June 30, 2011

Upstairs on 7th meets (Re)Making Love

Girl walks into a dress shop feeling frumpy and comes out with a hot black dress and a book party. The store is Upstairs on 7th and the owner and CEO is Ricki Peltzman. Here she is: gorgeous and fashionable. Don't you love that necklace? You could buy it from her!

Photo from Upstairs on 7th
And here's what happened: I live in the Penn Quarter (downtown D.C.) where Forever 21 makes me feel forever 61—and I've been searching for a store where a woman my age might find clothes that are both funky and elegant. So, somehow I wander into her store that is inside the building where the fab Tosca Restaurant resides (Barack took Michelle there recently!) and Ricki, while I'm trying on clothes, reasonably priced and gorgeous, asks me what I do. I say, "Oh, I'm a writer." She says, "Books?" I say, "Well . . ." Not so good here at self-promotion. She wheedles it out of me; I try to get her to buy the Kindle version but she wants my book in her hand, and as I live barely three blocks from her, I go home to get a pair of shoes to try on with the slinky black number and bring her one that she promptly buys.

See this image to the left from her website and you'll know why I wanted to buy everything in her elegant shop that is truly a salon in the way literary folk used to know of such great places.

So Ricki reads the book, starts while I am still in the store (read the ending!) and then that night stayed up late with what she calls a-can't-put-down memoir. The next day she gets to the store early and before her educated and elegant clients begin to wander in, she finishes the book. And while she's reading, she e-mails me (Of course, I wanted to be on her e-mail list for sales and news! You should too; she sends her stuff all over the U.S.). As I like to say in the memoir, I am not making this up: Virtually all the e-mails had this subject line "OMG This Book":

Ricki (e-mail #1): Every ROM-COM you mention I LOVE although so far you have not mentioned The American President, one of my all time movies ever and one I think I have seen at least 100 times. Just too adorable and funny. And also Sleepless in Seattle which I am a total sucker for. I think when I was very young and newly married A Man and A Woman was my favorite movie for the longest time. The music at the end when he is driving to see her was masterful. I love the mentions of all the restaurants that are around here and which we eat at all the time. The bread alone at Zaytinya makes me swoon. I could eat just that and be thrilled!

I love your La Perla story. Hilarious. Especially that you spent all of that for so little pieces. Only Jewish women could understand this I think.

I read in bed and when I got up at 6 I got my coffee from the trusty Miele machine and sat on the porch and read until 8:30.

We will have to do a book party. This is way toooo good.

Ricki (e-mail #2); they were coming every 15 minutes; I guess the book is a fast read!): So I have the book on my desk and this customer tells me that she is just retired from being a happy housewife since her husband left her and I tell her she HAS to come to the book party! And then all her friends signed up on my email so they can hear when it is so they can attend also. So when shall we do it? I will have everyone over for drinks and a light supper and you can talk about it and then sell lots of books.

Ricki (e-mail #6); she arranged the book party in the other three; I think there were eight e-mails in all; I was afraid to leave my computer on a Saturday afternoon for fear of missing one of these!): I LOVE LOVE LOVE YOUR BOOK. I have customers here but I am just at the part where you are in Paris with your tiny appliances.

And then she blogged about the book and the party. She then caters the party in her shop: food from Tosca and champagne. Here are a few photos and then some thoughts about all this.
Don't you love that bracelet????

Ah the women, the books, the shop!

The slinky black dress that will go from summer to winter. You gotta get this one!
I sold 18 books at the party and Ricki has since sold five more! Can you believe this amazing woman?

At the party, I read Chapter 8, Deceptive Cadence that I wrote while listening endlessly to the Schubert in G Flat Major and one woman told me she wants to give me a book party at her home in Dupont Circle, have me read this chapter and have a pianist play the Schubert in G. I'm having lunch with her in a couple of weeks (gorgeous, sophisticated, successful woman!). Whether or not that happens, I think I've made a friend.

And get this: I'm telling this story to a banker-guy I know and he sends an e-mail to his wife and a bunch of her friends and copies me. Here it is: The subject line is "Literature, Wine, Writing and Italian Clothes":


How well do I know the women in my life?  I have begun the planning of an event for all of you which will feature Mary Tabor, an author friend of mine who also teaches at GW. You will all read her recent book, discuss it with her and discuss writing. Add some Roy Family wine to honor my favorite female winer proprietor and the beautiful clothes from Italy and Europe with Chris.

Stay tuned for more detail.


Should I be singing that song from The Sound of Music again?

So somewhere in my youth or childhood/ 
I must have done something good . . .

Deceptive cadence (Re)Making Love

Listen to the piece and that Horowitz plus D.'s heartfelt playing of this piece occurred when his baby-grand entered our home today and D. played this brilliantly, Chapter 8 in (Re)Making Love.

And kudos to the artist who did the cover for the first and now the second edition of (Re)Making Love !

June 20, 2011

Angel on My Shoulder

Illustration by Kittenchops.com
Sometimes I want to break into song like my grandchild Lila, who at two years old knows the entire score of The Sound of Music! She can sing "I Must Have Done Something Good" and that's what I feel like singing today because CMash Loves to Read loves my memoir (Re)Making Love.

In early June she made me her Shining Light and put that light on this blog where literary work and writing and writers get discussed, among this and that that my guest bloggers write and where I first blogged this memoir.

Today I am her guest author. Please go and comment if you have read the book. And if you haven't, you might want to be a part of her GIVEAWAY of (Re)Making Love. She's got two signed copies of my book  that will be in a lottery and you could win one. Click on the word Giveaway in the preceding sentence.

Comment here because you care and definitely on Cheryl's blog because she is such a good soul. You have from June 20th to July 5th to comment and win!

Again, I offer a flower for the angel on my shoulder, Cheryl, who truly does love to read and has an open heart.

June 15, 2011

A Conversation With Lore Segal

This interview that I did with the writer Lore Segal was previously published in The Missouri Review, Issue 30.4 (Winter 2007)

Photo by Alisa Douer
Lore Segal, born Lore Groszmann in Vienna, March 8, 1928, escaped the Nazis when she was ten years old with five hundred other children on an experimental transport to test whether the Nazis would allow a trainful of Jewish children to cross the border. In England, Lore was placed in a succession of foster homes.  The author of Shakespeare’s Kitchen, Her First American and Other People’s Houses, she talks here with Mary L. Tabor on thinking about questions of goodness and virtue, a conversation that began ten years ago while Segal was working on Shakespeare’s Kitchen. That book was published in April 2007. In October 2006, Segal was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

MLT: Lore, let’s talk goodness, once again, now that your new book, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, is out. I know from talking with you that it gives you some anxiety to talk about goodness, but that’s my subject for you. You recall your “Hers” column in The New York Times, which hit the subject dead on?

Segal: I wonder why the very words goodness and virtue embarrass us.

MLT: In the “Hers” column you said, “To be good, sane, happy is simple only if you subscribe to the Eden theory of original goodness, original sanity and original happiness, which humankind subverted into a fascinating rottenness. Observation would suggest that we come by our rottenness aboriginally and that goodness, like any other accomplishment, is something achieved.” This essay raised for me a fundamental question about your work: Do you perceive that humankind is fundamentally evil or prone to evil?

Segal: I’m going to give you such a boring answer. I don’t see one as stronger than the other. One of my favorite images comes from Aldous Huxley in The Devils of Loudun. And I don’t know if I’m quoting it correctly. Huxley says there is about the same amount of good and evil in the moral economy of the world. There is a certain quantity of each, but once in a while all the evil seems to collect in one place and settle there for a time. This is the world as I understand it.

MLT: What then would be the keys to achieving goodness?

Segal: I have a suspicion that goodness, like cleverness, like being good at writing—is a talent, which can and must then be educated and trained. I imagine that we might be born with a tendency to violence that can be encouraged or discouraged. I remember in Chicago, in a 7-Eleven, watching a young, overworked black mother with a little kid, and she was shopping. She was nervous and harassed, and when the little kid put out his hand to a stand of women’s stockings—I think he must have been some three years old—she hit him on the side of the head. Now I cannot imagine, unless that child is a saint, that he will have a friendly attitude toward the world. If, despite my experience of the Holocaust and having to leave my family at ten, my assumption is that this is not a basically violent world, it might have something to do with having been treated kindly and with respect and with affection by the first people around me in my childhood.

MLT: Aristotle says in The Nichomachean Ethics, “It is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the midpoint—for instance, not everyone can find the centre of a circle; only the man who knows how.” Would you agree with that?

Segal: Yes, I would. What my “Hers” column on goodness meant to say, along with my  sense that our genes tend us toward the good or the bad, is that meaning well is a complication. I think Tolstoy is wrong in his oft-quoted opening sentence of Anna Karenina: All happy families—and by happy I mean sane and good—are not the same. If they seem the same it’s because we tend not to investigate how they got to be happy. For a little while I would question people. I wanted to talk about where, in literature—in novels—we locate the author’s interest in virtue. Emma corrects her faults with the help of Mr. Knightly, the good man who is in love with her. Jane Austen is intensely interested in her characters’ good behavior.

MLT: Ilka, your main character in Shakespeare’s Kitchen and in your novel Her First American, takes very firm positions and questions and argues in favor of virtue, don’t you think?

Segal: Here’s a bit of autobiography: I have always had both women and men friends who have been my political and philosophical adversaries. I have admired and respected and loved—and argued—with them. That is not a virtue. That’s a pathology, if it’s anything at all (laughs). I hope to have figured that one out. It has to do with the Holocaust and the bottomless misperceptions that create racism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism truly believes that it knows the Jew, knows all about the Jew, has the lowdown on the Jew. By an extension that may be beyond logic, my bĂȘte noire is any type of true belief, even if it’s a belief I share. I’ll climb onto the other side of any absolute opinion and start arguing. I am terrified of opinion that believes in itself. I have to tell you that Ilka’s addiction to arguing has something in it of comedy.

MLT: When we first began this conversation a decade ago, you said, “My Ilka stories, after Her First American, are trying to become a novel called Shakespeare’s Kitchen,and you noted, “Actually the title came long after out of an interview, but that might not matterand it’s not working very well. I still have some work to do or I have to let it be.” Now your book, connected short stories, has been published. Can you talk about why you chose this form and not another novel about Ilka, for clearly that had been your aim. What changed?

Segal: Novelists think by writing stories. I had a theme in search of a plot—another modern dilemma. I have known the state of grace in which everything I thought and heard and saw and read and remembered dovetailed into a novel. Here everything dovetailed into these stories. I once allowed myself to be persuaded to turn my novel Her First American into a film script. The would-be producer plied me with script-writing lessons. They were very interesting. They said that in a good plot nothing happens that is not the result of what happened before or causes what happens next. I like reading stories like that, but I don‘t write them because that’s not how my life happens to me or the people I know. The mental hunt for happenings and causes produced ever more stories. Each story created its own choreography, became fixed in its shape and might not attach to what happened before and what was going to happen next.

MLT: The first story doesn’t actually include Ilka but deals with questions of both perception and identity. A poet appears to win a major prize, but his name is misspelled in the newspaper, and he hasn’t ever been actually called and told about the prize. His friends and colleagues think he’s won it, but he never gets the award money, and he’s never sure he actually won. So you get us off on the foot, so to speak, of questioning our assumptions, and you do it with humor. Ilka, when she appears, asserts, “We are, all of us, ridiculous.” How do the comic, the ironic, inform your worldview?

Segal: Comedy, like tragedy, derives from the gap between what ought to be and isn’t. I once arrived at a fancy PEN event and found myself left off the list of invitees. To think you are being honored and find yourself forgotten seems to convey some deepest truth—the incarnation of the nightmare in which you are prevented from arriving where you are going. We know that Kafka thought of himself as a comic writer.

MLT: From your experience of the past it amazes me that you can find that humor and not see the world as absurd.

Segal: It’s absurd and lovable. It’s funny in a sweet way, though one of my favorite writers is Swift, and he sees nothing adorable in the world. To him absurdity is bitter. That’s not my first take.

MLT: Does that view relate to the reason you began to write children’s stories?

Segal: Why did I write children’s stories? I had my two children. My mother was telling them stories. I was telling them stories. I’m a writer, and I began to be interested in getting these stories right on paper. One of my favorite quotes is  Howard Nemerov saying, “Poetry is getting something right in language.” I am moral when I tell the truth in language. I don’t allow myself a word that is bigger or smaller than the thing I mean. You know the wonderful phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “Our sacred honors.” What does that mean off the battlefield? It’s in the matter of writing that I understand the word honor.

MLT: Is that the only place it’s possible to be moral?

Segal: It’s the place I know how. For the rest I’ll be satisfied if I am decent. My moral ambition is to translate what I know into true—that is to say the right—words.

MLT: You’ve translated Bible stories and written essays on the Bible. Does that work inform your understanding of goodness in the world?

Segal: I’ve written an essay called, “The Dream of a Good God.” I am amazed when I read the Bible, especially the marvelous stories in Torah, that God is not always good, and yet we go on instinct that He is. We believe He is almighty, all knowing, at once just, merciful and kind, but that’s not what the story says. God makes the world, destroys it, and regrets destroying it. He takes his anger out on those who deserve it and those who don’t. Abraham questions him about that. God asks Saul to wipe out the Almalekites. He says, Have no mercy. Kill the women, the babies at the breast, the men, the oxen, the ass, and if you don’t, I will do to you worse than I tell you to do to them. What interests me is that having read that, we continue to say that God is merciful and kind. I think we have to have One who is all good. We yearn for a good Someone above us. We have a yen that we cannot suppress for that good God. And those who are saying, If He’s not good, I won’t have Him, are operating out of the same yen. A proof that we love virtue is that we have created, against the evidence of the world, a good God.

MLT: Do you believe in this good God?

Segal: Not in the least, unless He is that for which we yearn against the evidence of our experience.

MLT: Since we are talking about the Torah, I’d like to talk about a Talmudic story that I was reminded of when I read in Her First American the part when Ilka and her mother have returned to Austria to remember where they had been before they escaped the Nazi scourge. They talk of a neighbor family that put their heads in their gas oven instead of trying to escape or face what was ahead. And Ilka’s mother says, “The next time, I can see that one might rather put one’s head in the gas oven.” Ilka responds, “One might survive again.” This passage remains marked in my memory.

Segal: I’m not sure that I have made clear what I meant: Imagine having survived those first refugee years, having had your living to make in a foreign language, at a loss, much of the time, among alien ways and rules, and now you’ve arrived at the moment where you are catching your breath. Now imagine the prospect—we never quite stop expecting it—of another, of the next calamity, and mightn’t you long to put your head in that gas oven?

MLT: The passage brought to my mind a Talmudic question I have puzzled over and written about—the one about the two men in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man should drink it. This has been a very difficult question. Elie Wiesel has said that “Rabbi Akiva was very hard, very hard on the survivor.” I think Wiesel is saying that it is very difficult for the one who survives. What do you think?

Segal: I feel respectful toward the assumption of survivor guilt; I don’t recognize it particularly in myself. If you’ll remember in Other People’s Houses, it was because of a piece of cheating on the part of a relative’s girlfriend that I got on that train. I might have got on it; I might not have got on it, but I was pushed to the front, not by any act or choice of mine, but I did take the place of someone in that long line. I do not recognize any sense of profound guilt. It does not take up my nightmares. I would lie if I said it did. Once every two or three years I look it in the eye, but I do not suffer over it. Primo Levi is my hero on this subject. He is the most subtle and the most honest. He says something which interests me more about survivorship than the sense of guilt: He says he suffers a sense of shame to be of the same species as those who perpetrated such horrors.

MLT: Is that the sense of shame that you are dealing with in the short story, one of my favorites, “The Reverse Bug,” in Shakespeare’s Kitchen?

Segal: “The Reverse Bug” is not so much about survivorship, which we can do nothing about, but our failure to be aware of those who are suffering while we live and eat and make love, our failure to be horrified twenty-four hours a day.

MLT: Doesn’t that include the shame that Primo Levi describes, the shame to be of the same species as those who perpetrated the horrors?

Segal: You may be right. It’s awfully close to that. You’re absolutely right. I’d never really connected it.

MLT: Does that shame include the son of the Nazi torturer who continues to shout, who keeps interrupting, who wants help to find his father? In this story his screams and the screams of others invade an auditorium, echo into the surrounds through the “reverse bug,” a device that puts into a room “what those inside would prefer not to hear.” Ilka says, “Those screams are from Dachau and Hiroshima.” But the son of the Nazi torturer continues to assert, “That is my father.” When the desert howls with the screams from Dachau and Hiroshima, does it howl for that child as well?

Segal: Yes. I am very sorry for him because he and I share a childhood grief I have not written about adequately. My father said to me, when I was leaving Vienna for England, “You must bring out Mother and me and your grandparents and the cousins.” And I did come to England and did think that’s what I was supposed to do. I did it some of the time. But it seemed to me that it was something I should be doing constantly, constantly. That I should be doing without doing anything else, and here I was, part of the time sleeping and part of the time I was playing with my friends. Some of the time I was laughing. When I caught myself laughing, I would feel a shock in the heart that I was laughing instead of asking somebody to save my parents. That is what I perceive to be driving the Nazi’s child crazy. If it didn’t drive me crazy, it’s because I have a talent for sanity. I am sane—not completely, but reasonably sane. I’m not vulnerable to the depths of depression.

MLT: I was struck by the shared compassion in that story for all of those who are suffering.

Segal: The story is really about the failure to share. It’s only when you hear the actual noise that you go like this [putting hands over ears] and you want it to stop, but the screaming goes on whether you are hearing it or not. Now I don’t say that we should be constantly in a state of compassion. I am dazzled, morally dazzled, by the people who go over to Somalia—nurses and doctors, who walk among horrors and actually do something about it with their own persons. I am dazzled by that. They seem to be extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. That is very amazing. You ask me, Do I believe people are good? Yes! There they are! I think the people who took that feisty little uncomfortable alien child, Lore, into their inmost homes did something extraordinary and good.

MLT: Can we teach our children to be good?

Segal: I taught mine without setting out to do it. One of the charms of my life is that I have good children. My daughter is a social worker. I said to her, “Beatrice, you really are a good soul.” And she said, “I hate it when you say that. I am not trying to be good. This is what I want to do.” And I said, “How interesting that if you did it against your will, you would be good, but since your wishes are virtuous, that’s not good?” How odd that we tend to think that people who work against their nasty instincts are better than those who have good instincts.

MLT: Then the source of Beatrice’s goodness could be thinking, as a rational mind reasoning what is best to do?

Segal: I believe it’s her good instincts. If you ask her, she will say it is because of her grandmother’s stories of the Holocaust and because of the death of her father when she was little. That’s her reason. I think she has a talent to be useful and helpful.

MLT: You think she was just born this way?

Segal: Yes.

MLT: Don’t you think you had something to do with it? If you remember the beginning of our talk, you told me the story of the harassed woman in the store with the small child . . . .

Segal: Yes, if I had smacked her around and not listened to her, she might be  different. Let me tell you about my son, Jacob. I once took Beatrice’s class on a trip (I was one of the mother assistants) and I took Jacob along. He was three, and Beatrice was five. One of the five-year-old kids stepped on a bug, and three-year-old Jacob let out a howl that you could hear to the other side of the Hudson River. I said, “Jacob, that fly, it only had a day to live.” And Jacob said, “A whole day!” He was inconsolable.

MLT: A great deal of mercy in that little child. This makes me think of a passage in Her First American when Ilka’s black lover Carter Bayoux has died, and Ilka says to their friend Ebony (who is also black), “Fishgoppel sent me Blake for my birthday, and Ebony, you know that poem ‘Mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face’?” And Ebony says, “I don’t know that poem.” That poem ends with this line: “Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell/ There God is dwelling too”? Do you agree?

Segal: First I want to say that when Ebony says she does not know that poem, she means that in her experience, mercy does not have a human heart. That’s the irony in her comment: “I don’t know that poem, and that’s not the world as I know it.”

MLT: But then Ilka says, “I have thought that Carter and I were merciful to each other,” and Ebony says, “I think that you were.”

Segal: Reluctantly, she says that.

MLT: Does this poem have meaning for you as an expression of belief in mercy and pity in the human soul?

Segal: When you asked me, Do I think the world tends toward good or evil, I said both, and you can demonstrate both. I remember a class in Shakespeare that I attended at the University of London, and I remember thinking that I am wrong that all evil is the result of suffering, that you’re bad because somebody has been mean to you. There is evil. We were reading Othello. I believe in an Iago. I believe pity has a human face, and brutality has a human face. And I suspect so does God.

MLT: In both places.

Segal: In both places. It’s a very Hebrew notion. You know that line, “By their fruits, you shall know them”? You know God by his creation. It’s wonderful that we thank God for healing our illnesses and don’t blame him for allowing them.

MLT: You’ve translated, with W.D. Snodgrass, the poetry of Christian Morgenstern.  In Morgenstern’s poem #10, “Korf’s Clock,” the “...clock circles with two pairs of hands/ Which point not only to advance/ But also point back to the rear.” And the result is that “Time is canceled out by Time.” I want to ask you from that lovely and humorous place, how has time worked for you on memories of the past? Has time canceled out some of the pain of memory?

Segal: Writing does. I don’t know if time does. But writing does it in a peculiar way. When you begin writing about it, there it is again. You know Wordsworth’s famous line, “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.” I think that’s the best possible answer. I told my mother that I am lucky, though I certainly wouldn’t have chosen it, to have had the privilege of living in other people’s houses. Who gets to live inside the household, at the hearth of a railroad stoker, the milkman, my upper-class Victorian ladies, the Jewish furniture manufacturer? Who gets, in one lifetime, the privilege, the unbelievable advantage of seeing life without having to turn into an au pair or seeing it in some willed way? I once said this to my mother, who said, “You poor thing. You wrote me a letter to say how lonely you were.” She could not bear for me to find elation in what she needed to see as a grief. People want me to feel grief and to stay appropriately grieved. And so I do. But it was also a tremendous and fascinating experience for a future writer.

June 05, 2011

Go home to discover your memoir

In May I had the great pleasure to guest teach Joanne Glenn’s class on “Writing Memoir” at the Vienna Community Center in Virginia. I was hoping more of her students would contribute to this blog post, but two extraordinary women did. I made this offer to everyone in the class: Do this writing experiment (I guided them through it as a guided imagery free write—and they did love it!) and I will post on my blog 100 words of whatever you write.

The experiment you’ll see in a moment, but first I must tell you about another extraordinary event in my life that occurred simultaneously with Joann’s invitation and my visit. I grew up on Grantley Road in Baltimore. As I say in my memoir (Re)Making Love

“I grew up in a Baltimore row house with stairs to the second floor and stairs to the basement and a view from the front door to the back door and the clothes tree outside the door. My childhood house didn’t have hallways or a foyer. There was no place to hide anything or to hide. I could hear the neighbors when they argued and everything that everyone said inside my narrow house was fair game for anyone in the back, the front, up or down the stairs.”

Across the street lived Maxine Kahn, who (or should that be "whom"? Do we care?) you will meet today. I had not seen or heard from her since she moved away when we were both fifteen years old, and we were best, best friends: never-ending hours of Canasta gave proof to our love of cards—I went on to Bridge that nobody seems to play anymore—and to our ability to be with each other. She was my safe harbor when I was a child. Recently for some reason she decided to “google” me, found my website and me, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. And it turns out, that Maxine dabbles in poetry. Well, that’s what she calls it. I guess we’ll see about that.

What I am about to prove to you is that if you want to write a memoir, go home first. Here’s how you do it.

Here’s how Achamma Chandersekaran did it, first with my comments and then with her rewrite:

A Happy Home Full of Life

 We were the ‘singing family’-- My father and his 8 children. 

The scene I remember most is of us getting together to sing.  My father sat in his special chair with his favorite violin.   My brother, Joe, stood near a table as he didn’t like sitting down to play the violin.  My second brother, Thankan, had his flute and the youngest one, Marcel, sat on the floor to play the harmonium.  My sisters and I were the vocalists.   Oh, did we have fun! All the neighbors knew that we were all home for the holidays. 


This piece is very close to being. I struck through only one sentence. The reason is that the reader knows this. You need not state what you have proven through the details.

Now as to those details. They are marvelous, particularly the way Joe gets identified as not wanting to sit. We see where everyone is. I have a sense that it might help to “see” the father’s chair. Here’s why: Take your suitcase, as I like to say, and turn it into a painting. You’ve unpacked. Now look at what you’ve got as if it’s a canvas that you’ve begun. Take your writer’s brush and paint in again and again the details, all the concrete, small observations that make story live. The story is in the details.

But I am happy to publish this on my blog as is. Let me know about the strike through—something I think you should do—or if you want to add anything. I would title the piece simply “Singing,” for the same reason I give you for the strike through, but again this is your choice.

Here is Achamma’s rewrite:


We were the ‘singing family’-- My father and his 8 children. 

We were a unique family in the village and we did the singing as a family.  Girls singing in church was very unusual during those days. My father was the choir master and one of the very few in the village who could play a musical instrument.  One by one, as we grew up, we all joined the choir. Singing in the church got us into singing for any function that took place in the village. So the word ‘family’ is special to me.

The scene I remember most is of us getting together to sing. My father sat in his special chair with his favorite violin. My brother, Joe, stood near a table as he didn’t like sitting down to play the violin. My second brother, Thankan, had his flute and the youngest one, Marcel, sat on the floor to play the harmonium.  My sisters and I were the vocalists

All the neighbors knew that we were all home for the holidays. 

And here is how Evelyn Caballero did it:

Married to Market and Cooking

Mommy cooked every meal and always served Daddy first at the family table.  She went to market weekly buying fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for his favorite dishes.  She continued this habit after we left home, even when he at 89 became terminally ill.

No one knew he would leave us that late afternoon in May of 2010.  Mommy served him breakfast.  That evening she repeatedly said , “I greeted him then I went to the kitchen to cook his breakfast…

She never went to market and rarely cooked after Daddy died.  Daddy and Mommy were married 65 years.

Here is Evelyn’s piece with my edits:

Mommy cooked every meal and always served Daddy first at the family table. They were married 65 years.[I moved this up because it is basic info the reader needs quickly so that she knows how long Mommy did this.She went to market weekly buying fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for his favorite dishes.  She continued this habit after we left home, even when he at 89 became terminally ill.

No one knew he would leave us that late afternoon in May of 2010.  Mommy served him breakfast.  That evening she repeatedly said , “I greeted him then I went to the kitchen to cook his breakfast… .”

After he died, she stopped going to market. She didn’t cook. cooked after Daddy died.  Daddy and Mommy were married 65 years. 

All the changes here are to give punch to the ending and an echo to the opening line. The key metaphor here is cooking. Even though “rarely” cooked is more accurate, the writer can choose the stronger, more emphatic choice. In essence—meaning, sure she had to eat, but “cooking” was gone with your father—I suspect my phrase is pretty accurate. If not, don’t use it.

And here is Maxine Kahn’s poem. She didn’t do the free write, but she did go home to find her poem:

 Summer Nights in Baltimore

I remember summer nights in Baltimore
We were ten back then in 1956
Boys in crew-cuts
And girls in swinging pony tails and short summer dos
From early light til dark
We ran up and down hot city streets and sidewalks
Escaping the heat on cool, wet summer lawns
We jumped and twirled
In and out of rotating sprinklers
And small round plastic pools
That dotted backyard lawns
Innocent and joyous
We lept about in shorts and skimpy shirts
Arms and legs poking out, lean
Brown as chestnuts
From long hours spent under the sun
We ran in packs then, into the twilight – til dark
Our feet snug in nifty blue Keds, and white PF Flyers
Carrying empty mayonnaise jars
With holes punched into their lids
Air vents for our future captives – lightning bugs
Like shooting stars – elusive
Speeding by in the night sky
Lightning bugs -
Our nighttime summer companions – our prey
Flashing on and off like Christmas lights
Disappearing and reappearing in a blink
As if playing hide-and-seek with us
Trying to outwit us
But for the glory of the hunt
We persist
Our voices rising into the night sky
One after another, claiming victory in the chase
“I see one, over there….no,  there its goes…it’s over there….I got it”
“And there’s another…..I got that one.”
Shouts my next-door neighbor,  Ronnie Aaronson
As he quickly snatches a set of lit wings
Out of the dark, and into a small fist 
Pulsing with warm yellow light
And carefully transfers each glowing catch
Into a jar
Then another and another, again and again
Two, three, four …
All blinking on and off
A light show behind glass walls
We are mesmerized by the sight of it
These flaming jeweled wings
Warming and lighting their temporary glass homes
We come together to compare, to see
Who has the best catch of the night
We huddle closer
To view the accumulated light from our jars
Now reflected onto our faces
Distant voices edge into our circle of excitement
It is our parents, perched above the street
Observing from railed cement porches
Connected to
The long stretch of red brick row houses
That lined our beloved Grantley Road
Our parents,
Sitting and rocking back and forth
On squeaky metal gliders
Sipping cool summer drinks
Calling our names out
Across lawns and into the streets
Waving us home for the night
We resist the calls
Wanting to stay in our huddle of friendship
But, as darkness falls, we give up our night chase
And head home
Our precious cargo in hand, lighting the way

More on Maxine and home and memoir in an upcoming post.