A case of real life intersecting fiction

One of the many things I like about using the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to Google is that its home page includes Pocket, an informative selection of intelligent, substantive articles, many drawn from magazine archives, rather than fluff about celebrities and sports.

This morning’s Pocket, for example, included a 2015 Narratively article by Lilly Dancyger, “Planning My Father-Daughter Dance Without My Dad.”

What especially caught my attention was the ways Lilly’s experience intersected with my novel, What’s Left.

Like Cassia in the book, Lilly lost her father to death when she was 11, and like Cassia, she dressed largely in black for years afterward. (Whew! Confirmation I had that part right.)

Unlike my novel’s character, though, Lilly dropped out of high school, sought relief in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and embraced a dim future. The homeless were some of her favorite companions.

In contrast, Cassia had a large extended family that stayed with her, even when she kept pushing them away. Yes, she had struggles with her mother much like Lilly’s, and she skirted some of the self-destructive behavior, but each of the three aunts on her mother’s side of the family found ways during her difficult teen years to break through to her, as did several of her first-cousins. In today’s world, few are so fortunate, not with our fractured nuclear households.

Moreover, through her aunt Nita, Cassia also had her father’s trove of his professional photography to sift through, each shot reflecting his thoughts and feelings.

What Lilly presents – and I didn’t – is the workings of guilt within a survivor. As she declares, it merely “isn’t just about feeling unjustly lucky to have lived while someone else died; it’s guilt for going on without them, guilt for changing and growing and becoming a person they never knew. Any milestone is tinged with their absence, any joy feels like a betrayal, like you’ve forgotten them, if only for long enough to laugh at a good joke or enjoy a good meal. But as long as you’re in mourning, your life is still about them, and in that way, they’re still there.”

Lilly’s experience came to a head in planning for her wedding and trying to decide who would walk her down the aisle, if anyone, and who would share that first dance with her at the reception.

That wasn’t the case with Cassia, who instead chose to remain single. But Lilly’s words burn, all the same, as they point to another dimension my novel might have developed.

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?

 

Ten favorite gifts

Reflecting on gift-giving has me thinking of some great hits over the past few years.

Here are ten.

  1. The squirrel-proof bird feeder. We all enjoy watching the birds and their drama, but watching an unsuspecting squirrel be shut down is especially comical.
  2. Annual pass to the indoor swimming pool. It was a gentle nudge to get me exercising again and drew on one activity I had enjoyed as a child.
  3. Fire digital tablet. I have a lot to learn yet, but it’s been great for streaming music – radio stations whose FM signals don’t reach here, especially.
  4. External speaker for my computer. A big help with my daily Spanish lessons.
  5. Olympus digital camera. You see the improvement here at the blog.
  6. Wool socks and other clothing. Staying comfortably warm is a big deal where we live.
  7. Leather-covered journals from Venice. Souvenirs from a daughter’s two trips to Italy. I’ve saved those two volumes for special times in my own life.
  8. Books and recordings. Especially when they show that someone’s been listening to my rambling.
  9. Martini glasses from yard sales. Look, some of them are likely to get broken during the year, but they’re usually fun to use up till then – and knowing they didn’t cost an arm and a leg, I don’t feel bad in bidding that one farewell and moving on to another.
  10. Prime rib dinner. Homemade, with a chewy red wine. For us, it’s an annual splurge on my birthday.

What are favorites you’ve received?

 

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?

Ten surefire gifts

Who are we trying to fool? Selecting the appropriate gift requires an uncanny understanding of the intended recipient, and even then and in the right hands, it’s highly risky.

The closest success in this field that I recall hearing involved a coworker who was at a unique point in his love life. He wound up buying three identical items at Victoria’s Secret. Need I explain? Things were quite different after Christmas.

And even then, not everyone would want to receive one of those wrapped intimacies.

So let’s think of ten factors to consider.

  1. Does the recipient already own this? Oops! How well do you know this person, anyway? Well enough to go through their shelves or closet?
  2. Or even want it? Not every woman likes getting flowers or chocolate. Not all that many guys do, either. As for kids?
  3. The dollar signs. Some people measure your affection by your willingness to shell out on a big gift. Others see it as trying to buy their love. Gift cards, by the way, often go unused. Retailers are not a charity. Don’t go overboard, OK?
  4. Is it a suitable surprise? One they might actually use? Your grandmother will likely be surprised by that box of golf balls but never set foot anywhere near a tee. Yard sales are full of these misfires, often still in their original wrappings.
  5. Does it say something about your relationship? Some of the best gifts are things you can enjoy together. Jigsaw puzzles, for example, can keep everyone going, especially during the holidays.
  6. Not everyone appreciates receiving a homemade present, but for others, it’s the ultimate. One friend’s woodworking skills are especially anticipated. Pie boxes, anyone?
  7. There’s something to be said for gifts that won’t take up space. Things you can eat or drink, for instance. Tickets to upcoming events. (In my part of the universe, few things would beat a pair of seats at a Red Sox-Yankees game.) Museum memberships or contributions to causes they support may also be welcome.
  8. Does it improve the quality of their life? My family has edged me upward in the digital world this way.
  9. Hobby gear. Think sports equipment, cooking gadgets, sewing supplies, arts and crafts, gardening, and so on.
  10. Dream fulfillment. Was there something they wanted as a child but never got?

What other considerations would you suggest?