Monday, October 31, 2016

An Autumn Afternoon at the Athenaeum

"Haunted House 3D" by Karen Burene (see artist bio below article);
https://www.flickr.com/photos/chaoticartworks
 
An Autumn Afternoon at the Athenaeum

By Nicole M. Bouchard

Once upon a gray New England day dreary, I wandered bewitched, quite cold and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of beloved lore in the Athenaeum…

The labyrinthine streets of the east side make up a living, harried maze of movement, traveling up and down steep hills, and around tight, sharp corners, heavily populated with college students, professors, natives and tourists. These streets are as precarious as they are pretty; there is often little regard for traffic laws, including a peculiar preference of pedestrians to walk out in front of cars quite suddenly as though oblivious to their existence, trying to be fashionably dissident, or in perpetual search of an adrenaline rush.

Buildings over a century old frame the area, their paternal, seasoned presence bestowing caring and censorious gazes, sometimes both at once. From earlier ages, they may not quite grasp green hair and ear buds tuning out the world and running through traffic, but home to some of the finest schools in the country, they simply aim to educate, understanding that children will go their own way. Their structural constancy assures a measure of order in ever-changing seasons and eras. As did their human forebears, they reign in a growing, bustling new world with precise lines, strict paths, and cloistered proximity. There always exists an attractive juxtaposition of historic and modern-day in Providence.

On a Saturday, there is an elevated kind of momentum in the city—an elixir of excitement evaporated into the air and rained back down on the masses to cure all manner of doldrums. It’s one that I’ve drunk many a time over the years, and recently having learned the legend of the fountain at the Athenaeum, I quite agree that there is something, once tasted, that brings one back to Rhode Island.

The Saturday I wish to share with you, was no different in this, spare for the fact that the effect seemed somehow magnified. The winds seemed to recall something wild and their exuberant dance through the streets—sending up blizzards of golden leaves—seemed to defy the sober structures with their subtle palettes against a dark lead gray sky. Young and old, on every sidewalk, were fighting their way forward through the turbulent unseen. As I ascended the Athenaeum steps, the wind seemed to switch allegiances, no longer a force of resistance, but a powerful shove to usher myself and my trusty assistant editor up and into the building. 

We looked at one another and smiled; two mirrors, one mother-daughter reflection with the matching thought of how perfect it was to have strange, cold, blustery weather while exploring a temple of books known to have been frequented by Poe. She reached for her camera, I reached for my notebook, and intent on discovery, we stepped inside.

Standing at the front, looking around and tilting my head back to see the exposed upper level, I was flooded with all my expectations and initial assessments. It seemed, however, that the weight of these and more, were inflicted back upon me. My observing eyes were being observed by the sculpted visages of the early officers of the Athenaeum, and famed greats of the past. In that moment, I stood as a stranger “whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” Shakespeare couldn’t help me then. They took stock of me as I took stock of their home. The observations weren’t as if to say, So, what do you think of our place? but rather, So, what do we think of you?

I imagine that there is a test upon entering. A kind of invisible barrier to pass through. At first, I’d thought it a function of my having been a first-timer. Yet I saw no one rushing in. Everyone seemed to linger near the entry—excited, tentative, reverent. Even those who were familiar visitors. I believe it is because it is a sacred space—it has been described as such in different centuries by a number of its prominent guests—and would-be parishioners respect this aspect with their pause.

I can only say that I must have met with some measure of approval, due to the richness of my experiences there. It unfolded to me in a way that was marked by meaning and wonder. How to describe a place like this?

I think it must mold to the individual visitor, becoming an extension of one’s own mind with hopes, dreams, memories, and passions, shelved and alphabetized accordingly. The way one walks through it, what they see, what they notice, follows a map only they can read. And I? I can only humbly describe what it was for me. For you, I’d wager that it would be another adventure altogether.

One wonders what it was like for the Dark Romantic master himself, Edgar Allan Poe, who, with poet Sarah Helen Whitman, saw the cultivation and ending of a courtship within its walls. How did it speak to H. P. Lovecraft, Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Is the building itself a story, or a collection of many that grows with every new footfall through its doors?

Given the diverse history and mysterious lore the Athenaeum is known for, the front glass case with its vintage costume ideas from the pages of decades past, struck me as a comparatively minor nod to Halloween. Charming to be sure, yet the building’s claim on associations with the holiday would seemingly be more extensive. I wasn’t yet aware of all the stories (these I’d discover later in researching for this piece), but there was a feeling that there was more. I found it in keeping with the way the entry told one to leave their preconceived notions at the door; the building would reveal its secrets in its own time in the subtle way truer “magic” does. A purposeful red herring? Perhaps. I didn’t know what I’d be in for, nor what I’d learn after the fact.

I was making my way around the front case to the side shelves displaying a myriad of topics to entice the passerby. The older volumes call to me; you know the look of them, the worn covers, the smell of the pages, the tea-stain tint around the margins. Gorgeous things. So many beautifully preserved that I hardly knew where to start. Luckily, the library told me. What else for a French woman who loves history to find first but a book from 1902 on Napoleon? Whatever the opinions of this controversial figure, never have I seen such human engravings that appeared to stare out of the page, past the skin, into the very spirit. Another instance where I the observer, felt as though I’d become the observed. These images were of the intensity and vulnerability of the man, not the legend, viscerally portrayed. If historic figures were given voice, only if for a moment, I could imagine it happening there in that space.

Agreeing to meet my mother, who would be joined by my father on yet another level of the Athenaeum, I heeded the strong call to the upper tier. Tiny, narrow passageways threaded themselves between what I liked thinking of as open stalls of books with small wooden writing desks that faced outward across the way, visible to the main floor. Mainly thin, dim, nearly dark in some corners, the passageways require deliberate, paced steps and along the way, one might fancy that they could encounter anyone or anything from any time period at any given moment. Scanning the shelves felt like reading names of old friends. I was greeted at the top of the steps by the Bronte sisters. I found my way to the affecting sculptress, Camille Claudel. I took the biography of Claudel with me and walked until I found an unoccupied alcove. I treaded lightly so as not to disturb others as I passed.

I sat at my writing desk, removed my coat and scarf, and placing the book down, took a good look around me. The beauty of it all, the cozy lighting, the endless books, engaging sculptures, all the old world charm would make any book lover feel at home. I turned to study the titles that framed my alcove and found what I’d been thinking about the week prior. I have it as a life goal to visit the UK. I’d been hearing about one area in particular, running it over in my mind. Now, dear readers, I can swear to you that I did not choose to sit in a spot devoted to books on Scotland, but then, that’s hardly the most curious thing I may ask you to believe about my time in that desk.

I laid out my small notebook and pen, choosing to jot down some notes for this piece after reading the book on Claudel for awhile. I was looking across at others in their desks on the other side of the Athenaeum, all of us under the same tender spell that comes of a romance with words. The intoxicating quiet was not to last. I heard heavy footsteps and imagined other impassioned readers tramping through the narrow passageways along the map lines of their own odysseys. The passageways run behind each alcove, so I wasn’t facing the sound. Again, the sound came, yet this time, into my alcove. I admit I was selfish about my embracing space, and, though errant readers had every right to the books on the shelves surrounding me, I was a bit cross about my meditative space being encroached upon. I waited. The footsteps came up behind my chair. Ha! I grinned because I then knew it had to be one of my party sneaking up on me to give me a pre-Halloween jolt. I’d get the better of them. I whipped around about to say something and saw no one.

Considering the layout and the nearness of everything, I knew my ears could be misleading me. There were people going back and forth time to time along the floors behind me and this was a case of oversensitive senses. Back to writing. Again, loud steps over my shoulder. I thought it was like a game to turn fast enough to see who was walking past and catch myself in this silliness. I’d not only turn around this time, I’d listen for the footsteps leaving and going onto another alcove. I used to love reading mysteries when I was little and using reason to foster explanations. Faster this time. No one. Nothing. No retreating steps. I thought it strange, but not overly so. I stayed and wrote a bit more, then gathered up my things. I’d felt comfortable in the alcove. Content. It wouldn’t be until about a week later when I would Google the building and read three articles discussing it supposedly being haunted with one of the trademarks being heavy footsteps in the alcoves on the second floor. At least I didn’t see the moving books that were mentioned.

I did, however, get to see early architectural plans for the building laid out in another alcove before going down to the main level and taking the stairs to the lower level to rejoin my group. I was enchanted not in spite of, but perhaps because of the peculiarities. There’s a streak of gray sky in the blood of any born New Englander. We like things a little interesting.

Descending from the upper tier to the main level, down the wooden staircase to the floor below, I was met with a portrait of Washington. He presides over the reading room. His open, outstretched hand appears to gesture toward a quill, books, and a scroll in the painting. It reminded me of the power of words to forge a nation and influence the future. Timely, no? Thank you, George, I thought as I stopped to note my impressions. We writers must always be cognizant of the privilege and responsibility of our vocation. Words are wonderful and formidable things. So too, should public speakers/figures remain aware of this privilege and responsibility to use words well. Come November, “the people” will have spoken, but whatever the outcome, as it always has around the world, it falls to the writers and artists of every age to help shape the times, represent the human condition, and give voice to the unheard.

Scanning the shelves, I looked for a volume to take with me to the table where I’d rejoin my family and swap experiences. White letters on a black spine sparked recognition. Poe. Ah. There you are. I’d hoped to see his signature on display, yet was informed that due to the condition of the documents, it had to be retired a few years ago. I was promised a look at photographs and copies before leaving, but I was intent on finding something particular to him during my visit. Finding a place at the table, following some conversation, I opened what was a book of his critical essays. The page I opened to had a quote that made me think he’d been watching the recent political campaigns and televised debates. It read as an eloquent admonishment, but reinforced the heart of liberty. I doubt if there’s anyone, living or deceased, that doesn’t have something to say about all this, but the sheer chance of opening to that page made it feel as though there was a discussion going on.

The discussion must have continued itself in my thoughts as I drifted off on my own again to explore. There was an open door leading to an elegant space empty spare for the books on the shelves, some stacked chairs toward the back, a few low tables toward the front, and my solitary presence. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be in there; there had been an event earlier and it was now emptied, significantly cooler than the other rooms. A few fellow bibliophiles peaked in the doorway, but seeing no one but the pacing young woman madly scribbling in her notebook, they left.

There was what I recall to have been early literature from countries and cultures across the globe, those at peace, those in conflict, all neatly standing together. It caused me to reflect on how our forms of expression, our universal experiences, emotions, qualities, unite us, and how these similarities and shared influences are easily seen in ancient texts. There is a oneness we are quick to forget, but walk into a library and it’s all there on display within a room, upon a shelf. There is a peaceful simplicity in this; would that it could extend outward into the overtended fields of belief where complexity is sown. Yet that is what these sacred places are for; we can find the sunlight inside a library on a dark day.

With internal inquires of a more personal nature, I was drawn to the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke; a bilingual edition translated by Edward Snow. I transcribed what I opened to by hand, relishing the experience of pen to paper vs. the highly efficient yet less stimulating typing or copy/paste of computer notes. The hand-eye movement of such a task involves the cerebral cortex that includes sensory associations and, as recent studies suggest, long-term memory. A reason why a number of writers still write by hand. What I found was this:

Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape
and the little churchyard with its lamenting names
and the terrible reticent gorge in which the others
end: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lay ourselves down again and again
among the flowers, and look up into the sky. —“Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape” from Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow. Translation copyright © 1996 by Edward Snow.

Yes, toward it we venture “again and again, even though we know love’s landscape.” This would be all the more meaningful when I later read about the Athenaeum’s own love story.

Not getting ahead of myself, however, I want to include what I felt before leaving the reading room at closing time. I exited the side room, asked questions of staff about exhibits, and returned to the table where I and my family started to gather up our things as it was announced that the library would be closing shortly. There, in the silver light coming through the large, stately windows, was a hypnotic pull that told me not to head upstairs just yet. I followed no more than a feeling to a corner, quite sure that somewhere behind the chair and lamp, there would be something of significance. I put out my hand, closed my eyes, and touched the nearest book I could reach. Frost.

Suddenly I was eleven years old in my elementary school library. I remember the dark wood, the exact place on which shelf from which I first drew forth the work of Robert Frost. The book was yellow ochre in hue and its title poem, “The Road Not Taken” would be a kind of life guide in later years or a hint of paths I’d make and “that has made all the difference.” I was an avid reader from an early age, but it was that day that I fell deeply in love with poetry, understanding just how it could understand me.

My day was ending by bringing me back to a beginning. I felt as though I’d visited with near and dear friends, words restoring and rejuvenating me down to my core.

Only one thing further I desired before I left the Athenaeum.

I went to the front desk and asked to see Poe’s signature. A binder was brought out with photographs and copies of what Poe had signed, what he had read, and a poem of significance to his relationship with Ms. Whitman. I lingered over it all for a time and reluctantly relinquished it as the building had very nearly emptied. I joined my family outside and spare for the warm memory of the visit, thought my adventure of the day to be through.

It was later as I read more about the building, the courtship between Poe and Whitman, and re-read the text of the poem I’d glimpsed in the binder, that the significance settled in.

Edgar Allan Poe first glimpsed Sarah Helen Whitman at home in her rose garden while he was out walking with a friend. Their path to love was sure but not steady. On Valentine’s Day, Whitman recited a poem she’d written in tribute to Poe at a gathering she expected him to attend, unaware that he had not been invited. He learned of the poem and responded in kind, yet did so anonymously, referencing the day he saw her in her garden. They would officially meet some time later and these meetings culminated in a graveyard marriage proposal. The engagement was discouraged, particularly by those close to Whitman. She wrote to express said doubts, but love letters and visitations cemented the bond. They spent time in the Athenaeum where Whitman frequently was found in a literary capacity. She mentioned a poem entitled “Ulalume” to Poe and he revealed himself as the author, signing it for her.

Still bearing past grief, there was a supposed suicide attempt on the part of Poe and some sources indicate that Whitman was by his side in recovery. Two days prior to their planned Christmas day wedding, the pair was nestled in an alcove of the Athenaeum. A messenger arrived with a letter that so disturbed Whitman, that she fled the building, calling off the wedding. The letter informed her that Poe had broken significant promises concerning sobriety and detailed his infractions. According to the Athenaeum history, she induced herself into a faint at her home, despite Poe’s efforts at consolation, and whispered the words “I love you,” before losing consciousness. They would not meet again. Less than ten months later, Poe died in Baltimore. Whitman remained true, continuing to defend Poe and his work for the remaining decades of her life.

Within the haunting legends, some say it is Poe himself that returns to the Athenaeum and walks the upstairs floors in the alcoves. Though I am at a loss as to explain my curious experience of footsteps heard without a clear owner, I would not dare to presume the honor of such a visit, but instead acknowledge the romantic in me that aches over their broken union. In re-reading “Ulalume” in “lonesome October,” I had a thought that the piece might have had another unintentional meaning.

It was published in December of 1847 and their discord occurred in December of 1848. The poem speaks about the significance of a year later, the same month (in the poem, as referenced above, October is the month). This is by no means any kind of complete or even slightly formal analysis, but just a notion of it being a kind of eerie foreshadowing. The meaning of the piece has been extensively debated. Though I know about what literal grief it could refer to given the loss of his wife, Virginia, I wonder if it is not so much about death, as it is about his relationship to love—a relationship marked by loss, but one, as with Rilke’s poem, that “again and again” is revisited with hope though we know “love’s landscape.”

The speaker talks of “beauty,” “hope,” “love in her luminous eyes,” and tries to comfort the misgivings of the soul, personified as Psyche. It would read as though trying for love again, yet his soul knowing it would not end well and that there would be loss as there was before, a pattern in his life, but of a different nature this time; this time, meeting his own end. The allusions to the “sinfully scintillant planet” Venus speak of trouble. It is interesting that Psyche is involved to represent his soul, because in certain versions of the myth, Venus, feeling provoked, sought to throw obstacles in the way of the union of her son, Cupid and Psyche, and it was said that Poe felt Whitman’s mother largely to blame for the downturn of their relationship. The poem speaks of what was “written” as the realization of tragedy occurs and it was with a letter that the engagement was dissolved.

Perhaps an unlikely theory, but it has to do with Poe after all, and the poem remains a mystery.

What I can say for certain is that my visit to the Athenaeum reflects the very nature of my love for literature and my native New England roots. It fitted itself to me, snug and warm, a black velvet embrace. It is a place that has a capacity to fill all the unnamed hollow spaces that get worn through in the wear and tear of everyday life. I understand why it fed the souls of the literary and why it is ageless. I know why it was called “holy” and as an ardent pilgrim, I will return there to pray, book placed between open palms.


Link for further info: https://providenceathenaeum.org/     


Artist Bio (for image above article):

Karen Burene is a self-taught artist living in southeast
Michigan. Her favorite genres are mixed media and
"altered" art but she also works with polymer clay,
digital art, and has recently taken an interest in making
jewelry. She drew from her early experiences in art class
at school, working with paper, cardboard, markers, and
glue.


Burene likes to incorporate items that would normally
be thrown away into her artwork—small pieces of lace,
ribbon, string, wire, cardboard from boxes, and any
other kind of found object might work. Her piece "Alice
in Wonderland" appeared in Somerset Studio Gallery
magazine Winter 2012.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

For the Glory of the Game

We received these poems from one of our regular contributors about a beloved pastime of our nation, and thought to do a summer feature about this game that inspires, that unifies—and in its essence, captured by imaginative minds in poetry, literature, and film, reflects the very heart of those who love it most.
 
Before we direct you to this tribute, placing you in the poetic hands of long-time WPWT contributor, Michael Ceraolo, we celebrate another unifying, shared love on this dynamic Fourth of July weekend as we report the "stats" of our magazine (debuted July 3rd, 2008). We've published 29 issues, over 338 contributing writers, 47+ interviews, 40+ artists/photographers, and have built countless incredible friendships along the way. We are a product of every person, every culture, and nation that has brought their profound literary and artistic meaning to our community. We celebrate our freedom to have created a publication that brings people together, moves readers, and cares deeply. We are a happy, harmonious melting pot, like our native land, yet honor all that makes our various facets and voices distinct. You've made a simple idea a home run and continue to do so just by joining us in the seasons of our growth. For this, we extend our deepest gratitude and want you to know we are very much your fans, too.
 
Baseball's origins are thought to stem from a mix of European influences and 18th and 19th century evolutions in New England and New York. It was a game that broke barriers, fostered devotion and connection across generations. The country, many of her families, grew alongside this game. When the Red Sox broke the "curse" in 2004, my family brought pennants and newspaper clippings to put on the graves of loved ones who didn't get to see the legacy they believed, rightly, would come to pass for their favorite team. There are lessons about love enduring, unconditional devotion, faith and more to be garnered from this game—according to some, it teaches philosophy, to others, aspects of theology, but beyond the sheer enjoyment it gives to many, it is about the exhilarating feel for the glory of the game and who you share the experience with.       

Poet Commentary: "Baseball has been important to me for a long time and in many ways. Figuring out batting averages, slugging percentages, and earned-run averages were great training in multiplication and division that has served me well. "Casey at the Bat" was probably the first adult poem I enjoyed. Baseball fandom has been an area of common ground with others, including family, when there was precious little common ground. I have always preferred to listen to games on the radio, and the broadcasts have served as the soundtrack of summer for me. I have always tried to picture past scenes and seasons as I've read about them, and naturally have imagined what baseball might be like in the future, including the far future long after I've ceased to be around. These three poems are part of a longer work where I've imagined how baseball might be in the future. Some of the things I've imagined are changes I approve of, while others are things I imagine could happen that I don't approve of. But don't expect me to say which changes fall into which category!"

Poetry by Michael Ceraolo


Retro Rule #1

It was never a part of baseball proper,
                                                      though
it had been a part of one of
the game's many ancestors:
the practice of soaking or plugging,
                                                   where
the batter or other baserunner could be retired
by being hit by a thrown ball
before reaching base

The Lords of the Realm,
seeing the increasing popularity
of football and other blood/combat sports
during the twenty-first century (Common Era),
made the bold reactionary move
and decided to bring back the practice
as a way to increase attendance,
                                                 forbidding
only the hitting of the runner in the head
And in a nice turnabout given
all the idioms borrowed from baseball,
they took a term from football
                                            (and
one that was a penalty to boot):
targeting
                Henceforth,
                                  a player
who successfully put out a baserunner this way
would be credited with a target
instead of a putout or assist


Retro Rule #2

The most eternal thing about the game
was the delicate balance between offense and defense,
especially as how that affected spectatorship
(it also affected how they promoted the game
as well as how much they paid the players,
but those were tied to spectatorship
in whatever medium)
                                Too little scoring,
and the fans stayed away,
                                       perceiving
the game to be boring;
                                 too much scoring,
and the fans stayed away because
of the game's interminable length
As the Second Deadball Era extended
to several decades in the third millennium
the Lords returned to the roots of the game
and banned gloves for the fielders
(players were allowed to wear gloves
for the protection of their hands,
                                               but
no pockets in which to catch a ball were allowed
First basemen and catchers who received
speedy throws were exceptions to the rule,
                                                               and
because of their proximity to batted balls,
pitchers were allowed the option of wearing
a glove with their mask and pads,
though nothing was mandated either way for them


Retro Rule #3

A third reversion, or retro rule change,
also had to do with bringing in more offense,
                                                                but
it was much more esoteric
than the first two reversions:
the return of the fair/foul basehit,
                                                where
a ball that hit in fair territory
but went into foul territory
before passing first of third base
was again considered a fair ball
                                                Because
the bunt had become almost a lost art,
at first the rule change had little effect,
                                                         rewarding
mostly fluky cue shots off the end of the bat
Soon enough though,
                                some proficient bunters
brought a modicum of offense back to the game
and were able to make a good living
and please the ghost of Ross Barnes

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Talking Through the Trees with Tracy Chevalier



Tracy Chevalier Interview
Cover image of At the Edge of the Orchard; http://www.tchevalier.com/
 
 
At the Edge of the Orchard (release date March 15th, 2016) is the latest novel from Tracy Chevalier, the NYT best-selling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring. Within this settler saga set amidst the juxtaposition of opportunity and struggle in the mid-nineteenth century, the quests for survival, growth, and flourishing in unforgiving and foreign landscapes, belong as much to the varieties of trees as they do to the individuals that foster them. 
 
Like the inner rings of the trees increasing over time, there is an internal ripple effect stemming from the dire discord of James and Sadie Goodenough, coming to bear as their youngest, Robert, must finally choose a course for his own destiny.
 
Rich with cultural and mythical symbolism as an “origin fruit,” the apple beats as the heart of the story with its timeless dichotomy of sweet and sour connotations—redemption, health, eternal youth, love, knowledge, sin, death, temptation and destruction. Apple trees were one of the first specimens of trees to be actively cultivated, and over millennia, have journeyed around the world.
 
As we in our native MA interview Chevalier who resides in England but is  returning to her country of origin on a visit  for her US book tour, it seems fitting to note that the earliest apple orchard in North America was planted by British settler, Reverend William Blackstone (Blaxton) right here in Boston, MA. At the Edge of the Orchard travels across the Atlantic to take root in our hearts and minds just in time for spring.
 
Coinciding with the book’s release, we are featuring this excerpt from our interview here on Inscribing Industry, our magazine’s associated blog. Our full interview will appear in the magazine website’s spring-summer anniversary issue due out on May 22nd which celebrates eight years and eighty countries. (See magazine link following interview excerpt)
 
In the exchange below, we ponder the formative uses of adversity in nature and man, gain perspective about the power of our roots as we place ourselves along the continuum of the past, and sift truth from myth through the textual history of the unsaid. 


Interview with Tracy Chevalier by Nicole M. Bouchard


             On parallel catalysts for growth applied to nature and mankind
 
In your soon-to-be-released novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, apple trees and sequoias flourish in environments far from their native lands. There is a dedication at the beginning of the book—“For Claire and Pascale, finding their way in the world”—that could easily also speak to a number of the protagonists in your novels who come into themselves once they cross oceans, city lines or thresholds, reminiscent of your own journey toward destiny from America to England. Plants and trees require space and light to grow. People require the kind of space that delineates their identity, be it a literal distance traveled or an interior journey precipitated by change,  inviting 'light' or 'illumination' of insight. Yet, another key component of growth, is metaphorically reflected in the findings of your research for the novel that revealed how sequoias require fire to not only release their seeds but to gain access to nutrients that help them sprout and develop. Further seemingly destructive forces that benefit plant life include lightning and lava. It begs a question about the seemingly destructive agents of change that benefit us. Given the dynamic forms of change that your memorable characters encounter, the internal and societal obstacles they overcome that shape them, do you feel that in likeness to trees and plant life, that the greatest growth of an individual is achieved by “space,” “light,” and  trial by fire?

Wow, that’s a good way of putting it! I admit, when I write a book, I do it by instinct, and analysis comes after. But that makes a lot of sense. One of the fascinating things I learned about redwoods and giant sequoias, for example, is that they actually NEED forest fires—the heat makes the cones burst and the seeds disperse. Plus fires clear the undergrowth and create nutrients (such as carbon) in the soil that helps the seeds to germinate. Now that we are controlling forest fires so much more, there are fewer seedlings growing in sequoia and redwood groves. That means further down the line there may be fewer trees to replace the old ones that die off. Interesting, eh?
 
In the same way, I suppose you could say that people grow through adversity—the old adage that “Suffering builds character.” I could never write a novel about characters that just are as they are—that would be boring. At least one character has to change, to grow—usually through suffering in some way. Robert Goodenough, the protagonist of Orchard, certainly does suffer. But that is how he grows.

             Pertaining to roots
 
Whereas the question above addresses change, travel and formative growth, roots are what anchor us; roots are a constant we carry and if the rest of life is a journey, roots that we set down are ultimately a destination we choose. The next to last few sentences of At the Edge of the Orchard seem to connote the idea of patience in the quest to find one’s place in the world: "Seeds could keep for a long time. All they needed was the right place to take root." Ella Turner of The Virgin Blue discovers the right place to take root when she returns to and embraces her original French roots. The story was inspired by your own family’s reunion and familial lore about fleeing religious persecution in the 16th century. You discuss on your website the concept of the stories, the “hopes and tragedies and obsessions” that are carried as emotional baggage along with the literal in moving place to place over the centuries. In terms of emotional inheritances, how do you believe one should go about embracing and learning from their roots while not being held by the heaviness of them so there is choice in where new roots are set down (as with Robert Goodenough in Orchard)?

I think our relationship to the past is always tricky. As you say, you want to know about it, learn from it, but not be weighed down by it. I do think that gaining an understanding of the past is crucial to becoming a more rounded person. It makes you place yourself along a continuum, and you become less self-centered once you realize you are just a speck along that line. It’s humbling, but it’s also freeing, because it’s not all about you! Once you step away from being the main actor in the play, you naturally lighten and can enjoy everything around you so much more.

•             Human truths in historical fiction
 
You’ve discussed wanting to include a more realistic, true-to-life portrayal of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) in Orchard after learning what lay beyond the commonly accepted myths of him. Michael Hirst (writer/producer of the Tudors series and writer for the film Elizabeth) shared in our 2010 interview his process of expressing the multi-dimensional humanity of historical figures, and how he ultimately found his Queen Elizabeth when he discovered the part of her that had not been portrayed, the unknown image of a young, vulnerable girl before the iconic queen all in white was painted with every previous portrait destroyed. He said, “I don’t choose subjects—they choose me.” A life-size portrait of Henry VIII taken from the set of Elizabeth resided in his office before he knew he would do The Tudors. In a similarly serendipitous vein, you came upon Nicholas Tournier’s work while writing Virgin Blue, his work fitting your story prior to your discovery of him. In your TED talk “Finding the Story Inside the Painting” you discuss the framework of what’s said in fact and what remains unsaid, our quest to fill in the answers/gap. Do you find that it is the historical fiction writer’s task to share their human interpretations of historical figures, attempting to use fiction to get closer to the unsaid, unspoken emotional/psychological truths—and, in the words of French New Wave cinematographer Robert Bresson,  to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”?

Yes, exactly that—I couldn’t have said it better myself! I love using historical figures to “anchor” my books, but I always look for the gaps and silences or the curiosities in a biography, and see if I can fill those gaps or tease out those curiosities. I probably never would have written Girl with a Pearl Earring if we had known loads about Vermeer. But the very sparsity of biographical detail (including who any of the people in his paintings were) made him much more tempting.
 
As for Johnny Appleseed: well, his story of spreading the healthy joy of growing and eating apples always seemed a little too good to be true to me, even as a child. Though I was pleased to hear that he did indeed go barefoot and wear a tin pot for a hat, I also loved the fact that he was quite a shrewd businessman, anticipating where settlers would go next and being there to sell them apple trees. He was also a Swedenborgian, one of life’s strange religious sects, and he plowed his profits back into spreading the word. Best of all, the trees he sold usually produced sour apples only good for making alcohol. He wasn’t spreading healthy eating, he was giving people the means to get drunk so they could get through their hard-scrabble lives. The truth is always more interesting than the myth!
 
Join us at The Write Place at the Write Time (www.thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org) for our spring-summer anniversary issue due out May 22nd to read the full interview!
 


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Guest Post on Writing Less to Say More

Silences and Whispers
 
by Carol Smallwood
 
"What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers." —Logan Pearsall Smith
 
"Literature is not a mere juggling of words; what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines." —Jorge Luis Borges
 
We want readers to understand what we write but often the best writing is only hinted, indirect. A writer can establish a level of trust with the reader by letting the reader know they assume the reader is capable of not needing to have everything spelled out and has enough sensibility to enter the writer's world. The balance is a delicate one; if the writer assumes too much knowledge on the part of the reader, it won't work. As a reader I enjoy sensing what the writer is saying by subtleness and the employment of nuances. That's what the best actors do: they don't shout what they're thinking, but a slight movement of a hand tells more than a long dialogue. The Mona Lisa's smile is a whisper that has kept viewers coming back to the painting. In classical music a few notes of a motif holds movements together. Rembrandt used light and shadow. Photographers use filters.
 
John Galsworthy in his 1915 Foreword to Green Mansions, the acclaimed novel by William Henry Hudson,  notes: "Style should not obtrude between a writer and his reader; it should be servant, not master. To use words so true and simple that they oppose no obstacle to the flow of thought and feeling from mind to mind, and yet by juxtaposition of word-sounds set up in the recipient continuing emotion or gratification . . . ." It reminds me of what another writer, Ernest Hemingway who would follow him, said about writing being true and simple. One of Hemingway's contemporaries, William Faulkner, wrote (a sentence I pondered for a long time) in Light in August: "Memory believes before knowing remembers."
     
Writers are lucky to have so many other writers to study and learn from and yet we must devise our own style, our own method of reaching readers. Each of us will have a different audience in our minds while writing and to this person or persons, we set our relationships. Our own understanding of what we are writing will guide what we say and how well the reader grasps it. I believe writers must think about what they want to write, spend most of their time brooding, hashing out things, and then write. By the time we get to putting words down, we should be ready so every word isn't like that saying about being as difficult as pulling of teeth. The Old Man and the Sea was written in a very short time because Hemingway said he had it in his mind before putting words down: it came easily. This classic has many layers, many whispers, and the reader easily enters the writer's world as he portrays his characters.  Maybe the whispers and silences are what Herman Melville meant in another classic, Moby Dick: "But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.  It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."
   
John Galsworthy is the writer I keep reading because each time I read a novel of his, I get something new from it. It could partly be because my frame of mind isn't the same but largely it's because he encourages the reader to share the subtle shades, atmosphere, and complexities of the world he creates. Work gently: less is more.

 
Bio- Carol Smallwood's most recent books include Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Communications, 2015); Women, Work, and the Web (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Writing After Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014); Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences (Lamar University Press, 2014).  Interweavings: Creative Nonfiction and In Hubble's Shadow are forthcoming from Shanti Arts. Carol, multi-nominee for the Pushcart, has founded, supports humane societies.

This is a guest post kindly contributed to Inscribing Industry. Content rights and responsibilities remain with the author.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Story for the Holidays

Photo: "Warmth of the Season" by Cathy McLain
 
 

Bethlehem on Madison Street

by Anita Solick Oswald

Staring at the ceiling didn’t help.  I tried lying very still under the silky magenta-colored down comforter, but it was no good.  I rubbed my feet on the sheets and tossed around. Counting sheep didn’t work.  Finally, I whispered to Barb.

“Still awake?”

“Yes, I can’t sleep.”

“Me neither.”

Although we usually pushed our bedtimes out as late as we could, Christmas Eve was different.  We’d donned our nightgowns without an argument and gone to bed early, hoping that we would fall asleep, wake up and it would be Christmas Day.  But our little girl excitement about the holiday and the gifts and visiting with family was proving to be too much.  We were both wide awake and Christmas Day wasn’t arriving any sooner.  From the living room, we heard the muted sounds of Rosemary Clooney’s Christmas carols coming from the television that Mom left on to keep her company when Daddy was at the firehouse.  Mom dozed on the couch; between the Coke and the M&Ms, she never slept well when Daddy was not home. 

Madison Street was quiet; a heavy, blowing snowfall muffled the sounds of the streetcar on its way to the barn.  Occasionally a car would drive by—maybe a fireman or policeman taking a few hours off to spend time with his kids?  Last minute shoppers had carted their packages home hours ago.  The shops and restaurants along our street always closed early so that the employees could spend Christmas Eve with their families. 

BZZZZZZZZZZ!  The buzzer squawked announcing a visitor.  I heard Mom mumble, “Who the heck is that now?” and shuffle down the long hall to the intercom.

“Who’s there?” Mom’s standard greeting was to the point.

“Who?  I can’t hear you.  Noreen?”

By then we’d snuck out of bed.  Barb and I peered down the hall, the thoroughfare that connected the rooms in our apartment.  Mom was in her nightgown, robe and slippers, hair in pin curls.  She’d lit a cigarette on her way down the hall.  She took a drag, pausing for a moment, and then yelled back in the intercom.

“Noreen, c’mon up.  I am going to buzz you in.” 

Mom hit the intercom buzzer that opened the heavy oak door in the tiled entryway to our apartments.  She walked to the front door and opened it.  By then we weren’t hiding—we wanted to know what was up.  We followed her to the door and waited to see who the nocturnal visitor was.  Mom leaned over the railing at the top of the stairs.  This was our extra security system.  If we bent over the banister at just the right angle, we could see people coming up the stairs before they saw us, giving us plenty of time to run in and slam the front door before they reached the top.  Mom often said, “If anyone wants to climb those three flights of stairs and steal something from this dump, they can have it.”  The heavy oak door of our apartment was impregnable and we always felt safe on the third floor. 

Slowly, breathing heavily, holding onto the banister for support, a tall, thin woman holding a paper sack in one hand ascended the stairs.  In the other, she held the hand of a little girl, smaller than Barb and I, but not a toddler.  Each step the woman took seemed more difficult for her.  When she got to the second story landing, where Mom could see her better, Mom hurried down the stairs to help her.  Mom took the child’s hand and the paper sack and led them up the stairs to our apartment.

Noreen stood in the entryway, perspiring, near the big walnut desk that held the telephone and served as a reception area for our guests.  Her coat was a thin, worn, loden green cloth coat, not much protection from the bleak Chicago winter outside.  She had no gloves or boots, and a rayon scarf was tied over her head and knotted at the chin.  Her daughter was dressed in warmer clothes, a snowsuit, mittens and boots.  The little girl yawned and leaned against her mother.  Noreen hesitated, embarrassed.

“I don’t want to get your floors wet.”

Mom replied, “Aw, don’t worry about this dump.  Come on in.  Stand on this rug while I get you some slippers.  Anita, go get the little girl—what’s your name?—a pair of your slippers.  I’m sorry, what’s your name, honey?  Christine?  Oh that’s pretty.  A pretty name for a pretty girl.  Your nickname is Cookie.  You’re my Christmas Cookie.” 

I ran to the bedroom closet and pulled out a pair of my old slippers, Chinese silk backless beauties with a rose embroidered across the toes that I had saved long after I grew out of them.  Gram and Gramps had purchased them for me when we visited San Francisco and I could not let them go.  I had huge feet that grew quickly for a small girl and, pretty soon after we bought them, my heels were hanging off the back of the slippers, so I put them away in the closet.  They were too big for the little girl, but I thought that maybe we could stuff them with toilet paper.

By the time I came back with the slippers, Mom had ushered our visitors into the living room, hung their coats in the bathroom, and was offering them goodies.

“Do you want a Coke?  How about some Christmas candy?  Some chips? Dip?”

Mom was no cook, but she always had a great supply of snacks available.  Noreen shook her head and declined softly.

“No, thank you, Helen.  We’re fine.”

It was pretty clear they weren’t.  The entry hall was dark but now I could see Noreen in a better light.  She was tall, very frail, and seemed timid.  Her hair was a mousy brown—once it must have been much lighter, and the hairstyle was dated, like the styles I saw in Mom’s old photos from the 1940s.  I thought she had a nice face, kind, with high cheekbones and she could have been attractive, but she was so slight.  That was saying something since our Mom was always skinny and prided herself on her petite frame.  Noreen wheezed and coughed, but her breathing seemed less labored now that she was resting on our sofa.  Her daughter, cheeks still rosy from the cold outside, curled up in the corner and promptly fell asleep, smiling, wearing my slippers. I poked Barb and gave her a knowing look and nodded. Mom won’t even let us sit on that sofa.  She must like this woman.  Some old friend?  No, she’s too young.  She looks familiar, though.  She seems to know me. 

Mom left us for a few minutes while she went to the kitchen to heat some coffee—she could drink coffee night or day.  Noreen smiled at Barb and me.

“You girls have gotten so big.  Do you remember me?  I used to play with you and read you stories sometimes.”

Then I recognized her.  And I felt shocked and sad.  Noreen lived in the apartment next door when Barb and I were tots.  She was a teenager then and had some kind of live-in arrangement with this couple that had two small children.  Even though I was quite young, I remember wondering why she wasn’t in school like my babysitters, and why she didn’t live with her parents.  I asked Mom one time and she said that Noreen’s parents were “drinkers and couldn’t take care of her” and that she’d been passed around to different relatives who did not want her.  Noreen was always nice to Barb and me, and when she was not working for the couple, she’d play games with us or read to us on the back porch or on the landing in between the two apartments.  Mom always had a soft spot for any person down on their luck, and she took a special interest in the young woman, giving her clothes and slipping her money sometimes, when she could afford to. 

Mom came back into the living room with the coffee and suddenly we were on her radar again.

“Why are you two up?  Get back in bed—NOW!”

We wanted to hear Noreen’s story, too, and why she was at our house on Christmas Eve instead of her own, but that was not going to happen.  Mom shooed us out of the living room and back to our bedroom.  It didn’t occur to me then, but she wanted to protect Noreen’s privacy and her feelings.  We would not hear her story until later.

I strained to hear what they were saying but the walls were thick and I couldn’t hear anything clearly without getting out of bed.  Mom had x-ray vision and she would know that I got up so I figured it was pointless.  Then Barb and I saw her walk down the hall and come back with a nightgown, blankets and pillows. 

I guessed that Noreen and Cookie would be staying the night.  That was no surprise.  We’d had many visitors staying with us over the years.  Mom always found the room.  We became aware of hushed conversations over the years between Mom and Dad. 

If someone was in trouble, if someone needed money or a place to stay—folks knew they could turn to Mom.  Daddy might protest a bit—“Helen, I can’t afford it.  I’m busting my butt now”—but he always came through and his second job at Bantam Books down by the Chicago River helped bail out those in need.  I don’t think my parents ever got the “loans” paid back and they never asked for repayment.  Mom had time for everyone.  All the down-on-their-luck men who lived in the flophouses along Skid row and haunted the bus stops in the Loop knew her by name.  They’d wave and call out, “Helen!” and for a moment a smile would come over their faces.  She knew all their stories; she loved to talk and always had a few bucks for every one of them.  It made her feel good to give.

I was drifting back to sleep when a thought alarmed me—we had no presents for Cookie!  I panicked.  What would we do?  It was too late to go shopping; the stores had closed hours before. 
Barb must have had the same thought, too, because she whispered, “Maybe we could give her some of our presents.”

“Barb, that’s a great idea.  Good thinking.  But what should we give her?  We don’t know what’s in the boxes.  They’re wrapped.”

I pondered this dilemma for a moment and then had a brainstorm.

“OK, listen, how about this?  We sneak in before Mom gets up and rip the tags off the presents and give them to Cookie.”  Barb agreed this sounded like a good plan.

“You know, Aunt Camille always gives us a nightgown or pajamas, and that little girl has no pajamas.  We’ve got a bunch.  Mine would be too big for her, so you get your box from Aunt Camille and rip off the tag.  Grandma Lillian always gives me a book, so I will give her mine.  But ya know, those aren’t very fun presents.”

Barb spoke softly, “What about a game?  We always get a game or two for Christmas.  There has to be a game under the Christmas tree.  Those Milton Bradley games are all the same shape.  We’ll be able to find it.  She doesn’t have any toys with her, so she’ll need a game.”

“Yes, that’s it.  Now, listen—if you wake up first, wake me up, and if I do, I will wake you up.  We are going to have to be really, really quiet.  Mom won’t hear us because she likes to sleep late, but Noreen and her little girl might wake up.  We don’t want them to see us—that would spoil the surprise.”

Barb and I were soon off to sleep.  We could rest easy now that we had Christmas presents for Cookie covered.  A few times I was roused and thought I heard coughing, but went right back to sleep.

Next morning we were up early.  We dressed in our matching quilted robes, but left our slippers off, and tiptoed down the hall to our living room.  Noreen was on one sofa, in one of Mom’s best nightgowns; while Cookie lay on the other sofa in exactly the same spot she had fallen asleep.  Someone had covered her with a hand-knit baby blanket.  Mom probably.  Barb, the artist, had cleverly brought her supplies—a little round-edged pair of scissors for cutting off the gift tags, and a colored pencil for printing Cookie’s name on the newly assigned boxes.  We worked quickly in silence.  We located the boxes and Barb cut off the gift tags and shoved them in the pocket of her robe.  I had the best printing, so I wrote the new greetings right on the paper.

“Merry Christmas, Cookie, from Santa.”

I didn’t believe in Santa, although I still made my annual trip to Madigan’s Department store to tell him what I wanted, but this is what Mom and Dad always wrote on our presents, so I thought I would do the same.  Cookie was pretty young and I bet she would not recognize my handwriting.

“Let’s go back to bed.  We’ll have to wait until they get up or we’ll blow it.”

Barb crawled in my twin bed while we waited for what seemed like forever for the rest of the household to get up.  Finally, the Babies, Donna and Jackie, started to make some racket in the back bedroom and I heard my mom moving around in the kitchen, making more coffee in the old aluminum percolator she used every day, and dialing someone on the telephone.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  Mom was always on the phone.

“It’s safe.  Let’s get up.”

We ran into the living room, festooned with Mom’s decorations, tinseled tree—Daddy’s pride and joy—mantel covered with ceramic holiday figures rubbing elbows with the oriental knickknacks Mom collected then, and gas fake fireplace aglow.  It was a glorious scene.  The Babies were all over the presents and started tearing the gift wrap off anything they could reach.  Noreen and Cookie gazed from the sidelines, seeming a bit overwhelmed. 

Then Mom was on the scene, putting a halt to the mayhem.

“Hold on.  Your father is on his way.  He has a few hours off today and he wants to see you unwrap your gifts.”

"Awww, Mom.  He won’t be home for hours.  Can’t we open some, puh-leeze?"

Mom caved in—it was an unusual Christmas anyway.  “OK, but you have to save some of the big ones.  He’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get to watch.”

This gave me my opportunity.  I poked Barb and we grabbed the presents we’d regifted for Cookie.  The little girl had slid off the couch where she slept and was snuggled close to her mother now.  We marched up to her and, unceremoniously, presented her with the boxes.

“Here, Cookie.  Santa left these for you.”

The little girl popped off the sofa, still wearing my slippers and reached for the gifts.

Noreen protested quietly to Mom, “Oh no, please, you’ve done enough for us.”  She bit her lip and looked as if she might cry.

Mom spoke up, “This is their idea; I didn’t know anything about it.”  But we could tell she was pleased with her girls.

While the Babies tried to derail the Lionel train set up under the tree—a gift from Gramps—we all snacked on Pillsbury cinnamon rolls straight from a tube.  Mom had managed not to burn them this time and the spirals, dripping with thick, sugary frosting, tasted pretty good with the Fannie Mae chocolate Santas from our stockings.  Barb and I set up what turned out to be a Captain Kangaroo game.  I read the instructions to Barb and Cookie, and we all played a few rounds.

Mom turned serious for a moment. 

“You girls get dressed.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan are coming over.” 

We hurried to the bathroom to wash up and then to our bedroom to get dressed.  I wondered what this was all about.  Mom was pretty friendly with all the priests and nuns in our parish but they usually only came to the house on special occasions like Holy Communions, weddings, and to give Extreme Unction.  I thought they’d be busy saying Christmas Mass or something.  Wasn’t this one of their big days?

Now this was long before anyone thought of the War on Poverty and safety nets for women and children in need just did not exist.  Many destitute mothers and children fell through the cracks in those days.  Jobs were few and opportunities very limited for women.  Many would turn to their families—but what if there was no family?  We knew Mom was there for anyone who told her they needed help.  She loved St. Mel–Holy Ghost Church.  She grew up here and was married in this church.  She supported St. Mel’s and the church was there to back her up.  I realized the early phone call must have been to the priests who ministered to our parishioners.

The doorbell rang again and Mom went to welcome the two priests.  Father Shaughnessy greeted us and Father Riordan patted me on the head.  She offered them coffee and Pillsbury rolls, but they declined.  They were still on call to say Mass.   Father Shaughnessy, the young energetic, activist priest who headed all the youth programs in the neighborhood, hair prematurely thinning, looked dapper in his Roman collar and black suit.  He removed his fedora as he stepped in the door.  Father Riordan accompanied him.  Wire-rimmed glasses, dark hair graying at the temples; he was the more mature of the two.  Mom saw the older priest as a father figure; he’d married Mom and Dad and baptized me. Mom often turned to him for counsel.  She introduced them to Noreen and Cookie and then shooed us out of the living room. 

“OK, you two, get outta here, go play with your presents or something.  I need to talk with Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan.”

We knew better than to argue.  This order from Mom signaled adult conversation and we’d better move it.

We overheard some of the conversation from the front bedroom.  Mom telling the priests about how she knew Noreen, how Noreen had been baptized Catholic, but not raised in the Church, something about a deadbeat husband and nowhere to go, and how she needed their help.  Noreen’s faith did not matter to the priests; they were here to offer aid.  I thought I heard someone crying very softly.  Then just as quickly, the priests were off, back to their holiday duties at the church, but not before they gave us all a blessing and wished us a “Happy, Holy Christmas.”  Father Shaughnessy said he’d be back a little later to pick up Noreen and Cookie.

Mom went to work; she requisitioned a small suitcase from the hall closet where all the large items, including a stove, were stored.  Rummaging through closets and drawers, she pulled blouses, sweaters, skirts, stockings, a hat and gloves for Noreen.  It was a challenge since Noreen was much taller than Mom and nearly gaunt, but Mom found some clothing that would work.  She dug through the cedar chest and located some pants, skirts, and blouses I had grown out of for Cookie.  She’d been planning to pack them up and send them to my cousin Kim; and Barb was so petite, it would be years before they would fit her.  And then Mom pulled a mouton lamb fur coat from the closet. 

Noreen protested, “No, no.  I can’t accept that, Helen.  Your fur coat.”

“Take it—it’s cold out there and I’ve been after Jack to buy me a mink.  Now he’ll have to.”  Mom laughed, but it would be many years before she got her mink. 

It seemed like he’d just left, but the buzzer rang, and Father Shaughnessy was buzzed up again.  His
big, black, donated Cadillac was parked at the curb downstairs in front of Solick’s Restaurant.  One of the perks for a lifetime of service, his Caddy was a shuttle bus for anyone who needed a ride.  He picked up the suitcase in one hand and carried Cookie in his other arm downstairs to the car. 
Noreen stopped for a moment on the landing and gave me and Barb a kiss on our cheeks.  Then Mom walked Noreen downstairs and we watched Mom as she hugged Noreen and waved goodbye as they drove off with Father Shaughnessy. 

The decorated lamp posts and the Solick’s restaurant sign were so glittery and festive.  The neon Christmas trees decorating the sign that blinked by turns in a row made it seem like an enchanted forest.  But that morning, the holiday trimmings seemed to highlight the fantasy world we lived in, and even to my child’s eyes, were a stark contrast to the harsh reality that had entered our safe house that Christmas Eve.

When Mom came back upstairs we badgered her with questions.

“Are they coming back?  Where did they go?  Where is Father Shaughnessy taking them?  Are they going to have dinner with us?”

Then Mom told us that Noreen and Cookie would not be coming back soon.  She said Noreen was very sick and had to go to the hospital.  “TB,” she whispered.  The disease was dreaded, especially among those of Irish descent.  Mom had many relatives who’d succumbed to tuberculosis and she was paranoid every time we caught cold, even though we insisted our Bohemian blood would save us.

“Noreen’ll be away for a long time.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan found some nice people who have a lot of kids and they are going to take care of Cookie while her Mom is getting well.”

“But what about her dad?”

“Cookie’s dad was not nice to them.  He hurt them.”

We couldn’t imagine it—Daddy and Grandpa treated us like little princesses, and never got angry with us.

“Girls, be thankful for what you have.  Noreen had a very hard life.  She lived with one family after another who did not want her after her parents took off.  She got married young—don’t you ever do that—and the man was mean to her and her daughter.  Then she ran away from him, but she’s been sick.  She told me she was just walking the street last night in the snow, no money and no food, and then she saw our lights on and rang the bell.  Thank God she did.”

We nodded our heads in agreement, although we did not completely understand the gravity of Noreen’s situation.  Then Mom said, “I was so proud of you, giving Cookie your presents.  You are my stars!”  Praise from Mom was the best present of all. 

Later Daddy would come home and watch us open some gifts while he grabbed something to eat. He then went back to fight the inevitable holiday fires.  Gram and Gramps would come by and Gram would cook a feast for us all to eat together.  Gramps would slip us a “sawbuck” when he thought no one was looking.  Barb and I would play with our toys until we got sick of them. The Babies would get into all our gifts and rip up more wrapping paper, making a mess of the living room, and Mom would laugh.  A pageant of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends would stop by our apartment with gifts to wish us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  But somehow I knew this holiday was even more special and that I was a very lucky girl.


Years later we moved from our beloved West Garfield neighborhood to a small bungalow on the Northwest Side.  I was in a Catholic girls’ high school now and had grown at least a foot.  Barb was a freshman at the same high school.  Donna and Jackie went to the local parochial school and Mom had gone back to work.  It was a nice Saturday in spring; the trees were budding and my allergies were kicking in.  The doorbell rang; I thought it might be the postman and ran to see if my new Beatles magazine had come in the mail. 

A young, nice-looking woman holding a baby boy stood on the stoop.  A girl stood next to her.  

“Are you Anita?  Oh my gosh—you’ve grown so much.  Is Helen—your mom—home?”

By then Mom was behind me.  “Noreen, is that you?  Oh you look great!  Is this your baby?  He’s beautiful.  Look how big he is!  How old is he?  Hi, sweetie.  Is this Cookie? You’ve grown up!  What grade are you in now?”

The young family was ushered into our tiny bungalow living room and provided with Mom’s favorite treats for guests—Coke, potato chips, and onion dip.  Mom and Noreen chatted. Noreen caught Mom up on her life after she left us that Christmas Day many years before.

She said she’d been very ill and was hospitalized for a long time.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan arranged for her care at no charge.  She’d lost a lung.  While she was in the sanitarium, a very nice family cared for Cookie, and when Noreen came out, they helped her get on her feet.  It was this couple who introduced her to a cousin—a solid, considerate young man who became her second husband, the father of the new baby. 

“He’s an engineer.  We have a nice house now and he loves Cookie.  I am happy, Helen.  I bumped into someone from the West Side last week and they said you’d moved up here, so I thought I’d take a chance and see if you were home.  I don’t feel like I ever thanked you enough.  I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t taken me in that night.”

“I’m just happy to hear everything worked out for you and Cookie, Noreen.  I am glad to see you healthy again.  I’ve thought of you many times and prayed for you.”

“Helen, I will never forget you or your girls or what you did for me.  You changed my life.  Your apartment was like Bethlehem on Madison Street that Christmas Eve.”


Bio- Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native. She’s written a collection of essays, West Side Girl, that are written from the point of view of her younger self and chronicle the colorful, diverse and oftentimes unpredictably eccentric characters and events that populated Chicago’s West Side neighborhood during the 50s & 60s. Her writing has appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time, the Faircloth Literary Review, The Fat City Review, and Avalon Literary Review.

Anita grew up in the 3rd story apartment above her family’s Bohemian restaurant on Madison Street, daughter of a fireman and a housewife/frustrated writer, and comrade of a ragtag brigade of migrant children who trooped into and found both themselves and the world-at-large on their neighborhood’s streets. Her essays, set in Chicago, celebrate an era, a time of change, an urban childhood, ethnic neighborhoods, girls’ empowerment, and the benefits of growing up in a culturally diverse community.

Anita studied journalism at Marquette University, earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of California at Los Angeles and her M.S. in Management and Organization from the University of Colorado. She is a founding member of Boulder Writing Studio.

Anita lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Ralph, and her cats, Figaro and Clio.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Twitter Tales Ending Art Set Votes


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winners from Words in Art