Why Fred Has No Empathy

Birthing season at the farm always comes with a certain amount of rejection and heartache. Since I’ve switched to sheep from dairy goats at least I don’t have to convince bewildered first-time milkers to jump immediately onto a stand. Our sheep seem hardier than our goats and so far they are better mothers, but there is one black sheep (Kelly) who tries but fails to be as good as her peers. In life equality in the eyes of the law is different from equality of ability and its rewards. Life is unfair. The sheep deal with it (as far as I can tell).

The other morning Kelly gave birth to two mocha-toned lambs and a stunning black ram lamb. He was a little groggy that morning so I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. He’s on my lap now. Kelly didn’t mind him at first but after a few hours of him unsuccessfully searching for her teat Kelly was done. And when I say done, I mean really done, like slamming-the-little-guy-up-against-the-wall done.

I scooped up the victim of inequality into my arms and whisked him into the house. My daughters fell in love with the weakened creature I’d already named PRINCE ANDREI (the jury is still out–will our prince live or die?).

Out in the barn Kelly seems to adore her other children. With animals we say that instinctively they sense the weaknesses of their offspring and make the tough calls. Humans don’t do this–or do they?

On one hand, humans have written tragic and inspiring stories about sickly, beautiful people (Prince Andrei). On the other we rationalize exterminating people either because they don’t share our viewpoints or because they are mentally or physically deficient(to put them out of their perceived misery).

Did you know that mentally or physically weaker children have a higher likelihood of being abused by a parent? Many times siblings are spared the rod while one child is made victim.

In a very micro way I saw this play out in my own family. My father (and his father before him) blurred the lines quite often between teasing and severe verbal abuse. I learned early on how to manipulate the system by skirting rules and remaining in the shadows. I also played the good girl role. A sibling who was slow to develop verbal skills was subjected to constant verbal abuse, as was another sibling who had trouble with her weight. Another was just more sensitive  and was teased for her sensitivity.

In the few studies that I’ve found on the topic mental health professionals wonder what happens to the child who only watches the abuse of a sibling. The child has discovered a way of avoiding personal harm yet lives in a chaotic environment of constantly shifting alliances. The child is “friends” with the parent and feels guilty about their siblings.

In my case this led to a lack of empathy for my siblings who seemed to bring on the chaos. As a young child exposed to too many shows about humankind’s destruction of endangered species I felt a great sense of guilt for suffering furry things. I hated people and myself in particular. I bullied other children–especially my  best friend (who was also abused at home).

In my books Buck is the singled out CHILD OF ABUSE. Fred, his (evil?) twin, is the watcher. He’s the smart one who plays the game right and loses his ability to empathize with victims. As with all my characters, his is not a lost case. He has moments of love–especially for his twin–but his instincts for survival are too strong.

Sheep bash weak ones against hard things. Humans are special and different. Unlike sheep we are capable of seeing possibilities in the weakest of us. Going around bullying people is the easiest and stupidest thing we humans can choose to do (even if the person you want to kill voted for someone you hated).

There is no reason for us to act like a bunch of sheep. I don’t bully people anymore. My father not only teased us but also loved us deeply. I knew his flaws and still loved him. My siblings were obviously the victims of a behavior that was seen as perfectly normal and harmless–I see that now.

People and their relationships are so incredibly fascinating. The suffering, the resiliency, the love, the hate.

Sheep are cute but humans are so much more. The possibilities are endless.

SIBLING ABUSE WITNESSES

 

 

 

Family Histories: Paul Simon, John Gorka, Seamus Heaney, Slievenamon & My Dad

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today we have a wonderfully poignant (and musical) post by Thom Hickey. Originally published on his blog IMMORTAL JUKEBOX, this entry captures the love between father and son, with a decidedly Irish slant (which I really appreciate since my beloved father was also Irish).

I know you’ll enjoy this as much as I do!

It’s 28 years since my Dad died.

Yet, barely a day goes by without me remembering some saying of his or wondering what would he have made of the roller coaster of current events.

Each day, looking in the mirror, I resemble him more and more.

And, each day, I wish I could reach my hand out to hold his once more.

Until that day all I can do is remember him in my prayers, honour him in my actions and stumblingly capture him with my words.

Fathers and Sons. Sons and Fathers. Sons carry their Father’s in their bloodstream, in their mannerisms and gestures and in the echoing halls of their memories.

No matter what you do in life, no matter how radically you roam from where you started you remain in some part of you (in more parts that you usually like to acknowledge) your Father’s son.

The process of becoming a man might be defined as honouring and taking the best from the experiences of your Father’s life while finding through your own experiences the kind of man and Father you want to be yourself.

Coming to terms with your Father, the Son you were and are and the man and Father you have become is the work of a lifetime. A story that’s always unfolding, always being rewritten as you learn more about the man you are and understand more about the man your Father was.

Sons, schooled by the abrasive tides of life, sometimes learn to have a certain humility about the easy certainties of their youth as to who their Fathers was and what made him that way. It’s easy to be a Father until you become one.

‘What did I know? What did I know of
Love’s austere and lonely offices?’ (Robert Hayden)

Sons writing about Father’s is one of the great themes of all literature and songwriting because that story is always current, always unfolding, always full to the brim with all that is human in all its bloody and terrible glory.

No two stories of Fathers and Sons are the same though most will recognise something of themselves in every story.

Here’s a cry from the soul. Paul Simon’s, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ from his aptly titled, ‘Hearts And Bones’ record. Fathers and Sons – Hearts and Bones, Hearts and Bones.

Sons never know when they will need to call for their Fathers to appear in their dreams.

‘They say the left side of the brain dominates the right
And the right side has to labor through the long and speechless night
In the night my Father came and held me to his chest.
He said there’s not much more that you can do
Go Home and get some rest.’

 

 

The song about Father’s and Sons that grips my heart every time I hear it and which calls to me in the middle of the night is John Gorka’s, ‘The Mercy Of The Wheels’.

Forgive the initially muffled sound.

‘I’d like to catch a train that could go back in time
That could make a lot of stops along the way
I would go to see my Father with the eyes he left behind
I would go for all the words I’d like to say
And I ‘d take along a sandwich and a picture of my girl
And show them all that I made out OK’

 

 

I miss my Father. My Dad.

I miss the smell of Old Holborn tobacco as he smoked one of his thin roll your own cigarettes.

I miss the days of childhood when I would buy him a pouch of Old Holborn for Father’s Day.

I miss getting up in the middle of the night with him to hear crackly radio commentaries on Muhammad Ali fights.

I miss the early Sunday mornings when we walked to a church two parishes away because he had been advised to walk a lot after his heart attack.

I miss hearing him roar home Lester Piggott as he brought the Vincent O’Brien horse into the lead in The Derby with half a furlong to go!

I miss hearing him say, ‘There’ll never be another like him’ as Jimmy Greaves scored another nonchalant goal for Spurs.

I miss hearing him say, ‘That was a complete waste of electricity’ as he glanced at the TV screen as some worthy drama concluded.

I miss sharing a pot of very, very strong tea with him well before six o clock in the morning – because as anyone with any sense knew the best of the day was gone before most people bothered to open an eye.

I miss sitting with him in easeful silence.

I miss him always expecting me to come top in every exam while always expecting me not to count on that.

I miss his indulgence in Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars.

I miss him saying, ‘You’ll be fine so ..’ whenever I had to face a daunting new challenge in life.

I miss him calling out the names of the men who worked with him on the building sites – Toher and Boucher and O’ Rahilly with me double checking the spellings as we filled out (creatively) the time sheets accounting for every hour of effort in the working week

I miss watching him expertly navigating his way to a green field site not marked on any map to start a new job and then watching him get hopelessly lost a mile from home on a shopping trip

I miss watching his delight as David Carradine in the TV show Kung Fu, unarmed, took on another gang of armed swaggering bullies and reduced them to whimpers in a few moments – ‘You watch he’ll be catching bullets next’.

I miss hearing his wholly unexpected but wholly accurate estimation of Bruce Springsteen’s cultural importance when seeing him featured on a news special when he first came to England: ‘He’ll never be Elvis’

I miss the way he remained a proud Tipperary man and Irishman despite living for more than 40 years in England.

I miss his quiet certainty that there was an after life – a world where Father’s and Sons divided by death could meet again.

I regret not being able to introduce him to the beautiful woman who, amazingly, wanted to be and became my wife.

I regret not watching him watch my Daughter and my Son grow up into their glorious selves.

I regret not watching him enjoying the pleasures of retirement and old age.

I miss alternating between thinking I was nothing like him and thinking I was exactly like him!

I miss the shyness of his smile.

I miss the sound of his voice.

I miss the touch of his leathery hands.

I miss the way he swept his left hand back across his thinning scalp when he was tired (exactly as I do now).

I miss the sound of my name when he said it.

I miss my Dad.

My dad lies in the green pastures of his beloved Tipperary now under the sheltering slopes of Slievenamon (he would never have forgiven me had he been buried anywhere else!)

You can almost hear this song echoing in the silence all around him.

I walked many roads with my Father.

I’ve walked many miles without him by my side now (though I sometimes feel his presence).

I hope I have many miles to walk until I join him again.

As I walk I will lean on him as I face the twists, turns and trip hazards ahead, accompanied by the words of Seamus Heaney:

‘Dangerous pavements … But this year I face the ice with my Father’s stick’

Thanks to Martin Doyle for featuring this tribute in The Irish Times.

My Dad would have been very proud to see it there.

 

***Featured Image: Portrait of Alexander J. Cassat and His Son Robert Kelso Cassatt: 1884-85 by Mary Cassatt

How Will You Live in Old Age?

Some people seem to take years to die. In my family members crash and burn. One moment my father was cooking burgers on the grill for my son, the next he was dying of a heart attack. Aside from dying while sleeping, this is the best way to go, though it’s a shock to those left behind.

In novels, the excruciatingly slow death is my favorite. I’ll mention Prince Andrei in WAR AND PEACE as my personal favorite, gut-wrenching death. I cried over him (as some of you may know) for weeks. Yes, weeks. I hardly cried at all over my father because my morbid imagination had prepared me for his passing since worrying about it all through childhood. It was no secret that we loved each other immensely so perhaps that gave me peace. I also decided that I wanted to appear stoic yet stylish like Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Funny what your brain and heart do to get you through tragedy.

In my first novel I kill off a couple of characters. One dies in true Victorian fashion, lingering until the right words are said. Another dies suddenly of a heart attack. People exit. It’s part of the human story. Until recently many people lived with disfigurement and death as kissing cousins.

On Sunday my husband made a rare request.

He’s at a crossroads in his career. He’s searching for meaning. His proud and independent-minded parents are struggling to survive a few states away. One with painful blood cancer and the other with multiple issues only made worse by loneliness and depression after years caring for her suffering husband.

My husband wanted to visit the local nursing home nestled in the mountains of Washington County. He asked me to come. My first thought was to tell him talking to sick, old people wasn’t my thing and that I’d planned a day of reading by the fire. But, as I’ve said, my husband rarely makes requests. My daughter joked that we’d be the Will and Kate of Upstate New York. I practiced my royal wave in my Sunday best with a laugh.

Our pastor occasionally visits the home on Sundays. He had invited my husband to come by since we live five minutes from the place.

“It will only take half an hour,” my husband said to reassure us both as we walked down a long hallway with large windows and geraniums blooming on the sills.

One old soul napped in a wheelchair beside the main desk. She wore a faded pink sweatshirt and her hair went in every direction. The place smelled of housecleaning fluids and medicinal things only old people and doctors know about. We followed the booming voice of our pastor. We arrived a few minutes late for the gathering and tip-toed to a couple of chairs behind about twenty people in wheelchairs. Our pastor joked with them, shook hands and led them in singing old Christian hymns. And then he left.

One of the old men, in a hurry to get back to his room, smashed his wheelchair into a younger man who appeared to have had a brain injury. My husband jumped to his feet, took charge of the situation and wheeled the man where he wanted to go. I smiled as I watched my husband in his element (I’m the sort who tends to witness things happening with a detached inability to step in).

Just as my husband returned, and I zipped my coat to go, another man with a fake leg wheeled over to us.

“I need to talk to you. I said to myself if someone doesn’t talk to these two they may never want to come back.”

All thoughts of reading by the fire slipped away. In an instant this bunch of wheelchairs became people. I cast a sheepish look my husband’s way, but he was already engaged in talk about the old man’s life as a dairy farmer. Despite the fact that he was only just recovering from an amputation, Walter wanted us to know that he was still a farmer and that he was planning to walk again soon. I hate awkward silences because I feel the need to fill them which exhausts me. I needn’t have worried. Walter and my usually quiet husband talked tractors and milk prices. I wanted to take Walter home after only a few minutes.

All the while a lady stared at us as if waiting in line to speak with royalty. It was a little unnerving and humbling. After Walter went to get his snack of Lorna Doone Cookies and juice, Nancy waited for us to make the first move. We shook hands.

“I just said to your pastor that if his church wanted to do good he needed to remember us.”

I considered our pastor’s busy schedule. I considered that when writing one of my novels I got rid of a character by sending her to a home for the aged. I couldn’t keep her because she had too much wisdom and spunk and the other characters needed to remain stupid and inexperienced for the story to move forward.

Someone took Nancy to the beauty parlor or had someone come in to give her highlights. Grey hairs mixed with the blond strands but her face appeared young—maybe 50-ish. Her hands shook and her back curved unnaturally.

“You keep animals?” she asked. “My father was a farmer. He got me on a horse when I was three. Once my horse spooked and dove into the Mohawk River with me on back.”

“Were you scared?”

“No,” she said wistfully. “I was never scared when my father was around.” Nancy sensed we were uncomfortable with what seemed a sad remark. “I still intend to ride again someday.”

The characters in my novels lead busy lives. They mention the old folks’ home once in a while but they never go to see how their loved one is doing. My father’s last words to my mother were: “I always loved you best. Tell the kids I loved them all the same.”

I wonder how I’ll feel if I end up in a nursing home. Will I welcome the rest and solitude? Will I fight for coffee or tea with my crappy cookies? My daughter says she’ll keep me in her home and we’ll die together like Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (my daughter has a flair for the dramatic).

On the drive home my husband asked if I’d like to come with him again next weekend. How could I say no?

LINK: SENIOR LIVING 1800-1900

MORBID DEATH CUSTOMS FROM THE VICTORIAN ERA

THE UNSETTLING ART OF DEATH PHOTOGRAPHY

 

Fiction: Letting the Cat out of the Bag

 

William, Lieutenant Fahy and the missionaries head for the San Carlos Indian Reservation but are surprised by a cat.

“Hey there, Bill. Are you holding up all right?” Fahy asked every so often as he trotted by on his sturdy mount.

William had long since stopped answering. Determined not to fall out before the skeptical missionaries in the heat, William needed every bit of strength and concentration. Out of the army and into this pointless endeavor. What had he been thinking? Kenyon on the move was hardly friendly—all business and chat with the sneering religious men William already hated.

As much as his body ached, William dreaded stopping as the sun rose overhead. What would he do for small talk? What if his sketches didn’t please Kenyon? Finally the old yet surprisingly fit missionaries called a halt for noon dinner.

“So Bill, how’s the leg?” Fahy asked again after tying his horse to the rickety old army ambulance carrying supplies.

“My leg is FINE!” William said. “It’s my head that aches listening to you!”

“Suffering the after effects of the bottle you traded for at the sutler’s this morning?” Fahy asked, patting the rump of his horse.

The missionaries turned to Kenyon who waved off their concerns. “Mr. Weldon knows our agreement and will stick to it.”

The men eyed William suspiciously.

“Oh, will you lighten up, Bill,” Fahy moaned. “I’ve got a surprise for you all.” He went to the back of one of the wagons and helped Miss Peckham climb out.

She grinned. “Boys, you shouldn’t stare—it’s rude.”

“Why, Miss Peckham! And in men’s duds! Kenyon, did you know about this too?” asked a missionary.

“No! I’d never have a girl along!”

“Dear Mr. Kenyon, I’m a full-grown woman!”

“A mature lady would not put in jeopardy the work of men!” Kenyon said. “Fahy, why on earth have you done this?”

“Oh, what’s the bloody harm in it? Miss Peckham wants to study Indians and we’re going the same way. What sort of gentleman would I be if I let her set out on her own?”

“I won’t be a speck of a nuisance, I promise,” Miss Peckham said, pulling a cowhand hat over her eyes. “I have my own gun and can take care of myself.”

“Then why on earth come with us?” Kenyon asked.

“Connections, of course. If I come with military and missions men—not to mention a friend of Captain Bourke’s—who would dare deny me at San Carlos?”

“Well now, everyone, don’t be such humbugs,” Fahy said. “I’ll take her back with me once you’ve settled in. After all, the Indians might enjoy someone like Miss Peckham—she may be of use to us.”

“Does Thankful know?” William asked.

“No, and why should she?” Fahy replied. “She’s the type to squeal—I was saving her from any discomfort . . .”

“Yes, I think she’d be uncomfortable,” William said.

“Weldon, mind your own damned business—go get drunk or something.”

“Men, stop bickering. I’ve a headache already,” Miss Peckham said. “And Bill, not to worry. I’m along for business, not pleasure. As handsome as the lieutenant is I have no interest in him in that way.”

“Well, I guess we can all rest easy and have something to eat,” said Kenyon, throwing the tin plates and utensils on an old army blanket.

The missionaries passed around canned meat and said grace with heads bowed as Peckham and Fahy exchanged amused glances.

William’s blood boiled. “What’s so damned funny?” he asked.

Kenyon and his missionaries glared at the three young people.

“Oh, Bill, give us a rest. My apologies, Kenyon, but I’m not one for grace— I’monly here as escort,” Fahy said.

“Mr. Weldon, dear, it’s sweet to see you so changed and defending your employer, but it’s childish to create a scene. Have you been sneaking spirits?” Miss Peckham asked.

“No. But you shouldn’t look down on everyone.”

“Bill, you’re such a simple man. It warms my heart. For your sake I will try to do better,” Fahy said.

William stood too quickly and almost fell over the picnic blanket. Peckham and Fahy tittered as he walked off.

“What people laugh at a cripple?” Kenyon asked, climbing to his feet. “I’ve lost my appetite.”

“People in these parts are so thin-skinned! I suppose it was cruel to laugh, but I couldn’t help it. Nerves maybe it was—and the heat. My brain is fried,” Miss Peckham complained.

“Now, don’t go losing that mind of yours. It’s your most attractive feature,” Fahy said. “And Bill deserves any embarrassment he gets. I’ve never met such a hopeless case as him—revolting!”

“I agree—and do you really find my intelligence attractive, sir?” Miss Peckham asked, with a wink.

The missionaries ate lunch, feigning disinterest.

“Hmm. Of course I do,” Fahy said backing away a little.

“So many men are intimidated by my ideas.”

“Well, Americans are so puritanical—not like us Europeans,” Fahy said.

“You’re Irish.” Miss Peckham poked him with her finger.

“You’re sharp as nails, miss,” Fahy laughed. “Anyway, I pride myself on being open-minded.”

“I’m glad not all men are afraid to accept women as equals.”

Fahy drank long from his mug. “We should get moving.”

“Oh dear, so soon? Riding in the ambulance is dreadfully oppressive.” She ran her hand over Fahy’s. “Is there any way I could convince you to allow me to ride just a little while on your fine horse?”

Fahy slipped his hand out from under hers, gathered his things and got to his feet. “Now, that’s out of the question, I’m afraid. No one rides Iollan but me.”

Miss Peckham followed after him. “Won’t you give me a ride yourself? Sir?”

Fahy laughed. “Miss Peckham . . .”

“You may call me Gertie.” She grinned and once more ran her fingers over his hand. “How can I convince you? I really want a ride awfully much and you’re so good at it. Only let me feel it once—to sit with you.”

Fahy took her hand. “Miss . . . Gertie . . . I’m engaged to Thankful . . . I . . .”

“Of course. But no one has to know.” Her one free hand felt under his army blouse.

“So you don’t mean the horse then . . . do you?”

Miss Peckham laughed. “I imagined you were clever! I’ve seen how you look at me.”

He blushed. “No, I really haven’t . . . I . . .”

Miss Peckham kissed him before he could finish.

“Jeasus, you sure are different.” He pulled away flustered and rubbing his forehead. “I didn’t think you were much interested in men and marriage.”

“I’m not interested in marriage—but I enjoy the way a man’s body works as much as the next girl.”

“Thankful doesn’t seem to,” Fahy blurted out, regretting it at once.

“I’d rather not know about. . .”

“Oh, oh, yes, of course . . . how silly of me.” Fahy glanced around.

“We could be very discrete,” Miss Peckham whispered.

“Miss Peckham, I don’t know what to say. It’s not that the offer doesn’t interest me—greatly—but I’m in love with Thankful and . . .”

“I didn’t realize you were such a foolish romantic. But I could show you what women enjoy.” She dragged him behind the wagon.

“Fahy! Lieutenant Fahy! We should be off,” Kenyon called.

“Shit. Listen miss. I’m sorry  . . .” He kissed Peckham’s forehead and dashed around the ambulance to the men waiting.

“Where is she?” Kenyon asked.

“Suppose she’s waiting in the ambulance,” Fahy said, red-faced and ill-humored. “Kenyon, I’m sorry to have let her come. It was foolish of me.”

“Mr. Fahy, I’m sure you thought you were doing what’s best. The girl’s a helpless wreck.”

“How so?”

Kenyon laughed. “I can smell bullshit a mile away and Miss Peckham is full of it.”

“You just don’t like her,” Fahy said, adjusting his horse’s stirrups.

“A woman all on her own,” Kenyon replied. “She can’t be trusted.”

“What about Thankful?”

“Please tell me you see a difference. Your Thankful knows her place. She would never do anything improper.”

***Featured image: The Kiss, Edvard Munch

PREVIOUS EPISODE

BUY THE SERIES TODAY!

“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”

 

5 Horrible Things I’m Grateful For

What are you really grateful for? No. I don’t mean the usual things we all say when asked on Thanksgiving Day. Family. Friends. Health. We used to just eat on Thanksgiving, but somewhere along the way a family member introduced a toast and the awkward asking everyone to come up with something they were grateful for.

When family eyes turned to me I’d say I was grateful for family or health or friends. It was the same for everyone at the table. Anything beyond those three words opened a person up to shame-laden teasing. I think we all imagined baring our souls but in the end couldn’t.

Here are a few things I’m grateful for:

TICKS. Well, not really. Ticks are gross. They carry disease. I have the disease–in fact I have THREE tick diseases. Health wake-up calls are good things. With my NEW DIET and Chinese herbal cures I feel better than I’ve felt in years! Yay, ticks!

PTSD. Again, not really a fun thing. The foster kid has it so we thought a therapy dog might help. Elizabeth the GOLDEN RETRIEVER arrived. Can anyone say anything bad about a golden retriever? No.

BAD BOOK REVIEWS. They’re mood killers, for sure, BUT they’re also reminders that you had the guts to publish. They motivate us to finally get proper editing done.

ABANDONED ANIMALS. This one is truly awful, but, for those of us who enjoy rescuing them, these animals are a blessing.

008WINTER. Some people hate the cold. And the dark. And the cold. Enter wood stoves and lounging dogs in front of wood stoves.

***Just thought of another one: Messy childhoods are great for writers! I’m really grateful for mine!

How about you? What unusual things are you grateful for this year?

 

MORE LINKS:

DUCK RESCUE

WINTER IN OCTOBER

PUPPY PICTURES

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Rumi

One day a young Henry James (Senior) saved a barn and possibly all Albany from fire. Henry, the son of a self-made and emotionally distant man, was already a secret alcoholic early in his teen years. (Here I remember my first love drinking stolen vodka from an emptied salad dressing bottle on our first date–a bicycle ride to a nearby park at the age of 13). In the 1830’s everyone drank. Not everyone became an alcoholic.

Henry, though sent to good schools and housed in good neighborhoods, hung with the wilder prep-school boys. Seeing pictures of his more famous sons,  William and Henry Jr., I think we can gather that he was a good-looking and rakish teenager when his life was changed forever by a science experiment gone wrong.

IMG_4088Henry’s science teacher gathered the boys on a lawn near the school to fly tiny hot air balloons and when one caught fire the boys probably thrilled at the display until the wind carried the fireball into the stable hayloft nearby. Maybe Henry thought of the horses housed below, maybe he thought of the school and the city, but whatever he thought of, it propelled him to race into the stable, climb the ladder and stomp out the fire. I imagine the other students cheering on his reckless bravery and even Henry’s own heart thrilling at his heroism.

But Henry’s trousers had the oil from the experiment still on them and within seconds young Henry’s legs were aflame. The fire was put out and Henry was dragged away in unimaginable agony. Robust young boys don’t like to sit still, but Henry lay bedridden for months. Infection set in. The doctor, with heavy heart, cut as little of Henry’s rotting leg away as possible. Infection set in again, but this time most of the boy’s leg was taken.

For months Henry, in dark loneliness, contemplated life. We have no idea exactly what he or his parents thought about those teen years, but we do know that Henry married, traveled, hobnobbed with literary greats and infected his two oldest boys with great intelligence, great drives and sad yearnings.

Henry spent his life consumed with the desire to prove himself great–and masculine. Great men wrote great books, gave moving speeches and stood on their own two feet. They went to war and made money. Henry did none of these things. His own mediocrity and  striving may have led to his sons’ greatness but not to his own happiness.

Where is the line between self-awareness and self-absorption? I heard someone recently say that life is about finding out who you are and that the more knowledge you have about yourself, the happier you’ll be. Is this true?

Henry seemed oblivious to how his obsessive search for self left his children conflicted and unsteady. I wonder if this search for inner enlightenment is just a limitless black hole.

There’s a simple way to escape this, but it’s not easy. One has to believe that there is meaning in suffering and that God accepts us AS-IS. I find the second part harder than the first.

I’d love to know what you think. Has suffering in your life led to absorption or enlightenment? How does one counter self-absorption without a sense of God and a moral universe? How do we even know that we’re self-absorbed when we’re self-absorbed?

***Inspiration for this post: House of Wits by Paul Fisher

THE DYSFUNCTIONAL JAMESES

THE MEANING OF SUFFERING

 

 

 

 

My Life Mission Is Soon To Be Accomplished

MY MESSAGE TO EVERYONE is to NEVER STOP SEEKING PURPOSE! Never settle for what others think is enough for you.

For most of my life I drifted with that uneasy feeling of never finding a life purpose. As a purpose-driven person I dove deep into things I was only mildly interested in and relationships that were fascinating but dysfunctional. At the time these weird relationships and ridiculous career choices were only slightly amusing–to others. Family and friends thought I was successful enough. They thought I was too serious. I was doing pretty normal things fairly well, but internally I was in a constant state of unrest.

Then I wrote a novel about life, family, love and addiction. One hundred pages into the first draft I knew, I really knew, that I’d found my purpose–or that I’d finally listened to the inner voice given to me at birth. And now with the end of one long novel about an addicted soldier and his wife and a series about their offspring coming to a close after 5 books, I’m satisfied.

This doesn’t mean I plan to die from Lyme complications or that I’m tired of writing, but if I had to stop after I publish the novel I’m editing right now, I’d be okay. Before I was never okay. I was a caged tiger, a malnourished creative and a diamond in the rough.

Some people who like epic sagas loved THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD (a few didn’t). The next books  starting with WEARY OF RUNNING are shorter and possibly better, but I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish writing the series I’ve hardly talked about all the fun, sad and exciting characters who’ve become a second family to me. Now I know what happens to them all, and I can’t wait to share them with the world.

I don’t know where I end, but it’s okay. It really is.

My mission was to write imperfect characters. That I’ve done. Will readers understand the hearts hidden behind pride, fear, stupidity and a desperate need for love and meaning? I hope so. The mission was (and is) to take imperfect people and let them know they are loved. I love them.

My fantastic designer and I decided with the series nearing completion that it was time to re-do the covers. They so fantastically capture the spirit of the books I have a hard time not bringing them into every conversation I have with strangers.

Aren’t they beautiful?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

 

Family Histories: The Jelly Glass

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

We start off the series with a story by Sharon Bonin-Pratt about an unpleasant trip to Grandma’s house:

Judy often spent the weekends with her paternal grandparents, dropped off by a mother so indifferent to her needs that she never knew where she was going.

Not told to pack a book, a clean pair of panties, or a toothbrush, her mom pulled out of the driveway as soon as the car door slammed. Twenty minutes later, she traipsed into her Bubbie’s kitchen. Bubbie probably said something in her Yiddish-New Jersey accent but Judy never remembered what. It was never, “Mort, look who’s here. Neshomeleh, glad you came.” No, not that. She would remember being called “darling.”

Years later she realized her parents enjoyed adventurous fun with her younger brother and sister on those weekends while she dusted Bubbie’s fragile porcelain tchotchkies and ran the Bissell over the worn rugs. Zaydeh’s accent growled with warning. “Judy, don’t bang the table.” Though she never did while maneuvering the sweeper. At ten, she knew to go slow, to be careful.

Then she sat in the living room, engulfed by Zaydeh’s cigar smoke with its rotting food stink, crossing and uncrossing her legs because there was nothing to do. Her grandparents hadn’t kept kids’ toys or books. Moving from house to house every two years or so required scaling down. Toys would have been an extravagance to cart around. If the weather was warm, she was allowed to walk outside but her grandparents lived in the dying neighborhoods of aging residents, children long grown and moved out. “Don’t wander away, Judith.” As if there was some place wonderful to go. Someone to visit.

So she sat on the steps at one house, in the crab grass of another, on the Southern-style porch of the house she loved most, and watched summer days wander across the sky, as bored as she was. “Judy, don’t touch that.” Either one might have ordered her though other than dusting, she rarely touched anything. But she looked – at clouds meandering toward the horizon, at the elaborate pattern of heavy drapes at the windows, at the splendor of sunlight blazing through the stained glass panel on the stair landing. There was little to touch after all.

Judy was the quiet child who spoke when spoken to, who startled easily, but also laughed hysterically over incidents others found only mildly funny. She was the unwanted one, foolish enough to have been born female at the wrong time to a mother too young, to a father too busy to notice. She was the child who ruined everything, so her mother said.

The oldest in her generation, she watched as newborn cousins were celebrated by the family. “Judy, don’t touch the baby.” That she heard from everyone, though she would have held her cousins lovingly. Had she been allowed.

Zaydeh’s indifference proved a wall she couldn’t breach. She gave up trying. Bubbie at least might show a caring side if Judy worked at being sweet. So she dried the dishes and tried to eat food she could barely swallow. A skinny kid with no appetite, she couldn’t tolerate runny eggs, or anything with mashed potato texture, and meat fat that made her gag. Still, she was stubborn about refusing food.  “Judith, eat your dinner, for crying out loud. Other kids would be happy to eat this.”

“Leave her alone, Mort. She doesn’t want it.”

“Don’t give her anything else, Bassie . She’ll eat what she gets or nothing.”

One of the last weekends she spent with her grandparents was in 1958 when they lived near the train tracks in an apartment that rattled with every pass of the rail cars. She

peered out the kitchen window but was not allowed in the back yard near the tracks. Too dangerous. Side by side in the kitchen, she and Bubbie chatted about school and the little cousins. Bubbie no longer put eggs on her plate, as much to avoid Judy’s tears as Zaydeh’s hollering. She washed dishes, old enough to handle the plates so they didn’t break. Still she heard, “Judy, don’t chip the edges.”

She asked before taking anything, but Bubbie was still probably surprised when she wanted a glass of milk that afternoon. She didn’t like it without chocolate syrup which Bubbie didn’t have, but also didn’t like warm tap water. Her grandmother nodded but as Judy began to pour the milk into a glass, Bubbie yelled.

“Not that one. What are you, meshugeneh?”

She wasn’t crazy but couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong.

“Now you got to bury it in the yard. Away from the house.”

She held up the jelly glass, saved after the grape jelly was gone. Not wanting to waste the milk, she started to drink it.

Oy gevalt. Don’t drink that.”

Zaydeh stomped into the kitchen to see what tsouris she’d caused, then glared when Bubbie grabbed the glass to pour the milk in the sink. Anger blazed like she’d seen on her mom’s face but never before on Bubbie’s.

“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know better?” Bubbie’s nostrils flared. Fury from the one who got annoyed but never angry. What had Judy done?

From Zaydeh the dark expression was familiar. He barked, “A broch, don’t you know any better? You don’t put milk in a fleishik glass.”

Judith was Jewish on both sides of her family but they were about as observant as their Protestant neighbor. They weren’t Orthodox, didn’t keep kosher. Though she knew every curse, swear word, and nasty expression in Yiddish, she didn’t know the difference between milchik and fleishik – milk and dairy dishes. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, but was otherwise foggy about what it meant to be Jewish. At Yom Kippur the previous September, the holiest day of the Jewish year, it was a Catholic classmate who told her she should have been in temple with nearly all the rest of the kids. At Judy’s house, they also drank out of saved jelly glasses, but forget milchik or fleishik. Her parents understood little of Jewish faith or customs.

Trembling, she trudged to the back yard of the house near the railroad tracks. They’d given her a large spoon to dig with, and she knelt amidst the Queen Anne’s lace, shoving the spoon in the dirt and thrusting out clods. Tears made it hard to see, and maybe her snuffling blocked the chug of the train as it passed.

Zaydeh poked his head out the back door. “Stop making such a big megillah out of a little work. You’re lazy, just like your mom says.”

How to explain she wasn’t crying over the task of burying the glass, but for the loss of respect by the person she’d grown to love, who she thought loved her? Three weeks the glass would have to stay buried until it could be unearthed and used for the correct meal.

Judy never got the chance to show Bubbie she was a person worth talking to, worth sharing household chores with, worth loving. That was one of the very last weekends she spent with her grandparents.

In a few months Judy’s family moved to Arizona, two years later to California. She visited her grandparents only once more when she was nearly eighteen and her family flew to New Jersey to celebrate her brother’s bar mitzvah. Judy never pulled the jelly glass out of the ground or said the blessing to make it kosher. She wondered if it remained buried under Queen Anne’s Lace.

Now a grandmother herself, she is still trying to figure out why she’s peculiar, a stranger to most people, even those who think they know her well. Still sometimes using the wrong glass.

Sharon Bonin-Pratt, July 2017

***Please stop by next Sunday for the next Family Histories guest post!

forget me not promo

 

Save

Save

Save

A Mother Who Read to Me

mother and daughter

The Reading Mother

by

Strickland Gillilan

I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,
“Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.

I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.

I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness blent with his final breath.

I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings–
Stories that stir with an upward touch,
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be–
I had a Mother who read to me.