THE ULTIMATE FLOWER CHILD

In my new novel, What’s Left, her aunt Pia is the epitome of bohemian possibility, even after being scorched by its downside. She’s the one who’s lived on communes; in contrast, Cassia’s father and aunt Nita had merely paid their share on an abandoned farm filled with other hip renters. Pia’s the one who witnessed drug busts and overdoses or worse, she simply went hungry.

As she recovers in the midst of Cassia’s extended family, her bohemian tastes find welcome expression in food and fabric and childlike wonder, especially. She’s hardworking and responsible, especially amid the circus she creates.

For Cassia’s generation, of course, hippie is old hat. But her aunt Pia is someone they see as special. Wouldn’t you?

~*~

Watching Pia was like watching a flower emerge from the soil and then bloom. The girl arrives destitute and broken and is given space to heal or regroup.

Whatever haven we offer is gratefully embraced.

She mends clothes. Tends the garden. Sits with us as we ride our White Cloud thrones.

~*~

I can’t evade the question any longer. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “hippie”? Do you prefer “boho”? Or does some other term work better these days? Is it positive … or negative?

~*~

Pikilia, an assortment of Greek appetizers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In the family, Cassia may have had food like this.

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MORE THAN WE’LL EVER KNOW

I’ll have to leave detailed accounts of first-generation Greek immigrants to America to others who have truly intimate material to draw from. Simply portraying the relocation of my mainstream grandparents from a Midwestern farm to a nearby city would prove difficult to pull off.

Still, in my new novel, What’s Left, I find enough to suggest some of Cassia’s great-grandparents’ possible experiences and achievements. She has reason to take pride in what they’ve established for her extended close family. It was, after all, one place her father-to-be would fit well, despite his initial resistance. And now she’s struggling to make sense of it all, especially in her circle of siblings and cousins.

~*~

Not everyone who came to America dissolved into the melting pot concept. Still, they had to sacrifice something. The question just might be, How much?

Extend that to our own personal identities.

What’s your idea of “normal”? How well do you fit in?

~*~

A young Greek-American immigrant on Ellis Island, New York late 19th-20th century. (Hulton Archive via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included scenes like this.

CHARTING THEIR COURSE

As Cassia reconstructs the household when her father-to-be first shows up, she sees multiple currents in motion.

As she observed in an earlier version of my new novel, What’s Left:

Dimitri’s primarily about family duty. Too many have worked too hard to get us here. For Barney, that’s steam and splatter and sudsy sinks. Tito and Manoula are essentially on hold, preparing for their own futures – college for her, law school for him.

~*~

In another version of the story, Tito and Manoula’s futures could have been thwarted at this point. Dimitri may have required their help in the restaurant and real estate ventures.

Something similar happened with my grandfather, whose classroom education ended at elementary school because he was needed on the farm. Later, though, he did learn the plumbing trade from his two older brothers.

With Cassia’s family, though, they were agreed on a plan. They all worked together to assure it.

What’s your No. 1 goal these days? What support do you need? How are you arranging it?

~*~

Ring dancing at Greek Fest, New Orleans. (Photo by Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this.

COUSINS WHO COUNT

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

Could I have directed my new novel, What’s Left, to move straight from her loss at age 11 into her subsequent growth within her close-knit circle of cousins?

Since so much of their group identity depends on the family restaurant where they all work at some point in their youth and the big Victorian house where they gather and many of them still live, this would nevertheless require some hints of the history of their being where they are – and who they are – pretty close to the top of the story anyway, plus far more detail about the cousins and their parents than I now need to engage in the opening chapters.

As a writer, I’m left wondering how I’d ever introduce all of this at once and still have you readers following the narrative. A related challenge would be any attempt to work our way back through the family history, like an archaeologist, layer by layer, rather than jumping down to the trunk of her family in the New World and moving upward from there. There are many sound reasons for presenting a history chronologically, after all. Especially when past events help us more clearly understand where we are and who we are now.

~*~

Well, you can check out the book as it stands.

The story, of course, turns toward the crucial decisions they’ll face. Will Cassia and her cousins ever live up to their family’s resourceful and romantic roots? Will they be able to take their legacy to greater heights?

What would you do in their place, given their resources? Stay and work in the restaurant and real estate? Start something of your own while living close at hand? Or head off for careers and family elsewhere?

WHEN THREE’S NOT A CROWD

For me, her uncle Tito originates as a problematic character. I have no idea what prompted me to create him nearly five decades ago in the closing chapter of my first published novel, but he does change the dynamic of the family that Cassia’s father-to-be joins.

Having five siblings rather than four avoids the symmetry of two brothers and two sisters, for one thing, and as an odd number, five pushes us away from possible gridlock. But advancing the story another generation, as I do in my new novel, What’s Left, means we’ll have more characters to follow, once we add spouses and children.

Without him, my new novel would be tighter, since all of Cassia’s close cousins would come from Barney and Pia. Well, maybe Dimitri and/or Nita would have to be recast, too, losing some of the story’s diversity and depth. The plot itself would likely pivot on the sibling rivalry of Dimitri and Barney, and I’m not sure we’d have the impetus for expanding the family enterprise that I, for one, find exciting. The status quo could continue, with the story’s focus on day to day interactions more than transformation of the larger community. The mantle of patriarch, too, would fall differently.

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MAINTAINING THE BUZZ

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

Successful restaurants, or so I’ve read, can go downhill overnight. The public can be fickle, on one side, and the operation itself, on the other, can implode. Oh, the stories we could tell!

In my new novel, What’s Left, her parents’ generation takes bold steps to anticipate changes in American food tastes. They brazenly agree to slightly re-position their landmark burger-and-fries restaurant (now called Carmichael’s Indiana) and the bar (the Taverna) while adding two new venues, one upscale (Carmichael’s Starlight), the other vegetarian (Bliss).

~*~

Though I cut this from the final version, I still love the taste of it on me tongue:

And the new Carmichael’s Stardust usually offered something daring, for our neck of the woods, depending on how we were feeling and how adventurous our customers were responding. Lamb shanks, anyone? Artichokes? Cornish hens? Brussels sprouts? We were expanding their horizons.

~*~

Well, that would have been pretty daring for the mid-’70s! We’ve come a long way since, something I’ll assume the Stardust menu has pursued. Vegetarian, meanwhile, has become both stricter and more innovative through its vegan adherents. I’m not at all surprised to find how often our meals fall into its range, even without trying. As for a late-night gathering spot? The Taverna strikes me as a step up from a typical bar. Makes me think, in fact, of the late lamented Barley Pub here in town.

Think of your own tastes. Which of the restaurants would be your first choice?

A WORKING MOTHER, ALL THE SAME

Cassia gets her name from the flowering acacia tree. The honey locust is a related species.

Bella is a grandmother Cassia never meets in the flesh in my new novel, What’s Left, but she’s a vivid figure in the granddaughter’s life all the same.

Bella comes to be the colorful face of the family restaurant, Carmichael’s, a woman who seems to know everybody in town and brightens their lives as soon as they walk through the door.

She may be the mother of five children, but somehow she manages to juggle both work and family – perhaps thanks to the older generation’s active support.

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