I Hope I Dance

Saturday morning, my daughter said, “Mom, J___’s mother told her you were the star of the dance floor last night.” She and her sisters are unsurprised but wary, steeling themselves for any other reports they might receive. It was a fundraising cruise. There is no end to the eye-witnesses whose children are connected via social media to my own.

I did dance all night, and I don’t regret it, especially because, living with three teenaged girls, I am often reminded of the times in my life I couldn’t imagine just letting loose like that. Sometimes, as I watch my daughters navigate adolescence I can’t help but recall that miserable young teenager I was, setting the table every night once I’d fed the calves and done my homework and trying not to think about how quiet the phone was and convinced that everyone else was doing something much more fun.

Because other kids scrawled names of their favorite clothing brands or musical bands on their book covers, I tried it, too. I wrote: K2, the skis I’d borrowed the one time I’d tried downhill, Hotel California, because I’d heard someone else playing it from their boom box on the way home from an away football game. When a well-meaning boy turned around during American Studies one day and read what I’d printed, he said: So, you like Pousette Dart (my friend’s brother’s favorite band), and I nodded dumbly, praying he wouldn’t ask me to name my favorite song. Beyond my absolute ignorance of cool music, I also found it very hard to speak to someone of the opposite sex – even someone as pimply as I was.

I was, for a long time, too skinny to find Levis. The only real pair of jeans that fit me were called Hex. My mother and I found them at Hit or Miss. I wore them with a smock that I hoped covered the pocket that didn’t have the red flag waving off it. I completed my outfit with the same Tretorns everyone else plodded around in.

I did have thick curls, though no one else I knew did which made me feel like a freak. My mother insisted that hair like mine should be cut short. Like Florence Henderson, she said. Which I tried. Then like Dorothy Hamill, she said, which I also tried. Later on, in a vain attempt at the feathered look, I blew my hair dry which resulted in upping the volume considerably. Maybe, I thought, grimacing into the mirror, it will distract people from the size of my nose. Then I donned a dickie beneath my Northern Isles yoked sweater and headed grimly off to junior high.

I survived, of course, partial evidence of which could be spotted on the dance floor this past weekend. But just because you’re a veteran of certain wars doesn’t mean you can help the new recruits out. In fact, as in the case of my mother’s insistence on a shag, sometimes you’re better off keeping your mouth shut. When things get tough for my own kids, I do not suggest a haircut. Instead, I pull out the story of my absolute nadir – the day I went to get photographed for my first license. I had chosen a Las Vegas t-shirt emblazoned with dice for the occasion. I had gotten contact lenses and smeared my face every night with Retin A which peeled several layers of my skin off, but which also left me blemish-free. I handed the DMV worker my paperwork and smiled. Big day, right? Time for a celebration! Then he said. “Great. Now just step right over here to the camera, young man.”

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Cousins

I have siblings, I just didn’t grow up with them. They were older by at least 10 years. So I spent my childhood with my cousins. We played a game called Shoot that we thought everyone played – everyone who had a hayloft and a ready supply of bored kids, that is. The shooter aimed at each of the players who faked their deaths ala movie stunt people. Rob always won because he was fearless. Heights did not scare him, he could flip in mid air, and he could land splay-legged like some weird spider. For lunch we took a sleeve of saltines and a jug of water (the only water we drank all day unless we turned on the hose in the milking parlor and we never got dehydrated!!) and picnicked by Turkey Rock, a boulder that forced the stream in our woods to curl around it. We made forts in abandoned calf sheds. We played statue tag. Winters, we dug through the farm house closets and came up with skates or we pulled sleds out to the hill in the farthest pasture until we were almost too numb to attempt the long walk back. Christmas Eve, crammed into our Nonnie’s four room apartment, we sat together at the end of her bed with our homemade pasta and, for the bravest among us, some of the seven kinds of fish she prepared.

We never thought about the future of our relationship. Why would we? Our parents wove in and out of each other’s lives as seamlessly as they must have when they lived together on Joshua Street in the house our grandmother still lived in. But we were not unlike any other children. We grew up. We had children of our own. We moved to different places.

This past week, we circled back again. Home for Aunt Rita’s funeral, even in our sadness, we felt a welcome familiarity at being together again. At Aunt Rita’s house, all those years ago, we had opened the giant wheel-shaped carrying case of Hot Wheels and battled over who drove what. We played pool. We poured cherry Koolaid out of a glass milk jug and made fun of one another’s mustaches. We thought we would always be kids and that our parents would always be there to shoo us outside.

We never understood how important those days playing together would be, how they laid the foundation for one of the balms that would allow us to bear the days of grieving that are also a part of life. In our sadness and in our fear, we can always look up and see the faces we remember, the bits of hay sticking in their hair, the sun filtering in through a knot hole, our voices traveling back to our mothers having coffee in the house, grateful we had something to occupy ourselves with for a little while.

 

Writing Process Blog Tour!

Thank you my good friend, my fellow Capricorn, my go-to guru, Sarah Yaw for inviting me to be a part of My Writing Process Blog Tour. Her novel, You Are Free to Go (http://enginebooks.org/Titles/YouAreFreeToGo.html) , received the Engine Book Award and will be published in September. Check her out at sarahyaw.com.

Here are my responses to the blog tour prompts: 

1) What are you working on?

I’ve been working for almost ten years (more than ten years??) on a novel set in my home town, Westerly, RI. Its working title is Dogman at the Firemen’s Carnival and it is about a young girl whose father, a fisherman, disappears off his boat one calm day. Part love story, part ghost story, it is a coming of age tale in which my protagonist, Marina Zolda, attempts to find out what happened to him. To do this, she must move beyond the very tight family circle she has around her.

 2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

 In this novel and in some of my poetry, I use some of the superstitions, stories and traditions of my mother’s Italian-American family. They are originally from the province of Calabria. I also have a completed short story collection about growing up on my family’s dairy farm. I know other kids grew up throwing pennies at the bride and groom for good luck and believing that putting new shoes on the table is bad luck. I also know kids who grew up driving corn trucks long before they got their licenses or milking cows on Friday nights while their friends were out having fun, but I haven’t read any books about those things.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I write from an initial inspiration. Sometimes it’s a poem, sometimes I know it will be a short story, instead. I thought the novel would be a short story at first but it just kept going so I went with it. What I don’t do is think about a collection of anything before I write. Once they’re all written, poems or stories, I lay them out of my bed and count the pages to see if I have enough for a book. When I do, the discovery that they are connected thematically always surprises me.

It becomes clearer and clearer to me — and still strikes me as one sort of miracle — that the more I write and that the more I teach writing, how our stories never really sound like anyone else’s. So I keep mining whatever I have and I hope my students will too! 

4) How does your writing process work?

Boy would I love to focus on one thing and finish it! But that’s not how it works for me. I draft, revise, set aside, move to another genre. Return, revise, set aside, etc. My first collection of poetry took me 20 years to write; the first collection of short stories was the same. I prefer early mornings and always fear the first draft. I love revision. I also love summer and how the time I have off from teaching allows me to immerse myself in some project. But I have definitely learned to write when I can.

And now, I’m happy to introduce you to (drumroll) . . .

Betty Thayer Cotter who is the author of the novels The Winters and Roberta’s Woods. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and was named the 2006 fiction fellow by the R.I. State Council on the Arts. She teaches English at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn., and creative writing and journalism at the University of Rhode Island.

Follow Betty at http://swampyankeewoman.wordpress.com

Maryellen Reilly-McGreen who is an award-winning journalist and a high school English teacher. She is the author of Witches, Wenches & Wild Women of Rhode Island; Rhode Island Legends: Haunted Hollows and Monster Lairs; and Revolutionaries, Rebels and Rogues of Rhode Island. I’ll post her blog here very soon!

 and

 Jane Ward who is the author of HUNGER and the New York Book Festival award-winning novel THE MOSAIC ARTIST, and is currently at work on her third novel, THE WELCOME HOME. A former baker and caterer, Jane now cooks on video for allfood.com, a recipe database sited on several online newspapers, and also regularly contributes articles to the same online newspapers. Her blog, FOOD AND FICTION (http://authorjaneward.com), is equal parts food memoir, cooking and baking discussion, and collection of food industry profiles and trends.

 These writers will be posting their own Writing Process Blog Tours next week!!

What’s in a blog?

Can you hear me? Is anybody out there? Day one trying to blog (everyone does it, right? How hard can it be?) and I’m getting the feeling that it’s me and my screen. And the one thing I’ve been decisive about throughout the setting-up-a-blog-and-website process is this: I haven’t done anything alone. If I could find out a way to subtitle my blog, I would use the Tennyson line from Ulysses: I am a part of all that I have met.

One of my students said it best last year: “You are not the protagonist.” I love that line and, five decades in, it’s easy to see that you might dream out your life alone, but you don’t get anywhere that way. So, here’s to future blogs celebrating the inspiration gleaned from others.

If, in fact, I am doing any of this set-up stuff right.

 

And here’s the first shout out to Sarah Yaw (check her out at sarahyaw.com) who said, “Get going, already. Blog.”