The Gift of Story

Child development professionals agree that reading and telling stories to children builds motivation, curiosity and memory. It also helps children cope during times of stress or anxiety, and creates a relationship with books and fosters a sense of being loved and nurtured. As a small child, stories and books were a slim bridge between me and my father. After I became an adult, they were a life-line. He could be an eloquent speaker if he was engaged in a discussion about the interpretation of some bit of Bible scripture, but he was not a conversationalist with his children about everyday events. Most evenings after supper, he withdrew into the Encyclopedia Britannica until it was time for me and my brothers to go to bed. Then, at our bedside, he magically became an animated storyteller of tales by Thornton Burgess, along with Bible stories. I don’t remember that he held a book but it was dark. As I pulled the covers up to my chin in the blackness of our tiny room with barely enough space for our three small beds, he would start with a dose of biblical lore, perhaps Daniel in the lion’s den or Jesus with the moneylenders, and then launch into the adventures of Sammy Jay, Blackie Crow, or Mr. Toad. The details were colorful and precise. I could see the forest creatures in their hats and vests as Dad spoke, and I imagined them cavorting in the woods outside our window. The next day my brothers and I combed the backyard for evidence that Uncle Billy Possum or Bobby Coon had been there as Dad had described. My older brother might spot a […]

Brothers and Sisters

My brother Sam would be 67 today, November 21, 2016. He died from AIDS while still young and handsome at the age of thirty-nine in 1989.  We were very close, in spite of a sibling scrimmage now and then. When we were growing up, I seemed to be the person he preferred to fight with, but also the person he came to whenever he got into difficulty. He was fiercely competitive with me throughout our lives, about everything from my doll collection to Christmas tree decorating to who had the better education.  My first memory from childhood was about Sam, a scowling baby sitting in our red flyer wagon. I remember his dying words, too. He said, “I’m trying to dial 1954, but I can’t get through.” Eventually, I had to write my memory of his life in order to approach understanding what he was trying to say. I was honored to have my essay about our life as brother and sister, Sam’s Way,  published in The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 2012), and doubly honored when it was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013. Writing our story was a way to bring him back into the world – and it worked. Many people who had known him contacted me and I had lots of great conversations about what a funny, courageous, difficult and generous person he was. In honor of Sam, I’ll be making his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing today and thinking about all the beautiful and talented people who were lost to a horrendous disease. Happy birthday, Sammy. Wish you were here. [caption id=”attachment_1061″ align=”alignright” […]

Blue Holidays: A Season for Emotion

The holidays are coming. Supermarkets are stocking up on turkeys and hams. Towers of candy wrapped in silver and gold are springing up in stores. Evergreens will soon scent the air with pine, and bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa Clauses will pierce our ears with reminders to be generous and give to the poor. Sights, sounds and smells can trigger happy memories – along with sadness and anxiety. I asked friends if they could describe some of these emotions. A sense of loss was number one – loss of family members, good friends, traditions, and “place” for those who live far from home. Some described certain people who were beacons for celebrating and enjoying a holiday; people who were the life of the party. (I remember my younger brother’s enthusiasm for decorating the house and the Christmas tree – even though we used to argue about it!) One friend described her husband (now deceased) as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. Since he died, it’s been difficult for her to get into the Christmas spirit. A young mother said that, since her husband’s death in the Iraq war, her sadness intensifies at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young when he died to remember him during his favorite holiday. Some people expressed an overwhelming feeling of expectation, that holidays require being social and happy, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all of this in a short period of […]

Truth Be Told

“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.” It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might  remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after. Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.” In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of […]

Fathers, Sons, and Daughters

Approaching Father’s Day, I scan the years that I shared with my father, remembering the handkerchiefs, the ties, the cuff links, the homemade cards, the terrible black walnut cake I proudly presented him with one year,  but the same unanswered questions bubble up. I have no doubt of his goodness, however I still wonder about the inner life of this person I knew for the first thirty-five years of my life. He died young by today’s standards, only sixty-one, as a result of falling from a roof he was shingling. He took risks, one of them being his intolerance for safety harnesses when working on the top of a three-story building. He often commented about the birds he had seen and heard while working high above the ground: sea gulls, mourning doves, mocking birds – even an owl at dusk. Perhaps he began to identify with creatures who could fly and that reduced his need to be safe with a tether. My appreciation for mountain tops may have come from my father’s unabashed fearlessness of high places, but I never went to a mountain with him during his life. I remember only watching him from the ground as he strolled across a building truss, using his arms for balance, looking like a visitor from Ringling Brothers circus rather than the father of four children. Jess Maghan, in his book Forty Sons and Daughters: Finding Father Within, eloquently expresses through vignettes of forty sons and daughters describing their fathers, the contemplations we can have about our parent. In the preface to the book, he says, “Leaning over the coffin, saying my final good-bye, I reached in […]