling these family pictures, then, Cassia comes to appreciate how important the word pictures are in giving life to the visual images. Both are essential for what she’s pursuing.

~*~

As a child, I never really understood the definitions of aunts, uncles, cousins, much less how we fit together. But we weren’t close, either, and had very little in common. Do you think Cassia’s loss make her more attentive to her family connections? Does she just know too much for her age?