Miriam Bat-Ami (1950-)
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature
Surname pronounced "Baht a-me"; born 1950, in Scranton, PA; Education: Hebrew University, Jerusalem, B.A., 1974; California State University, Los Angeles, M.A., 1980; University of Pittsburgh, Ph.D., 1989. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Research on multiple perspectives in American historical fiction and nonfiction for children, gardening, caring for the family's many pets, horseback riding, acting, reading.
Office— Dept. of English, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008. Agent—Barbara Kouts, P.O. Box 558, Bellport, NY 11713.
University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, teaching fellow in English, 1980-84; Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, instructor in English, 1984-89; Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, assistant professor, 1989-94, associate professor, 1994-2000, professor of English, 2000—. Has also worked as a tutor for Special Services at California State University, team taught English as a Second Language at Los Angeles City College, worked as an executive assistant at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, and consulted on college texts and multicultural literature for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Simon & Schuster publishers.
Modern Language Association, Children's Literature Association, National Council of Teachers of English, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Michigan Council of Teachers of English.
First prize, CELERY Short Story Award, Western Michigan University, 1982, for "Nielah"; John Gilmore Emerging Artists' Grant, 1991, for completion of When the Frost Is Gone; Faculty Research and Creative Arts Support Grant (FRACAS), Western Michigan University, 1993, for completion of Punctuation Porpoises and Other Space People; Highlights Awards Foundation Scholarship, 1993; Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2000, for Two Suns in the Sky; finalist, distinguished achievement award for excellence in educational publishing, for "All Because of the Pines."
Sea, Salt, and Air, illustrated by Mary O'Keefe Young, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993.
When the Frost Is Gone, illustrated by Marcy Dunn Ramsey, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
Dear Elijah, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1995, Jewish Publications Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1997.
Two Suns in the Sky, Front Street/Cricket Books (Chicago, IL), 1999, reprinted, Puffin Books (New York, NY).
Contributor of short stories, including "My Beautiful Feet" and "All Because of the Pines," to Cicada. Contributor of poems, including "This Is the Way It Is," to Sandy Asher, editor, On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing Up Girl, in press. Contributor of critical essays to journals, including Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Children's Literature in Education, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan, among others. Contributor of short stories and poetry to periodicals, including Voices: A Magazine for English Poetry in Israel, Response, Davka, Tree, Gargoyle, and Statement: California State University Journal.
Work in Progress
Dancing from the Waist Up, a young adult novel.
Miriam Bat-Ami is the author of books for children and adolescents that examine topics such as friendship, prejudice, and religion. Her works When the Frost Is Gone, Dear Elijah, and Two Suns in the Sky feature teenage protagonists who struggle to establish their own identities under confusing and often painful circumstances.
Bat-Ami once said: "I have always wanted to move people. I love to hear children laugh. I love to see them laugh when I'm reading to them. I suppose I get this from my father, who would stand on the pulpit and move us all to laughter and tears. I love the tears, too, that come after the laughter when suddenly the world opens, and we see something new, something perhaps that's always been there.
"I think I've always had a gift for voice, for remembering how people say things. Dialogue is very important to me, even when I write picture books. I find that, in speech, I reach down into what my characters are about. I also have a flair for the dramatic, and my years working in the theatre have influenced the way I write."
Bat-Ami continued, "In many respects teaching is very important to me. I don't want to tell people what to think, but I love posing questions and guiding my students into new thoughts.
"As a child, I often felt somehow different. Given my background, I was different, and so I find my characters to be sensitive to difference—slightly outside looking in on many worlds. I've also thought it very important to have an empathetic imagination. I want children to feel worlds that aren't necessarily their own and yet, also, to delight in worlds they have.
"My second book grew out of my experiences on what one might call a 'marginal' block. On that block, though, I found deep community, and so I wanted to tell children how what is outside (poverty) sometimes masks a real richness of people pulling together. When the Frost Is Gone was written because I needed to believe in harmony. I still do. I also want my literature to sometimes address action. Children will read it and feel optimistic about what they can do in the world."
Bat-Ami once remarked, "My first and third books came from personal feelings about my own past. Sea, Salt, and Air, my first picture book, deals with the yearly summer trips my family took to the beach: how we packed for the trip, the long ride, our feelings of freedom when we swam in the ocean, and the whole sense of timelessness one feels at the beach. It also deals with my love for my grandparents, who welcomed us into their summer cottage. Mary O'Keefe Young, working in vibrant pastels, wonderfully captured that sense of freedom and love."
Bat-Ami's 1994 book, When the Frost Is Gone, marked the start of her ventures into fiction for older children. In this story, twelve-year-old Natalie recounts an eventful, if difficult summer. Natalie lives with her father and carries with her a certain degree of anger toward her mother, a substance abuser who has left them. She resents entering her teen years without a sympathetic female figure to discuss things, but when her mother returns for a time that summer and tries to build a new relationship, Natalie cannot see past her own anger at her mother's former behavior. Tasha, Natalie's close friend, lives nearby in the rough urban neighborhood, and Natalie recounts her friend's own woes that summer, which culminate in a fire that destroys the house for which Tasha's grandmother has just finished paying. Natalie forges an unlikely but positive friendship with her neighbor, a stonemason named Mr. Pettinato, who offers to rebuild Tasha's grandmother's house and "helps Natalie achieve equilibrium," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who commended When the Frost Is Gone as "a portrait of urban life in all its colors." Connie Tyrrell Burns, writing for the School Library Journal, described the book as "a deceptively simple, richly written depiction of a young girl's coming of age."
Bat-Ami once described the substance of her next book, Dear Elijah, as "a middle grade novel [that] explores a young Jewish girl's feelings about God. Rebecca's father has had a heart attack; Passover is coming; and no one in her house is doing anything to get ready. She writes to the prophet Elijah, and, in the writing, begins to understand herself. She needs to find her own route to prayer: it's not her father's. She also needs to find her own place in the world. In this sense, she is not only a Jewish girl coming to terms with faith, she is every girl exploring female identity." Bat-Ami also stated, "Her questions are closely tied to ones I had at her age, ones which have no easy answers and which, sometimes, I still ask. In this sense, Dear Elijah was a particularly painful book for me to write. Painful, too, was the fact that my own father died of a heart attack. Rebecca's father does not die, though the reader doesn't know what will ultimately happen. I don't think I could have made him die. It would have been too painful."
Dear Elijah earned its author mixed reviews. A Publishers Weekly critic faulted Bat-Ami's portrayal of the confused Rebecca, asserting that the girl "never becomes a flesh-and-blood character," while her letters to the biblical prophet "sometimes seem like the effort of an ambitious religious school teacher." Sharon Grover, writing for School Library Journal, concurred, remarking that "while the premise is interesting, the choice of Elijah as a pen pal for an adolescent girl seems strange." Yet Becky Korman, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, felt the work had a more positive message. "The issue of whether to adopt your parents' faith is one that most young people will face," Korman noted. A Booklist critique from Ilene Cooper commended Bat-Ami for delving into some weighty themes, including Jewish heritage and general spiritual issues. "There are certainly too few books that deal with that topic," Cooper remarked.
Bat-Ami won rave reviews for another work for adolescent readers, Two Suns in the Sky. The story is set in 1944 in Oswego, New York, a time when the United States was in the midst of World War II. A teenage girl, Chris Cook, is bored by life in upstate New York, and duly fascinated when the federal government establishes a refugee shelter for European Jews at nearby historic Fort Ontario. It was the only such shelter in the United States for Jewish refugees, though at the time, the presence of Nazi Germany's concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where Jews were systematically murdered, was not known to the general public.
There are nearly one thousand Jews living at Fort Ontario, and Chris establishes a friendship with Adam, one of the teenagers from the camp who attends her high school. Both she and Adam recount their stories in alternating first-person narrative chapters. Adam was fortunate enough to leave Rome with his mother and sister when that part of Italy was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Allied forces but, as with the others, is dismayed to find himself fenced inside in what he believed was the land of freedom. As Two Suns in the Sky progresses, the friendship between the two quickly turns to romance. Chris's xenophobic father vehemently expresses his disapproval, and even her Roman Catholic priest warns her to stay away. Their prejudicial attitudes reflect the conflicts that other residents of Oswego have about the refugee camp in their midst. Bat-Ami includes actual recollections of the camp from surviving residents and refugees as epigraphs that precede each chapter. The attitudes of Adam's teachers also reflect how many people in the community came to the aid of the refugees. Bat-Ami told SATA that Chris "is patterned after one such person, Geraldine Rossiter, who, like Chris, passed her bike over the fence."
Some reviewers compared Bat-Ami's against-all-odds teen romance to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. "Bat-Ami captures the startled awareness of young adolescents in love for the first time," noted a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review. Though the townspeoples' suspicion toward foreigners and Jews is a strong undercurrent in the work, Martha Walke, writing in Horn Book, appreciated the way the issue was handled: "Never didactic, Bat-Ami uses her story to probe this issue with sensitivity and depth." Booklist critic Hazel Rochman offered a similarly positive assessment. "The relationships are complex," she maintained, adding that the author has created "a docunovel that gives a strong sense of the times." A Publishers Weekly reviewer described the epigraphs as "convincing observations," and asserted that readers "will be challenged by the questions Bat-Ami realistically frames about tolerance and its absence."
Bat-Ami recalled her own youth as a Jewish girl growing up in America in the postwar years in an interview with Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA). "I was both an active kid and a quiet kid. I had a lot of 'block' friends," she said. "Back in the fifties, kids often made these kinds of friends in the neighborhood and activities centered around the block. We had a big back yard and so did our neighbor who had children my age. We played outdoor games, many of them quite imaginative in nature and full of ancient rituals." She added: "I liked to bike ride to the candy store near our house with friends and I liked to roller skate down hills. I came from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and lived in what was referred to as the hill section, and so we had wonderful skating hills and bumpy slate sidewalks. These were neighborhood things I did. On an organized level, I was in Girl Scouts and took ballet lessons. I also rode a horse (generally once a week) with a friend. Stories were always part of my life. My parents liked to tell stories about their childhood. In our synagogue I belonged to the storytelling group, and we learned Jewish tales that we told during the service."
Also in AAYA, Bat-Ami acknowledged that she encountered some difficulty learning to read. "I think part of this has to do with my eyes," she said. "I had an operation when I was five and wore glasses (or contacts) from then on. At first I didn't read well and was tutored by a wonderful teacher. I loved learning from her. After school, I'd sit on her porch—her name was Mrs. Farber and we'd read together. I liked the shared experience of reading. At school I wasn't a 'blue bird.' Those were the best readers. I think I was in the second group. I always felt compelled to do better. But at school we read aloud in circles and it didn't feel as communal as it did on Mrs. Farber's porch. When I was a pre-teen I caught the reading bug. I guess I'm a lot like my second son: a late reading bloomer who now delights in the whole venture of moving into imaginary worlds. I loved to lie in bed with the covers over me, eat chips or ice cream, and read and read and read. Later I loved reading to my mother, particularly plays. After the initial fear of reading in groups, I loved reading aloud to people. I liked to dramatize events."
Bat-Ami added that once she felt comfortable reading, she read everything she could find. "I read just about everything. I wasn't a discriminating reader. My parents got Reader's Digest Books of Stories. I'm not quite sure that's the right title, but the Reader's Digest people put out books of short stories. I read those. I read any horse book I could get my hands on. I read Golden Books. My favorite was an abridged version of Heidi. Summers, I'd join the Reading Clubs and I read Nancy Drew mysteries and 'The Bobbsey Twins' series, and I loved Hans Christian Andersen. His sad stories always touched me. I remember sitting in a big stuffed chair in our attic and wishing that the little mermaid would be able to marry the prince. I remember wondering how she could endure suffering so much. I read books about girls who suffered and survived: biographies about people like Helen Keller. I was particularly attracted to Madame Curie. If only I could be an inventor like her. And I imagined myself a 'National Velvet' racing my horse. My parents always encouraged me to read."
Bat-Ami once recalled, "In school I was a good student, not a genius but good. I was persistent and worked hard. I liked algebra and had a good deal of trouble with geometry. I loved English and hated art. I had no faith in my abilities to draw and very little patience. I also asked many questions. Some teachers liked this. Some didn't.
"As a teenager I wanted to be a ballet dancer with some dance company. I had famous dancers on my wall (alongside pictures of running horses), and I always saw myself in movement, but I wasn't cut out to be a dancer. I came to writing slowly. My freshman year, I had a teacher who really encouraged me and put me on the writing staff of our high school newspaper. I began by writing poetry. Poetry cleanses the soul, and I continue to return to it when I want to suck on the seeds of life.
"I went to Boston University my first year of college and then transferred to Hebrew University in Jerusalem," Bat-Ami once stated. "I finished my B.A. in Israel. … I loved college. [At] Hebrew University I got to travel quite a bit. I remember swimming in oases, in the Mediterranean, picking dates, hiking, seeing Greece and Paris. I lived in Jerusalem and felt it to be the most spiritual place on the earth. After graduation, I went back to the States as I always thought of myself as American. Perhaps, though, this sense of myself as Jewish and American influenced a great deal of my writing, for in this duality there was that sense that I was neither fully one thing or another, or rather I was two things. I belonged to a people whose roots were not in the States. My grandparents were immigrants from Poland and Russia. And yet, I have always felt very American. After graduation I held many insignificant jobs, worked part-time and wrote, and traveled around the United States until, at the age of 28, I went back to school. I did my master's at California State University, Los Angeles, and my doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh."
Discussing her entry into the world of children's book publishing, Bat-Ami once stated, "I was amazed when my first book was published. I was very fortunate to work with Harold Underdown, children's book editor. In 1989 he was an assistant editor at Macmillan and working his way up. I was new. He was looking for fresh voices. I sent him Sea, Salt, and Air and he literally showed me how to make a picture book from it. It is scary to be a picture book writer when you are not the illustrator. You have to trust that the illustrator will carry the vision you had—and even extend that. I still love looking at Sea, Salt, and Air, although I was saddened that Macmillan Children's books folded.
"Where do I get my ideas? Listening to kids, and being with my children. My books have tended to follow my children, in that I've written for an older and older audience. My last book was for teens and some of what my older son said was in it. My children keep me in touch with how kids are thinking because one can forget. Just recently my eldest got his permit and I experienced that whole feeling of being behind the wheel, taking your mom's keys and hanging onto them, asking your mom to move over into the passenger's side. An event that occurred to me or my kids will trigger ideas. My youngest grew the biggest sunflower the summer before kindergarten, and he measured his growth through that sunflower. This became the basis of a picture book manuscript, 'The Practicing Sunflower.'
"For historical fiction, I read history books and become intrigued by certain events in history. When I researched Two Suns in the Sky, I depended quite a bit on interviews and newspaper articles. The newspaper can give you so much: tell you of fashions, prices, current events (of that time), movies that are popular, hair styles. I use the newspaper like freezer paper. It gives me grounding."
Asked about her writing practices, Bat-Ami told AAYA, "When I write, I need quiet. I write in my office on the second floor of our house. I face a window because I need to look out at the trees from time to time. How do I balance my time? I'm fortunate in that I teach at a university and so don't have a 9 to 5 job. I write mornings, teach afternoons and prepare classes/grade papers in the evenings."
Bat-Ami continued: "I write children's books because they tell us the truth about ourselves. They sustain us. Because when the child in us dies, we die. The unique thing about young readers is that they so willingly enter into a fictional world and are engaged with characters in that world. A friend of mine told me about how her daughter read my book. She took it out to the back yard, sat against a tree trunk and read all afternoon. Fourteen-year-old girls need that escape, and, in escaping, they handle their own worlds so much better. They are refreshed. I think I love adolescent readers because they read like they eat—hungrily. I also am intrigued that young readers possess a willingness to enter into other worlds, to engage with characters inside a fictional context and to be moved by it. I myself want my readers to discover new worlds and see things they hadn't before—consider questions which they hadn't thought about.
"I try to give a reader something which tastes good but isn't pablum. I want my readers to use their teeth and their tongues and feel the swallowing. Regarding goals, the majority of my work addresses community. 'No man is an island' has become a cliché, but there is truth in this statement. We are all connected, and I ask my reader to consider connections. I ask my reader to think about what we can do for each other, and I want them to have faith in themselves. My characters feel the immensity of life, often they are close to getting lost in the bigness of it all, but they find support. Often support comes from an older person, Mrs. Dubchek in Two Suns in the Sky, and Mr. Pettinato in When the Frost Is Gone. That older person is close to nature or to God [and] feels comfortable with life. My main characters find best friends who move them to see differently and they are willing to take chances. Living for them is taking a chance and exploring the other.
"I hope that my readers feel good about themselves, that they believe they can do something for others, can work with others to affect some change for the better in this world. Chris says this in Two Suns in the Sky. She says, 'Roosevelt had been the president of the United States almost as long as I'd lived on the earth. He said that we were citizens of the world. We couldn't be ostriches or dogs in the manger. We had to be responsible. We had to act responsibly. So I had to figure out what to do for myself.' "When I think of all my books, I realize that I speak of family and community, of being inside a group and of feeling left out or outside, of wanting to become part of a larger circle. My characters are in the midst of change, sometimes bored with their lives, feeling that they need to connect to something bigger than themselves."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bat-Ami, Miriam, Two Suns in the Sky, Front Street/Cricket Books (Chicago, IL), 1999, reprinted, Puffin Books (New York, NY).
Booklist, May 15, 1993, p. 1695; April 1, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Dear Elijah, p. 1391; April 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Two Suns in the Sky.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of When the Frost Is Gone, p. 251; July, 1999, review of Two Suns in the Sky, pp. 379-380.
Horn Book, July, 1999, Martha Walke, review of Two Suns in the Sky, p. 460.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1994, review of When the Frost Is Gone, p. 552.
Publishers Weekly, March 7, 1994, review of When the Frost Is Gone, p. 72; January 16, 1995, review of Dear Elijah, p. 455; May 17, 1999, review of Two Suns in the Sky, p. 80.
School Library Journal, June, 1993, p. 70; April, 1994, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of When the Frost Is Gone, p. 124; May, 1995, Sharon Grover, review of Dear Elijah, p. 104; July, 1999, Shirley Wilton, review of Two Suns in the Sky, p. 92.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1994, Kitty Krahnke, review of When the Frost Is Gone, p. 142; August, 1995, Becky Korman, review of Dear Elijah, p. 154.
Miriam Bat-Ami. That's my name. Actually, it's my pseudonym. It means "daughter of my people" in Hebrew, and it is totally fake. If I were to do it again, I'd choose an easy fake name like Sandy Smith or Debby Jones. Nobody can pronounce my name right including me. One time I thought I'd call myself Sunny Daze, but my humor is much too biting for that. There are some advantages to a fake, difficult to pronounce name. I can sniff out a telemarketer immediately. I bet you're wondering why I ever chose that name? You'll have to wait until you reach the early married life years of this autobiography to find out. I'll just tell you now that I'm called by a lot of names: Miriam Rubens because Rubens is my husband's and my kids' last names; Dr. Miriam Bat-Ami because I'm a professor who likes to profess about things I can't even write about in this essay, and Mrs. Rubens—mostly at school events. Maybe nobody wants to use last names or titles at all anymore, and I should choose a name that's just one name like Avi. He's a wonderful writer and the one name bit hasn't affected him at all. Then there are the writers who have only last names like J. K. Rowling and S. E. Hinton. "What's in a name?" you ask. Or was it W. Shakespeare who asked that? A lot. Just look at Ralph Lauren. That's a fake name, too.
Just for the record, I was born Miriam Shoop. Come to think of it, that's fake, too. My grandfather's parents had this long name, Shupinsky. They were aspiring immigrants and didn't want to be saddled with such a long name so somebody or other got to thinking. Shup? Pinsky? Shup? Pinsky? This somebody chose Shup and then shifted it to Shoop. That was before the "shoop shoop" song. My family liked Shoop. It makes you think of all kinds of good rhyming words like snoop and hoop and alee-oop, and when my older brother Alvin, who changed his first name to Al because he didn't want everybody to think he was one of the chipmunks, ran for unit leader at our temple, he sang this song: "If you want some chicken soup, vote for Alvin Shoop." Nearly everybody in my family battled with names. My mother, Huddie Shoop, formerly Huddie Weinstein, was born Judith or Yehudit in Hebrew. My grandparents, though, always called her Huddie. My sister is Deborah, and she called herself Debby for a whole long time until she thought Deborah was much more fashionable and adult. My younger brother is Louis, but he calls himself Louie. He's living in Montreal, and Louie probably sounds more French, and his family calls him Eliezer which is his Hebrew name. The only person in my whole darn family who didn't have a problem with his name was my dad, Simon Shoop, and he had a lot of attachments, too. Rabbi Dr. Simon Shoop. Rabbi always came first.
You're probably all confused by this discussion about names, so this is it with a few additions: I was born on June 26, 1950 and got the name Miriam Shoop. I've got two brothers and a sister: Al who's seven years older than I am; Debby—I mean Deborah—who's four years older than I am; me, and Louie, who's my baby brother. (I never let him forget it.) He's seven years younger than I am. With every birth, there's a good story. If your mom hasn't told you yours, make her tell you. If that's impossible, make up a story yourself because here's the thing: Every birth is miraculous. I'm not just talking about people, either, although I have had my questions about flies and fleas and jiggers. I've got a story about jiggers for you. I'm saving it for later. Maybe, your birth is only a miracle to your mom and dad and those who are close to you, but it's important—miraculous. Don't let anybody tell you differently. Thing is, too, we have to live up to that miracle because after we're born we can't bank on the birth any longer. Our whole living has to be a miracle. It's like you gotta imagine what it would be like if you were never born. You gotta close your eyes and see the world without you in it—ever—and if everybody you know is all cheery and laughing, then you gotta work hard.
Boy, this is making me think. I still have a lot of work to do. Stories are all part of the miracle. I bet you wondered how I'd get back to that story of my birth. I suspect that transition line was a bit shaky, although there is some substance to it. Stories are just part of our passing down the miracle of ourselves to others. They can also make us see where we didn't live up to that. When it comes to me, my mother started the story process.
The year is 1950. Like I said, that's when I was born, and if you're looking for real facts about me, you should probably start here at the more "traditional" beginning. It's June. It's very hot. A very pregnant—if you're a guy and ready to barf, just hang in there—A very pregnant woman is lying on the couch with a cold towel over her head when the life inside her decides it wants to be the life outside. I always rushed things from the very start. "Hold your horses!" my mother shouted. "You are supposed to be born in July. Go back where you came from." I don't think she really said those words, but they'll have to do. I didn't listen.
I like June. June is a good month to be born. If you're not born too late in June your friends are still around so you can have a birthday party. You don't have to drag them back from camp. As I am particularly fond of birthday parties and presents, especially when they're for me, I must have been thinking all this. It was the party animal in me that was ignoring all the important things like how my eye muscles weren't fully developed and how I was really tiny. Tiny is part of my mother's story which really begins now. I gotta tell you, though, I was fudging things. The story, in my mind, is centered on the miracle of my birth. The story in my mother's mind is centered on the miracle of my staying alive. Her title runs something like this: "How I Worked and Slaved and Saved My Stupid Premie Daughter." Right now it's important for me to tell my mom that I'm teasing. There may only be one reader of this autobiography besides the editors. That's my mom. So I want the record to be straight. She did work. She did slave over me, and I was a whiny, demanding, skinny baby who never gave it a thought because, hey, I was that miracle.
Here are my mother's words, paraphrased:
"You were so tiny. You were just over three pounds." (Now I want you to imagine that. Three pounds equals two big pair of shoes or less than the backpack teachers make you carry home so you feel like you're a donkey. If you're a teacher reading this, I want you to think about children's backs.) "You cried and you cried, and your bottom was so raw because they kept you in an incubator." (I have no idea how my bottom was raw, but I'm to believe that the nurses were too busy to change my diaper so I lay around in poopy underwear, which is a prerequisite for fine writing since we all know that the best writers suffered immensely in their early lives.) "I made the doctor release you from the hospital because you weren't gaining any weight. I brought you home and placed you beside the radiator, and all day long I blew on your bottom and fed you until you were healthy."
At this point Mom looks at me. We're both teary-eyed. Neither of us can resist a good story, particularly if it involves my birth and her bravery. My mom saved me. She was the first to do so. A lot of other people have stepped in over the years. It's a good thing I have friends. I'd advise it. You never know when you'll need saving. When I was two or three, my stroller fell in the water. I was in the stroller. I suspect I was pushing the stroller forward from inside because I hate to stay still. (More on that later.) My brother, Al, who was still Alvin at the time, was swimming out in the lake. The way my mother and brother tell it, he was near the middle. I was simultaneously screaming and drowning: I have always had a superb set of lungs. Mom was racing down to the dock. Al was swimming frantically. I do not think he was singing under his breath, "If you want some chicken soup, vote for Alvin Shoop." He made a mad dash for the dock and saved me.
When I was seven or so, I went too far out in the ocean with my tube and a friendly neighborhood boy—I
still remember how cute he was and how I had a crush on him—saved me, or so I thought. The incident had more to do with my stubbornness. Somebody tells me something, and I refuse to listen: I have to experience it myself.
"You're too far out," he said. "It's over your head."
"No I'm not," I answered. "It isn't over my head."
To prove the point, I ducked under the tube and stood up—or rather attempted to stand. It was over my head! I panicked forgetting all about the tube. There I was in the ocean over my head with a cute boy only inches away from me. You'd think I'd at least swim over to him and then panic. Instead, I clung onto the tube until he was forced to drag me and the tube close to shore.
Years later I'd be just as dumb except this time my son Danny, who was born Daniel and is now called Dan by people like his tennis coach, would come to the rescue. I was snorkeling in the Keys getting all excited about the wonderful fish I could see. It was great. I was following a nursing shark when I realized that I was far from our boat. Now the thing is, I have absolutely no sense of direction. I bobbed up in the water around three boats. I swam to one and realized it was the wrong one. I turned around. The water was very choppy, and, suddenly, I didn't have the strength to swim. I kept bobbing up and down and doggy-paddling. I forgot all the pre-swim directions that I had been given like how I could inflate my life jacket. There I was with an actual life jacket on, and I was sinking and rising like a dumb jerk. "Help!" I screamed. My son saw my flailing arms and got one of the guides to swim out to me. Maybe I was just looking to swim with a cute guy. Thankfully, none of my sons' friends were around to see this embarrassing moment—me hanging on to this guy. In my defense, once back in the boat, I took a few deep breaths and hit the water again. I definitely was not going to miss this experience. I am a klutz which may well go back to that whole birth experience and my strange eyes: I have little depth perception, and, when I'm real tired, one of my eyes loses its bearings and wanders off as far as it can go—the edge of my eye socket. "Lazy eye," they call it. I'm also a dreamer so I bump into things like the TV antenna and the edges of my bed and sometimes even walls that have no business being in my way. Still, I'm the first one in line to try new things.
I also saved numerous canines and felines. There are at least ten dogs who owe their existence to me. (I do volunteer work at the Animal Control Shelter so I see a lot of dogs and cats about to be put down. I can't save them all, but I've convinced several people to take a pet home.) The two mutts in our house are saved dogs, too: the half Pinscher and half German Shepherd that my son Danny fell in love with. He was a rescue dog. And the Chow Lab who I found rummaging through the garbage cans on our block. Given my birth, I guess you could say that early on I learned that we're all in this together, and we better start saving each other.
I did not know early on what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had a lot of dreams. None of them had to do with writing. Like I said, I've always had a hard time sitting for stretches at a time, so writing didn't seem to be a good idea.
So what did I want to do when I was little and had made it past the hospital incubator and my crib at home where I lay totally in the nude, soaking up the sun and being blown on by my solicitous mom? At first I wanted to be a horse—part-time that is. I'd come home from school, flop down on my bed and think about cantering across open stretches of land. When I came to the sad realization that this was an impossibility, I wanted to have my own horse. I let my family in on this by scotch-taping my bedroom walls with horse pictures. I'd gaze at these beautiful beasts galloping freely over some anonymous wild expanse of territory—some wide open piece of land. Their eyes were huge and wild looking. Their manes were flowing, and I felt myself running with them. Like I said, I hated sitting. I still do. Just thinking about it makes me want to stand up and stretch. I think I'll move around and come back to this essay about the fake Dr. Bat-Ami in a second.
I just went off for a half an hour. Walking around is helpful. I'm sure that you've heard it clears the brain, and writers have all kinds of tricks. They are sort of like magicians. One of mine is taking a hot bath. Another is walking. However, walking has its down side. It can take a long time to get back to the typewriter. My best writing is done when I sit for around four hours solid and meander around about six times. During these meanderings I visit the refrigerator. I keep thinking it'll offer up something new and exciting that I had forgotten in previous forays to the land of dreams. Refrigerators can be terribly disappointing sometimes. Sure, occasionally, I'll find some half eaten chocolate bar—I love chocolate—but more often I'll discover a macaroni salad that has been forgotten and has flourished all on its own. Moldy macaroni is nasty. Nastier yet is biting into a left-over piece of bread and finding a mold spot.
After all this discussion of putrefying food, I opted for a baked apple. I'm not much of a cook. My husband Ron does most of the cooking, but I'm good for desserts and salads. I hope you, my reader, are still here. It takes a little patience to read me. I don't tell everything all at once. It's not in me to be straightforward, so, if you're doing a paper and need to document facts, you might be disappointed by now. You might even be forgetting all the real stuff that I told you, and all you can remember are the stories. I like that. Here's where I do a reminder and a transition. Don't do something like this on a school paper. It's sure to get a bad grade.
Like I said, I wanted to have my own horse. I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby or that big race that the heroine in National Velvet wins. I wanted to find some decrepit-looking horse who nobody cared for and turn it into a super star. However, my parents weren't into animals so I only rode once a week. My closest friend, Rhonda Lebensbaum, who later became Ronnie, took me riding. She and I and her younger sister, Marion, who never changed her name as far as I know, piled into one of her dad's old junks and headed out to the stables every Sunday. Ronnie's dad owned a used car lot so he had lots of great old cars. I loved Tonka, a big bay horse. Ronnie loved Lady. And I waited all week long to ride. I never got my own horse when I was a kid. It was much too expensive, and people of my parents' generation didn't spend easily. There was no plastic back then—no credit cards to charge up vacations with. Whatever you bought, you bought with cash—hardly ever checks—and there was no such thing as a luxury item. Even vacations were different then. Mainly, you visited family so every year my parents packed up the car and went to my grandma's cottage in Natasket right near the Atlantic Ocean. Vacations meant visiting family, and there was something absolutely beautiful about all that. So having a horse, taking the car up to see a horse when my parents only had one car—my dad's—and paying board on a horse, it just wasn't something I thought would be possible. I didn't even imagine it. What I loved were the weekly lessons and the trail rides: me and Ronnie on Tonka and Lady.
Later on I'd use my horse knowledge for poems that I wrote. One was called "This is the Way It Is" published in the anthology called On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl. The other has been taken by Cicada magazine and is called "Just Trying to Stay Warm." My best horse poem—because it meant so much to the person I wrote it for—is called "Horse's First Sanctuary" and was written for a woman who lost her very dear companion horse. Her name is Denise Blakely, and I actually board my horse, Judie, there. Yes, reader, many years after wanting my own horse, I did buy a horse. Her real name isn't Judie: it's Doc Sand Bar Judie. You can't see it in the picture, but she's chestnut. After she has shed her winter coat, she gleams bright orange, and she's one of the main characters in a novel that I'm finishing now called Dancing from the Waist Up. (If you haven't already guessed, I love animals, and our house is full of them: two dogs, two cockatiels, and one cat. Buried in the back yard are my kids' mice: Chocolate and Speedy.)
When I was about eleven, I chose a new future profession: ballet dancer. Off went the horse pictures—I think I kept one on the wall—and on went the ballet pictures. Behind my bed were beautiful women with long legs they extended in every direction. The picture I remember most was of Maria Tallchief. She was dressed in a costume made of feathers. I'd fix my eyes on her or some other star of the New York City Ballet, and I'd dream of myself pirouetting across a stage. I began to take ballet lessons, and I got to wear wonderful costumes. The prettiest was a blue frilly thing that I wore the first year I went on toe shoes. I have to admit that I loved the ballet accessories nearly as much as I loved ballet. There were the pink toe shoes with the long pink ribbons; there was the box of lambs' wool that I pulled off, formed into a cup and stuck around my toes that were fast getting calluses. There were the leotards: long sleeved pink ones and long sleeved black ones and geeky short sleeved things. And then there were the tights. Long after I stopped ballet, I was still wearing dancer outfits with a few modifications. I'd cut the sleeves entirely, and I'd drape some long necklace around my neck. I liked the "arty" look, and my body didn't want to be held in. It was all part of the running—of feeling loose and free somehow. But nothing's entirely free, and art depends upon not merely the freedom of self-expression, but discipline, and talent. I had some discipline but absolutely no talent, and I spent a good many of my high school years coming to terms with that.
A lot of people operate under the illusion that we can be whatever we want to be. That's not true. I really think that we all have certain talents—gifts. I'd be presumptuous to say that I know where they come from. I imagine part of it's heredity. My father had a gift for expression. As a rabbi, he wrote the most amazing sermons: they were powerful, logical, and filled with deep-felt emotion. Having strong beliefs didn't hurt him. My mother has a gift for music, one which she worked on in a very disciplined way. She began playing the violin when she was very young—five I think—and she kept playing. I grew up hearing her practicing several hours a day. I had a gift, too, but I didn't know what it was at first, and I tried all kinds of other things. Riding horses. Doing ballet. You have to understand the humor of the latter. First, I have nearly flat feet and very weak ankles. It was a torture to stay up on my toe shoes. Second, if you remember, there's the lazy eye: the right wandering eye. Have you ever looked at yourself doing a pirouette turn and everything is turning except one eye? It's very disconcerting.
My husband and I tell another story to each other that has to do with eyes. It's about our first meeting. One of his eyes doesn't work right, either. (He also had a strange and miraculous birth, but he'll have to tell that story himself.) His left eye hardly moves, and my right eye wanders. When we met, we fixed our good eyes on each other and they've been fixed ever since.
One of my defining moments happened when I was seventeen. My mother, a Julliard graduate, took me to a master dance class at that thoroughly awesome place. "This is what you need to be to be a dancer," she said. I got the point. I had also begun to write. I don't think I actually saw myself as a writer, but I enjoyed writing poetry, and I tried out and was accepted as one of the contributing writers for our high school literary magazine, Impressions. A couple of my poems made it into print. All I remember is one overly self-conscious statement: "I am a woman, no longer a child." I was all of seventeen then and quite certain that I had leaped over to full grown womanhood.
As far as prerequisites, I had a vivid imagination: that's what I called it; my teachers often said that I dreamed a lot. Everyone called me a poet before I even
thought I was one, and then there were my parents—two very fervent people who knew the power of sound, voiced and unvoiced. I figured that I should give writing a try. I also had the poet look. You've heard about the leotards already. Now put a leotard-clad kid on a rock. Tall, long-legged, black-haired female sits on a craggy boulder and stares pensively with her big brown eyes out at the landscape. She looks serious, like she is pondering the meaning of life. Actually, she's not wearing her glasses and can't see a thing—thus the stare.
Perhaps there always was in me a writer's sensibility—a need to record what I observed. A writer or a private investigator. I always asked questions. I still do. This did not always work well with my teachers, in particular with one memorable grade school teacher whose name will remain anonymous: we can call her a cross between Cruella and Ursula. In my memory she's dressed in a tight black dress, and she looks like an overloaded paper bag some Goodwill lady gives you on one of those specials day: everything you squeeze into the bag goes for $5.00. Whatever the teacher was stuffing inside her dress wouldn't be held in even by the belts she incessantly wore—black dresses and belts with gold clasps. Her voice was loud and shrill and every available pore in my body closed up when she started talking so I asked questions, some of them relevant, some of them inane. I asked with reckless abandon as if every question would make me that much closer to understanding the nature of the universe.
What exactly is an obtuse angle? Do two parallel lines meet and get to touch in infinity? There is nothing on my pencil saying what kind of lead is inside. If it's not a number two, will the marks scan? If I erase, can I mark over the erased number?
There are people who turn on a mechanism inside of me that's connected to the arguing part of my brain. These people don't care for debate. They have pre-made answers to everything, and there's only one way—theirs. They don't say that: they say that possibilities are limitless; there are interpretations, not interpretation, but every road leads to the same place, and they've determined already where the finish is so they're only so willing to let you meander off in the "wrong" direction. These people—and they always smile a lot in a creepy "know-it-all" way—get me nervous: I get them nervous, too. They listen to my language with its "perhaps" and "it might be" and, if I'm feeling a little more certain "it may well be," and they cringe. I'm too unstructured and unorganized and indecisive, and they can't understand why I never button shirts up all the way, hate things that squeeze at my middle, and never ever write outlines. That I've written a lengthy dissertation without one and several novels doesn't deter them. I'd get where I need getting to a whole lot faster if I followed the road map. No doubt these people have things to teach me. Everybody does, but they've forgotten all about the fun of getting there.
For me, it has always been the joy of process, although holding the product in your hands is wonderful, too. It simply doesn't make for memories. I must admit that, on occasion, I've found myself instituting "rules" and my students questioning. If anything saves me, it's my apologetic responses: "Yes, I'm asking for at least two hundred and fifty words double spaced because, yes, I don't think you can give me a clear answer with anything less, but if you can, I'll accept it." In my world there is always room for surprises. I don't love argumentative people, but I love people who argue—not to beat me but to come closer with me to conclusions—and the world is filled with a myriad of answers for everything. In this respect the characters I've created in my works are like me. They can't stand preconceived answers. "If you get out of the tube, you'll find out that you're over your head," said that cute boy. I had to get out, and it was over my head. It's not always that way, though.
This is not to say that I don't have morals and standards: I do. I believe in justice and freedom and responsibility and love and joy, but I shy away from dogma and a "this is the only way" approach to life. In life, in what people like to call the "real world," you don't always beat the people with THE ANSWERS. Fiction is different. Fiction gives hope because the kind of world one imagines is possible is always worth fighting for. As for that overstuffed bag, she called my mother in for a conference. "Your daughter makes me nervous," she said. To her credit, my mother said, "You make her nervous, too." In the end my mother very diplomatically had me go to our garden and pick lilacs for the teacher. I brought them into class, and the rest of the year went well. Compromise is sometimes necessary. It is also necessary to know what battles are worth fighting for and which really make a difference to one's own sense of self-respect.
In grade school I had some good teachers, some not-so-good teachers. When I was a freshman in high school, I had a teacher who made me want to write. Up until that point I observed, but I didn't think of writing what I was seeing. My freshman year of high school I began writing poetry. Maybe it fit in with that dark-haired girl sitting on a rock staring myopically into space. Writing and reading. I did a lot of the latter, and that definitely helped. You can't write well without reading. Recently, a student of mine said these two things in back-to-back fashion. "I'm a creative poet, but I don't like to read. I hardly read at all." When I read his writing, the lack of reading was obvious. I don't think you can be a good writer without being a good reader, and, as a kid, I read voraciously. Voraciously—that's a good word. It makes me think of dogs gnawing on bones, of words being something you chew—words that give your teeth exercise.
I'm not saying that I read good books. I read long, soppy romances like Exodus and Gone with the Wind. Before you want to puke because I sound too "good" to be true, let me say that my excessive reading didn't entirely arise out of a burning desire to be literate. I grew up in a religious Jewish family. Flip back to the beginning of this essay when I said that my father was a Conservative Rabbi. That meant that I observed the Sabbath—really observed, and the word "observed" isn't there for nothing: it means a lot of the times you have to observe rather than do—especially when it comes to the Sabbath. For the first eighteen years of my life, I didn't write on Saturday. I didn't ride. I didn't turn on lights or do anything that was considered work. Saturday was a day of rest and prayer. All that rest and prayer began Friday at sundown and went till when the sun set on Saturday. I can't tell you how many sunsets I watched. My mother and I sat in her bedroom on the second floor of our Scranton home, and we watched the sun setting. In the summer it seemed like it was perpetually stuck somewhere above the horizon. The best place to watch that sun setting was that second floor bedroom: my mother and I were that much closer to the horizon.
Before sunset on Saturday and after morning services, I walked. Sometimes I walked with Dad. Sometimes I walked with Mom and Dad. Lots of times I walked alone. Walking was permissible although, to be honest, it's a lot of work. So was reading, and, during my childhood, I learned to read for long periods of time. When I got home from temple and finished eating one of those hearty Sabbath meals, I lay in my bed and read and read and read some more until the Sabbath was over. Think about it. On a winter's day that's at least five hours of reading. On a summer day it can be a good eight hours. I was a naturally observant kid, but being an observant Jew made me a reader.
It could have also made me a gambler since, around four o'clock on those long summer days, Mom broke out the cards, deftly shuffled together the two packs necessary for our favorite game of canasta, and we got into some serious playing. There we sat on the red Naugahyde chairs, our elbows leaning on the Formica table picking at the wax that had dripped from the Sabbath candles and thinking about what we would lay down and what we would discard and feeling somewhat guilty because it wasn't exactly kosher to be playing cards on the Sabbath. It was one of those "iffy" things. We didn't use money. We weren't writing anything down, but what we were doing wasn't exactly kosher. Neither was the way I used to play with the Shabbos clock. Ah, the Shabbos clock. When I was around twelve, Dad brought it home, probably because he suspected I was accidentally-on-purpose turning on the TV on Friday night. I mean how many times can you bump up against the on button. The idea was to set this clock that was attached to the power: at a certain time it would turn on and then, a few hours later, turn off again. I timed it from about nine to eleven so that I could watch my favorite spy show: Man from U.N.C.L.E. When the clock broke down, I manually turned it. This kind of sliding away from the Sabbath rules was recreated in my third novel, Dear Elijah, the novel most closely connected to my childhood.
What's important here, though, isn't the sliding but the way Mom and I played together on the Sabbath. In the mornings we sat watching Dad. Sometimes I walked down to temple with him. We all ate together—my brothers, my sister, me, Dad, and Mom. And during those long days, between reading and eating and walking and watching the sun in its slow movement across the sky, its peaceful ambling as if it, too, didn't have to hurry to its appointed place under the horizon, as a family we came together and parted and came together again for the final Havdalah ceremony that marked the division between the Holy Sabbath day and the rest of the week.
There were also other wonderful memories having to do with my religious background: I love some of the Jewish holidays such as Passover and Sukkot. I loved all the preparations for the holidays and, in Dear Elijah I also spoke about those preparations attending Passover. My background also lent a certain flavor to my writing that has stayed with me even through the non-observant years. It imbued my fictional worlds with mystery. I felt, early on, that the world wasn't exactly the way I literally saw it. There was mystery to the world, patterns that I'd never understand but would sense, meanings that were beyond me, possibilities and answers that I could only imagine. When I was young, I was very religious, and a part of that never left me—not the philosophy of it. Not the rules of it. The intangibility. That God or a magical force could be somewhere close. That there might be angels. That a hawk suddenly alighting on a tree branch near my window might signify something amazing even if it is that nature itself is a mystery.
What one becomes as a writer begins early on in one's life. Religion played a part. My mother's music had its force, and her presence in the house: she was the center of our home. My father's robes and his position and his deep beliefs had an influence. Sabbath and the way I read trying to finish a book before the sun went down had an influence. One evening, as the sky darkened, I cried my way through the romance novel Rebecca turning the wet pages at a fast and furious pace. Some long Saturday summers I could do about 200 pages when I got into the swing of things. I had contests with myself. How fat a book could I read in a day? I wouldn't skip pages. I wouldn't turn to the end first either. Somehow that was "illegal" in my mind—illegal and immoral. I was a stickler for morality when it came to reading. I was unscrupulously honest, too, which may well sicken you, but there it is. And teachers influenced me: those who made me nervous and those who nurtured my spirit and made me dig into myself. My high school English teachers spurred me on.
My freshman year of high school made for a lot of memories. I also "dogged" or pledged for a Jewish sorority. While I had a few very close friends, I was shy—overwhelmingly so with boys. I hated to shop and either walked quickly by any mirror in the house or stared into the glass making faces. Sorority, my parents decided, would be good: give me confidence, polish me up and teach me the rules of team behavior. It was wild. I remember wearing checks and stripes to school, socks of different colors, and weird mismatching sweaters. I walked to school in the snow with a sorority sister who had pledged already and was my superior. (Back then you walked. There weren't any school buses.) "Enemy fire," my sorority superior screamed. "Down on the ground." This was 1964. We were still thinking World War II. I hit snow banks face down. I also made big balls out of the foil from gum wrappers and chug-a-lugged God only knows how many raw eggs. Between sorority and Sabbath reading I don't know how I made it through that year. I do know that the sorority life lasted two years. Being a team player was just too exhausting.
On Saturdays I read. On Sundays I went horseback riding with my best friend, Rhonda. During the week, when I wasn't memorizing the Greek alphabet backwards and forwards so that I could blurt it out to some senior sorority sister, I went to ballet or hung out in Rhonda's room. If I wasn't reading romantic books, I was thinking romantic thoughts about George Harrison. George was my favorite Beatle because he was shy and intense, unlike Paul who was Rhonda's favorite. Talking about our favorite horses, we sat on the bed and cut out magazine pictures of George and Paul or sang "I want to hold your hand." With Laurie Tevlin, my other close friend, I played board games, dressed up her Barbies—I must have been in grade school when I did this—and fooled around with her bulldog, Duchess. Though, as a kid I didn't have any animals, I attached myself to my friends' dogs: the drooling, bad-breath Duchess and the roly-poly beagle Bunsy (Rhonda's dog).
Bunsy knew all these tricks. One still makes me laugh. Rhonda would hold a piece of meat above Bunsy's nose and say, in a very serious voice, "Tref, tref." Tref means unkosher in Yiddish. Bunsy's baleful brown eyes widened. His tongue lengthened in agony, but he sat still. If Rhonda or I were in a particularly malicious mood, we'd let Bunsy drool a puddle of saliva onto the rug while he moaned in only a way beagles can moan. Then Rhonda cheerily shouted, "Kosher, kosher." Bunsy grabbed the same piece of meat, miraculously transformed to acceptable Orthodox standards.
With Duchess I played terribly wicked games on my younger brother. I suspect his fear of dogs stems from these games. We'd pass by Laurie's back yard and I'd scream, "Duchess, get him!" Duchess came barreling down the back yard. When she reached the iron gate, she slammed herself against it, and my brother climbed onto my back as if I were a tree. I've since wondered what impelled me to such teasing, but then I remember leading a kid eight years my junior down the block Halloween night.
Why My Brother Deserves to Be Scared: You'd Better Believe It!
We come to the house that's known for its huge candy bars. I've made an arrangement with the little turd that he at least give me one candy bar for all my efforts. I'm thinking Hershey's milk chocolate with almonds when I knock. The woman at the door doesn't disappoint me. In her hand is a huge jack-o'lantern filled with candy bars. The turd doesn't want to sing. He only knows the Four Questions you sing for Passover night. He knows them in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. The teachers at the Hebrew Day School don't teach him Halloween songs. "You have to sing to get a treat," says the woman. (Back then, you did have to sing.)
"I don't know any songs," the turd says. "My sister does. She can sing!"
I'm trying to pull him down the stairs, but I know what'll happen when we get home. He'll say that I didn't live up to my side of the bargain. I don't deserve to have any of his candy. He'll sit at the kitchen table counting chocolate squares and caramels and licorice and boxes of Milk Duds, and he'll push an apple over to me because, who knows, there might be a razor in the apple, and the turd has fears—fears of dogs and people who could kill you if you don't watch out.
I shake my head. This isn't fair. I'm nearly sixteen. I shouldn't be responsible for this kid who hasn't even learned a real Halloween song. How could he think that The Four Questions would work, and why does he even want to go Halloweening when the rebbes tell him that it's for Christians? Only the Christians with their Lucifer dress up on Halloween. But the thought of chocolate overwhelms me. I live and die for chocolate.
I croak out a song that I learned in first or second grade. Unlike my brother I don't go to a Day School. I'm a girl so I get to go to public school where I learn the whole gamut of holiday songs. Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, All I Want for Christmas, I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. All those Christmas songs that lead to nothing—no tree, no presents! Geez! At least there's Halloween when I can actually get something. That's what I thought until I was fourteen and much too cool for any of that, and now here's the turd making me walk and cutting me out of any reward. So I sing. "The witches are coming yoohoo, yoo-hoo. The witches are coming for me and you." I stumble through the song, smile like a jerk and wait while she reaches in for the prize. Her hand passes over the Mounds. Thank you, God. I hate coconut. She's got her hand on my favorite: the Hershey bar with almonds, and then … and then … the bozo lets it out.
"Can't you give me money?" he asks. "I'm the Rabbi's son and down the block they gave me money."
The woman looks at me. I read shock all over her face. The bozo doesn't catch any of this. He has already come to the conclusion that money is a lot better than candy. (I gotta tell you, reader, my brother was born too soon for his time. Now, when kids get just money for birthdays and holidays and even Halloween, he'd fit right in.)
"I'm sorry," I mumble. I'm kicking the idiot with my foot so she doesn't see. After all, I'm not like this child. I don't tell people that I'm the Rabbi's child. I don't figure that gets me rewards. And I never, ever ask for money. I don't even want money. I WANT CHOCOLATE!!
(If you haven't guessed it yet, I still love to tease my "baby" brother. I should also tell you that he's the millionaire in our family, and I'm still the poor slob who loves chocolate.)
At some point, 1968 to be exact, I graduated high school. I had lived through a lot of wild years. There were the years when we all got under desks for duck-and-cover. The year when Sputnik went into space and one of my friends built a bomb shelter. At school teachers were asking us what books we'd take to the bomb shelter. The pat answer was the Bible. I said To Kill a Mockingbird because I had read half of it at my aunt's and then couldn't check it out of the library because it was in the adult section, and I wasn't considered an adult yet. My horse Tonka rolled over me once. I fell off a bunch of times.
After a week of suffering I asked Charles Weissberger out to a "Girls Ask Boys" sorority dance. He said "no" and I can't remember why, and I had my Philadelphia boyfriend. My first real boyfriend.
Gershon Trimple where are you and did you ever wish that your parents or grandparents would change your name like mine changed mine? If you ever read this and get mad at me for mentioning this in my autobiography, then consider this: you're actually in it. That's saying more than a lot of other people can say. Besides, you broke up with me, you pimple! Right before prom you let me have it which is why I should have told everyone that your name is Gershon Pimple and you changed it to Trimple to fool everyone!
I went to the prom with Richard Schwartz who wasn't Richard Swartz with the deformed ear but Richard Schwartz, the science whiz-kid, and, even if he wasn't my first choice, he asked me, and we had fun.
1968. No need to tear down the shelter in our back yard. We hadn't built one. My dad was of the opinion that the synagogue was shelter enough. With pomp and circumstance and a hairdo that called for straightening my curly hair so I had the proper pageboy, I graduated. I hadn't died of polio or scarlet fever. I was the sugar cube generation. I took the first two polio shots via a sugar cube laced with vaccine, and, because I lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania close to a lot of lakes, as a real small kid I did fear polio. By the time I was born Franklin Roosevelt had died and World War II was over, but the polio scare and the Holocaust still loomed over me. I felt that like fallout, just as I felt the Cold War, the fear of a nuclear attack, and the optimism that went hand in hand with the moon landing and Sputnik in space. Things had happened in the country that made for personal and national memories. Kennedy had been assassinated. I can still feel what it was like hearing the news. As a country, we were involving ourselves in Vietnam. I missed most of it or heard it from a distance because, after a freshman year at Boston University, I went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
I didn't know at the time that there was an expression for those of my sort. We were called P.K.s or Preachers' Kids, and it seems that many of us followed the same route: we rebelled. I did, too.
The P.K. Rebellion or God, Don't Strike Me Dead!
It was October of my freshman year, and I had been eating an all vegetable diet for at least a month. Once a week, on Sundays I believe, our small cafeteria served beef—beef that wasn't hamburger masquerading itself as something different like Salisbury steak. The cafeteria crew threw red and white checkered tablecloths on our tables. Someone donned a chef's hat and sliced slabs of beef, and one day in October the smell overwhelmed me. My teeth wanted to do what carnivore teeth are made to do—chew meat. I stood in line with my two best friends, and I had a debate with God. "If I eat this and you strike me dead, then I sinned and I'll be kosher for the rest of my life." I wasn't totally logical. What kind of life is there after one is struck down by God? "If I don't get stricken, I'll cross over to the unkosher line." That sounds like a small act, but when you've eaten kosher all your life it isn't. At age eighteen, I hadn't eaten shrimp or clams or lobster. I had never eaten meat that was not butchered in the ritually proper kosher way which means I hadn't eaten meat in any restaurant that wasn't kosher. Nor had I eaten milk with meat. The thought of actually consuming a glass of milk while I was masticating on a piece of steak was abhorrent. But there I was starved for a piece of meat and willingly making a bargain with God. The humorous thing is—a part of me did believe some God would be watching. Some God would take the time out to annihilate me right there in the school cafeteria. I had a big ego.
I took the beef on my plate, breathed deeply, and sat with my friends at a table beautified by a red checkered tablecloth. I stared at the meat that was slightly pink and the gravy that spilled over onto the white plate. I felt ravenous. My stomach was churning, and the room swayed slightly. Then I sliced the meat, brought it to my lips, and ate. And no one struck me dead. I crossed over to the non-observant line. I never crossed back again. In a way, sitting here writing, I'm a little sorry about that. My childhood years were pure, but in some ways that go well beyond eating kosher, they were unsatisfying when it came to religion, and so I stopped being religious.
More than the kashrut or dietary laws were those laws affecting females—I didn't feel right about them. I didn't feel there was a place for me in Orthodox Judaism, and, when I was young, I had the dreams of an outsider who desperately wanted to find herself. I still remember some of them: me dressed as a Yeshiva boy running through the halls of a school and being chased; me being in a cave and grappling to find its opening. Over the years, in my dream life, I worked my way up to the sun, and, in one dream I was surrounded by green and holding hands with people. I was in a circle of smiling people. The sun was shining. I had to cross that line to get to the right dream place. I don't think everyone has to do that. I did.
Years later, when I came down with an autoimmune disease, I went back to the bad dream place—a place of no-exit. No exit and no entrance. Illness shut the door for me years after I had found an opening, but writing threw open windows. It always does. Better than that, writing makes me happy. So does my husband, my family (animals included), the world outside my home—thinking about all the things that I still want to do. And the sun. In Michigan the sun is pure joy. As for dreams—those stories that we dream when our eyes are closed—dreams tell us a good deal about ourselves and our sense of self in the world. I have used them in my novels, most particularly in Two Suns in the Sky. Chris, one of my two main characters, in her desire to find her place in the world, to move from outsider to insider, has a persecution dream. It is one wherein we realize that she understands the kind of real persecution that Adam has had to suffer.
I was a freshman in college in Boston. I was away from home. I wanted to taste and feel the world. It was big. I had left a small community where everyone seemed to know me for a large city where nobody knew me. That felt good and bad at the same time. It was 1969. I remember one of my friends' roommates coming back to the dorm and telling us that she had burned her bra. Vietnam was on everybody's tongue the way Iraq is now. A country we had never heard about nor could locate on a map was suddenly in the news. Burning bras seems so irrelevant now, but revolution was in the air for women, too. We wanted to be free. We didn't want to be happy homemakers or to be in college to snag a good catch the way you snag a salmon on its migratory route to the spawning grounds. We were all reading Our Bodies, Ourselves. My parents, who sensed I was changing, responded in the only way that they knew how to respond: they shipped me off to Israel and Hebrew University. (Israel was safer then.)
Funny times. Like searching for a felafel stand in Jerusalem. That's a little like searching for a clothes shop in Beverly Hills: I was the Beverly Hills hillbilly. Everything you'd want to do in college I did. There were no suicide bombers then. It was easy to hitchhike with friends up and down the length and width of the country. I slept under fig trees; swam in an oasis, was on an archeological dig; pulled weeds on a kibbutz; floated in the Dead Sea; studied salt retaining plants of the Negev; studied the greats of modern theater, art history, philosophy, and English. (I am the only one I know who has a degree in English with minors in theater and art that's written in Hebrew. It comes with an English translation.) And then there were all those sunrises and sunsets when I stood on the rooftop outside the apartment of a close friend and looked out over the old city: the gold and silver mosques gleamed. Friends and I recited poetry about antiquity and youth, age and rebellion. I felt alive.
I loved Hebrew University, too. My professors were brilliant men and women—many of them escapees: from the tyranny of apartheid in South Africa and the indifference of Western Europe. They taught me to think about the world, and they cared. They made me care, too. I graduated college nearly thirty years ago, but I still remember books and authors: Ionesco, Eliot, Harding, and Wordsworth. I saw a lot of theater and felt absurdity. If you weren't careful you could turn into a rhino like Ionesco's people—you could lose all sense of humanity and let a dictator turn you into an animal. I read Sylvia Plath and shouted Daddy poems while I trekked through the desert, and war became the war in Israel. I felt Jewish. I loved Israel. I missed home. I wanted to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. I wanted people to stop asking me if I came from New York: there are Jews in Pennsylvania, too. My dreams seemed to point to the way I felt: they were half in English and half in Hebrew, and nobody spoke very well in any of them. It was worse in my French classes. Try taking a French class that's taught in Hebrew. My notes were a hodgepodge of languages. Where do you come from? From pain. Some Jewish writer wrote that. I can't remember who. I didn't feel that. I was born in Scranton, PA. My grandparents were immigrants; my parents were American whose parents were immigrants, and I was/am third generation American. I missed my home.
Before I went home, though, I traveled through Europe. I've always thought that going abroad is important for young people. You need to see how other people live. You need to know that your life is only one way of living. You need to realize that everyone is not like you: they eat other ways, sleep other ways, have other beliefs, and yet we're all bound by being human and, I believe, having the same desires.
It's a good thing I came back to the U.S. because that's where I met my husband, Ron Rubens, at a poetry reading. I don't know how we got together considering what we read. I read some extremely melodramatic poem about the Wailing Wall, bones, and resurrection. He read a nonsense rhymed poem about a pencil. In many ways, our differences have kept us sane together. He's mechanical; I'm not. He loves to cook; I don't. I write long books; he writes short poems. Nothing of mine rhymes; everything of his does. I love any kind of physical activity. He likes to walk if he's holding a camera. He takes beautiful black and white pictures of motion and stillness. We both love movies and books and children.
We didn't have children right away, though. First we moved to Santa Cruz near the redwoods and the ocean. It was a wonderful place to live if you don't need to eat. I kept looking for work and even got rejected as a mushroom sorter. That was disheartening. Ron washed windows, and we both scratched a lot—quite literally. On one of my birthdays Ron got me a kitten—a wild kitten. We didn't know it then, but that kitten was fierce. You can't trust everybody giving away kitties. Ron also got me fleas. The kitty was full of them. When we left Santa Cruz, we also left behind the fleas. The kitty wandered off one day.
In Los Angeles, where we moved, I found a job as a clerical accountant for a travel agency. Ron worked on apartment repairs. When I got bored with adding up accounts for all the people taking wonderful vacations, I started work at the Israel Investment and Export Authority. I stood at the desk near the door, meaning, if anything happened, I was the first to go. Besides translating letters from Hebrew, I also got to practice the Israeli version of "duck and cover."
Somewhere, during all of this, Ron and I got married by my dad (who, if you remember, was the Conservative Rabbi of Temple Israel in Scranton, PA). Nothing beats being married by your dad unless it's the wonderful heart-shaped honeymoon suite somewhere in Wilkes Barre, PA.
There are several interesting things in the Scranton/Wilkes Barre area of eastern Pennsylvania. First, the mountains. They are beautiful. Then, the strange coal dumps left from the time when that region was famous for anthracite coal. When I was a kid, I got in the back seat of our car with my brothers and my sister, and Dad or Mom would drive us past the burning coal dumps outside Scranton. One in particular was our favorite. It was nicknamed "Egg Mountain" because it stunk of sulphur. It also glowed green or yellow—I can't remember. We'd ride past Egg Mountain. "Windows!" Dad would scream. We'd hastily roll up our windows after getting a good whiff of the rotten egg smell. Then we'd stare at the outer space like formation. Scranton also had these amazing sidewalks made of slate that were buckled and crooked so when you skated your knees got a great workout, and you felt like you were being tossed in a washing machine. I think that was from all the old coal mines underneath the sidewalks. Legend has it that every so often a house would be swallowed up under the earth. Scranton provided us with a lot of legends including the one surrounding Bells Mansion, which was an old abandoned mansion near our house. In Dear Elijah I write a little about Scranton—but not enough. I also tell the Bells Mansion story on Halloween to my college students. I turn off the lights and tell the whole truth and nothing but the
truth, and believe me, I scare a big group of nineteen year olds. One day I'm also going to write a story that will creep you out. I promise.
Back to the wedding in Scranton, PA. It was a small wedding, but it was beautiful. For our honeymoon we went to Vermont and Massachusetts, and I made my husband go horseback riding. Everybody who knows me—knows me well—has to ride a horse at least once. My younger son, Danny, even agreed to go to riding camp for a week. When his horse nearly rolled over on him, he called it quits for good. I keep trying to get him on a horse. He won't have any part of it.
After the honeymoon, I went back to work in L.A. while continuing graduate work. I couldn't drive so I took a very long bus ride to California State University, Los Angeles. There are some things in my life that I've done that I know you'd think are hard. It's hard getting a Ph.D. You have to go to school forever and ever. It's hard writing a novel. You might not think so, but, trust me, it is. You've got to draft and redraft. If you're writing something that takes place before you lived, you have to be historically accurate. I did a lot of research for Two Suns in the Sky. It is not so hard to drive a car. A lot of people do it. However, I found learning to drive one of the hardest things in the world. It humbled me. It keeps me humble. When I wonder why somebody
doesn't get something, I think about me learning to drive. It's a lesson in sheer endurance. It's the old Abe Lincoln story with a few twists. Failed once. Failed twice. Failed three times.
My husband tried teaching me. I nearly killed him. My best friend, Adrienne Goldstone, tried. (Yes, Adrienne, you're in here, too.) She gave up. When I lived in L.A. and was riding hours on buses, I took Driver's Ed. from a school that guarantees success. They hadn't met me yet when they made that promise. I failed two tests. The second was memorable. I was driving in downtown Los Angeles when the tester asked me to make a left turn. Easy. Right? Wrong. I was dead wrong. I made a left turn from the right hand lane and nearly killed a few people. "I guess I didn't pass, did I?" The tester nodded. He was too white to say anything.
I was thirty then. I'd have to wait five more years before I actually learned how to drive. It's embarrassing when you fail twice at schools that guarantee you're going to succeed. I'd get in a car and see an accident about to happen—an accident involving me—and sure enough what I'd see in my mind translated to what almost happened, several times. I stopped trying. Besides, all that private instruction was expensive, and I wasn't earning all that much back then.
In L.A. I also took Method Acting classes and worked with a Jewish theater company called the New Artef Players. I wrote segments of plays. Let me explain. My acting group was an improvisational group. The actors created lines like the Second City people do using a subject focus: it was always a Jewish subject. I recorded a lot of the lines and transcribed them and helped shape them into a script. Two very successful scripts were The Chasid, the Goat, and the City and Survivors. While I was no Shakespeare, it was wonderful seeing how a company of my peers could make words come alive. That is the beauty of theater: your words are transformed on stage and become part of a world that actors and actresses bring to life.
Before the creation of the playscript Survivors, I watched Holocaust films and interviewed Holocaust survivors. Most of the troupe members were children of survivors, and so they had a special connection to the topic. Sometime during the improvisational work done by a group of really talented people, including the cellist and composer Peter Mann and the director Armand Volkas, I created "The Train Poem," a long prose poem chorally said by the troupe on its way to a concentration camp. Since Survivors, I've never had the nerve to write a Holocaust text that actually takes place in a camp—although I think in some ways doing this piece began preparing me for the writing of Two Suns in the Sky so many years later. I'll never forget, though, survivors actually coming up to me and talking about how my poem crystallized their feelings. I felt awed and humbled and embarrassed somehow that I, who never experienced what they had, had the gall to write about it.
Aside from doing writing work for the New Artef Players, doing some freelance writing, finishing my M.A., and working odd jobs to help support Ron and me, I also wrote a full-length children's play entitled Did You See What the Sky Was Doing Today? Sadly, it has never been produced although I've entertained kids with monologues from the play. I love to do voices and have created some for Baby Boar, Duckie, and Killer Whale a.k.a. Goldfish, a few of the several characters in my play.
People just don't line up to offer you jobs when you've got an M.A. in English so I decided to go on and get a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, PA. That way I'd be able to teach college. I liked teaching. I liked reading novels. I liked discussing books. I didn't exactly love grading papers, but I didn't hate it. I loved the idea of being my own boss, too—making up my own syllabi, teaching what I loved to others who, hopefully, would love these things, too. I was also tired of jobs that numbed my brain and most especially tired of taking orders from bosses: I was doing a lot of that. The thing is—I was smarter than the jobs I was doing, and it's no good to work at things that bore you. Let me tell you, there are a whole lot of jobs
out in the work force that can bore the living day lights out of you. Sometimes, you've got to take those jobs while you're working your way to a job that you want to do. I've had my years of doing that.
Off and on I was a Kelly Girl doing temp secretarial work. That wasn't bad because I'd go from place to place, and seeing new offices and meeting new people can be real interesting. But most of the things I did as a temp were dull. I remember being a receptionist at a place where the phones barely rang. That killed me because I was told to look interested just in case somebody opened the door. Imagine what it's like to keep an interested look on your face when your insides are turning into dried prunes. I cut and pasted typed sheets at a real estate agency. Nobody would do that now because we have computers to do it for us. That wasn't too bad but I think I was going nuts from all the glue I had to use. For awhile I worked full time as a legal secretary in a law firm. All I remember are pages of interrogatories that I had to type and the lines that my boss asked me to memorize. "When you answer the phone, don't tell anyone that I'm in the back room eating carrots or out golfing. Just say that I'm busy." The weird thing is that my boss was often in the back room eating carrots. I don't know about the golfing. Then there were jobs that I couldn't do very well because I'm not super quick. Even before we moved to L.A., when I was living in Boston, I was a waitress at Pewter Pot. The boss always gave me the slow table in the back. I figure that you know why. And then there was the minimum wage letter-opening job in downtown L.A. I sat at a long table with a lot of other workers and quickly opened envelopes: check on one side, envelope on the other—or something like that. I must have zapped out a few times and spent too long studying the designs on the checks because I was fired for not being fast enough.
One job that I had lasted several months. I worked as "traffic" in the advertising section of a clothing business in downtown L.A. That means I put together the art and the text for their advertising pamphlets. All I remember for that was how I racked my brain to come up with new ad come-ons for shoes. Slip into fall. Spring into spring. A spring in my brain was coming loose. "If you don't find something you like, you're going to find the nearest bridge and jump," I said to myself. I wasn't serious. I've never been the least bit suicidal. I love life too much. Still, I was frustrated and angry, and I knew I'd continue to be that way unless I was doing what I liked. I was writing. I loved that. But writing while you're answering phones—or not answering because they're not ringing—isn't all that good. I had finished my master's in English, and I applied for the Ph.D. I was thirty years old. Thirty felt old or old enough. Old enough to stop wandering around. Old enough to start earning a decent income. Old enough to be tired by
dead-end jobs. I made the plunge, and the University of Pittsburgh accepted my application.
My husband and I lived in Pittsburgh for five years. We lived on the bottom floor of a wonderful house off the Negley bus route. Notice that I say bus route. I still wasn't driving so I took the bus from Pitt to my house. The people who owned our place lived next to us, and, though I didn't realize it then, provided me with a framework for my second novel. They, being Mr. and Mrs. Leo, had come from Italy, and they had a wonderful garden behind their back yard. Every summer they grew tomatoes and cucumbers, and they had a fig tree that they buried every winter to save it from snow. They unburied the fig every spring. That way Italy seemed right in their back yard. Our second summer living next to the Leos, I asked Mrs. Leo to teach me the art of growing vegetables. Up until that point, I didn't know a thing about vegetable gardens. I knew about other people's gardens. There were the Poplans who let me pick prickly cucumbers from their garden and Andy, the farmer, who sold corn that we bought and sometimes picked from his stalks. And then there were the radishes. For an eighth-grade project I grew radishes in our back yard—I grew two of them. That's it. Things would change. Under the tutelage of the Leos, Ron and I grew Roma tomatoes, the ones you use in spaghetti sauce. We had lots of tomatoes. (Nobody can ruin a tomato—nobody except a tomato bug. Last year I had several of those. They're about the most disgusting bug around: huge and green, they camouflage themselves on tomato stalks and eat tomatoes like there is no tomorrow.) We also grew cabbage until the summer of the cabbage bugs. And peppers. You can't ruin a jalapeno pepper, either. And cucumbers. They're easy. Believe me.
I loved gardening. I still do. Over the years I've grown cucumbers and summer squash and zucchini—too
much for my kids' liking—and winter squash, pumpkins, eggplant, peppers, and melons. I've never been very successful with melons, perhaps because I've always lived in cold climates where the growing season is short. My son, Danny, grew the biggest sunflower ever. He was entering kindergarten when he grew it, and that became the subject of a story that I wrote for Cricket magazine called "The Practicing Sunflower." Mr. Leo, combined with my husband, became Mr. Pettinato in my second novel When the Frost Is Gone. The name itself came from the real Pettinato family who lived across the street from us in Scranton.
There on South Stanton Avenue in Pittsburgh, PA, I began to see the garden as a place of security and growth. In When the Frost Is Gone my character Natalie goes there to feel good about herself and the world. Everybody, I think, needs to have some sort of a garden. Everybody needs to plant something, be it vegetable or flower or tree. It is important for us to see that we are all part of a bigger world, and sometimes that world needs us to be its caretakers. A world without trees or plants is a soulless place. Right now, as I write, I look out to a barren tree in my yard. Barren is the wrong word although there are only a few dry leaves hanging from its branches. Buds are there. They don't come out in spring the way I once thought. They're on the tree all winter long as if saying to us, "Spring will come. There will be green again and new life." A chickadee sits briefly on a branch before it dives down to the feeder in my front yard. Its black and white face flashes before me. You never know when something will happen that stays inside of you and becomes part of a novel. Writers store ideas like squirrels store nuts—out of instinct as much as out of habit; and, out of instinct as much as out of habit, we bring up these things that make a difference to us. My learning to grow a garden from the Leos found its way into a creation of mine.
Of course, there were other things I learned to love at Pitt: Shakespeare and the nineteenth-century Russian writers and writing better stories. I wrote my first adolescent manuscript entitled "When A Tree Falls in the Forest." I brought chapters to writing workshops that I took for course credit at Pitt. My best critic was Sir Angus Wilson, a visiting professor from England who was knighted for his excellent works of fiction. Perhaps I thought of him as my best critic because he was the first instructor I had who was willing to take adolescent literature seriously. He didn't say, "Miriam, you aren't writing for adults and therefore aren't writing anything of significance." Some people do say that. Some people don't realize how hard it is to write for children or teens. They don't see the craft. Good writing is good writing, and Sir Angus looked at my manuscript in those terms. To be frank, at the time I wasn't writing for teens per se. I was writing for myself and a somewhat generic audience, but what came out was teen fiction, and that is what naturally does come out of me. I learned that at Pitt, too, although it took some time to truly realize the implications.
Sir Angus also taught me that good teachers, really good teachers, don't need to spend any time telling you that they're good. Their ego—or lack of it—doesn't get in the way of their work. I say this feeling my own limitations: I'm a better comic than a teacher, a better writer than a professor, but I've touched some people: I've made some people think. A great teacher makes you see the world in a different way—so does a great writer. There is so much in this world to experience and learn from: I wish people were like cats and had nine lives—nine long lives. I might get tired and restless but never really bored. I can't understand boredom.
In Pittsburgh I also combined writing with acting. My husband teased me because some critic in the Pittsburgh paper liked me—a lot. He used to come to all my plays—even the very bad ones—and there were some horrible ones. Acting allows you to do things you'd never do in real life—be people you could never be. It's like writing except you're doing all the words. In one play I wore a wonderful costume. My name was Lady Dainty Fidget not Miriam Bat-Ami, and I had a white wig and long gloves and petticoats under my very heavy dress, and I had to learn to flick my wrist fast so that my fan opened all at once.
In 1989 I finished all course work for the Ph.D. and got a five-year non-tenure-track job at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Non-tenure track means that you aren't permanent. Mostly people who have master's degrees or never finished the Ph.D. are hired for these less than permanent jobs that last from one to five years at most college institutions. Interviewing for that job was so thrilling. I had held a lot of jobs before, but none of them were meaningful to me. There was something professional about being a college instructor. I could say it and feel proud of myself inside. That's what everybody has to do—find that job that makes them proud, whatever that job is. I was going to teach college composition.
These are the pictures that come to mind: me at the Holiday Inn awaiting my interview. Me, swimming back and forth in the pool and thinking about this job—this wonderful job that I might or might not get. Me thinking about Springfield, Missouri, and how different it was from any other place where I'd lived. The Midwest. The Bible Belt with a small church on every other corner. The actual buckle of the Bible Belt as I later learned. I'd have a few students who went to revival meetings and spoke in tongues; a few who'd want to save me from perdition being that I hadn't let Christ into my life; and quite a few more who were first-generation college students and proud to be in school. Missouri. I didn't even know how to pronounce it right. Not Missouree with a hard e ending but Missouri with an open Southern ending: eh—Missoureh.
There were creatures great and small that I met in Missouri. The small ones were the pests: the tics and jiggers. I had the most awful first encounter with jiggers. The first summer, uninitiated in the small creatures of Missouri, I went berry picking without protecting myself from jiggers. Sulpha powder rubbed around those parts of you that are squeezed by elastic such as your ankles and waist is a great help. Somehow jiggers love to burrow themselves around those areas. I was happily picking raspberries, singing while I filled my pail. The sky was a beautiful deep blue, a Missouri blue, and I didn't have a trouble in the world. The jiggers were humming, too. I was perfect bait. I went home with a whole load of them inside me, and I itched and scratched as they burrowed out and attacked other areas. Jiggers are mean, disgusting creatures with no business living on this earth—although, I suspect, they must have some useful purpose. Tics are no more fun. I learned that you don't pull them out of you because part of them can be left behind. You need tweezers or a hot match since they are supposed to light out the minute heat gets on them: I never tried the match trick—not enough nerve. There are fleas abundant in Missouri, too, and our first house had a ton of them. You take a dog with fleas and make that dog depart. Well, the fleas get mad. They just hang around in the rug waiting for some good flesh which happened to be mine. My husband and I lived in that first Missouri house the whole of one week. I think it boils down to this: all of God's creatures love the sun and the blue sky, and there was loads of that in Missouri.
Something inside of me was loving Missouri, too. I'll use Ozark slang for this: I drug it all the way with me from Pittsburgh, PA. Unbeknownst to me, when I accepted the five year job, I was pregnant with Aaron, my first child. I wanted to be pregnant—badly—but a year earlier I had a miscarriage. I was afraid that I'd never have children. I stopped hoping. It was like me and getting a license, but so much bigger. Other women could have children—not me. I was thoroughly surprised when I learned that I was pregnant. If I had known, I don't know if I'd have made that move to Missouri, but I didn't know, and we were all set to leave. Ron and I packed up our belongings. All in all, we had moved so much by that time: from Boston where we met, to Santa Cruz, to Los Angeles, to Pittsburgh. And there were moves within cities. I think, at one point, we counted at least fifteen moves in ten years. In Pittsburgh we actually lived in the same place for four years. We wanted to beat that record. It's hard moving so much. We'd have at least five years—as long as I did well—in Springfield. I was looking forward to staying in one place. I was looking forward to having one job and not scrambling around from job to job. I was looking forward to being something other than a poor graduate student. I was really looking forward to having a child. We didn't tell anyone at first. It was awkward to have just been hired and announce that I was pregnant, although it all worked out. I can't think of a better place to be pregnant in than in Missouri. I'd get on buses—note I'm still not driving—and people would stand up and give me their seat. My department accepted it and worked out a way by which I could take a few weeks leave in late March. By the time leave would be over, I'd be on summer break. Even my composition students got into it. I still have a baby blanket one student made for me. She didn't know if I'd have a boy or girl so the blanket was alternately pink and blue. And everyone in my department went to the circumcision ceremony. That, in itself, is a story.
My son, Aaron Rubens, arrived on April 3, 1985, shortly after midnight. My husband tells me there was a full moon: I wasn't watching. Eight days later we all gathered for an official Orthodox circumcision. My parents couldn't come: it was Passover and too difficult for them to travel with all the dietary restrictions, but my father made arrangements for the proper Orthodox ceremony. He hired a mohel or official circumcisor from St. Louis to travel to Springfield. Had I known the full ramifications of an Orthodox circumcision, I would not have invited nearly everyone I knew including my gynecologist who had never witnessed the sight before, but I was totally unprepared. So was my son who, thankfully, remembers nothing of the occasion. There is something to say for tradition and our mohel fully enjoyed the audience. All I can say is for him it was the performance of a lifetime.
When I was thirty-five, I had my first child, Aaron. I was a college instructor, a wife, a mother, and there is nothing in the world like being a parent. My life had become our life—my husband's and mine—and then it became ours: Aaron, me, and my husband. Nothing beats parenthood. I had everything I wanted—or nearly everything. My second child, Danny, hadn't been born yet. When he was born in November of 1988, he made life complete. My husband, me, Aaron, and Danny. The immediate family. All that was missing was the writing (and the riding). All that was missing were the books. And the horse. And the two dogs. And the two birds. And the mice. And the permanent job. (Perhaps I have the order wrong here.) It was all to come.
In Springfield I wasn't writing much or, more accurately, I wasn't involved in creative writing. I was finishing my dissertation summers when I wasn't teaching. Since I had over a hundred students a term and two small children, I couldn't and didn't think of
doing much else. Priorities had shifted, too. When I did have free time, I wanted to take the kids to the beach or the park or fishing. I wanted to get my license. I was well past thirty and still riding buses.
And then I met my personal savior, the colleague from Southwest Missouri State University who took it upon herself to teach me to drive. That's what I needed: a person from Missouri. Ginger, I haven't seen you in years, and I doubt you'll ever read this, but thank you. Thank you! Thank you! I had to learn to drive. I was pushing a baby cart for blocks to the nearest grocery store. On our street Ron and I were called "the walkers." Nobody else around walked. There were no sidewalks where we lived in Springfield—just highways and roads, concrete roads and dirt roads. There were few buses, either. It wasn't like L.A. It wasn't like Pittsburgh, either. You actually heard things in Springfield—you heard voices that weren't human voices. Animal sounds. Sounds of nature. Sounds of all those bugs who didn't die over the winter. Dogs, howling. Birds calling out to each other. I wasn't living in the country—not yet—but I was getting closer and closer to it.
Finally, finally, I passed my driver's test. I became Material Girl. I bought my first vehicle, a great big green Ford truck with a club cab. My husband and I called it "The Green Weenie." I'm not sure why. It was a "powder puff," beautiful on the outside and totally messed up on the inside. That fact was to make itself evident a few months down the road. As for the licensing test itself, the tester was a woman in her mid-thirties. She was short and affable and didn't make me think about all the ways I could fail. She seemed to genuinely want me to pass. "I love club cabs," she said giving my shiny green thing a long look. Like I said, this was a good-looking truck—used but no dings to speak of and, like I said, all the problems were internal. "I bet you like yours, too," she continued. I vigorously nodded. No sense telling her that the big thing intimidated me. It was cheap, and it ran—in the beginning. A month down the road it began showing external signs of deterioration. Primarily it had the habit of stalling out. You'd stop at a light and listen as the motor coughed up a wad of phlegm. Then you'd lightly press on the gas and hope the thing would make it across the road. A few times the truck would stall midway across the intersection. That was its favorite place to sit and rest. It liked watching all the action around it.
"Turn on the lights," the tester said. I didn't know where they were so she figured right away I wasn't any truck driver. Thing is, I passed. That's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. That sounds sad. I know that. I've been skiing. I've ridden all kinds of horses. I've been here and there and back again. I've been snorkeling close to jellyfish and nursing sharks. Nothing scared me like driving. Now I've been driving nearly twenty years, and I know how easy it is. What does that say? You can do anything. It's just practice. It's just having faith. It's just finding the right people to help you and helping the people who need you.
That was true for my Ph.D. dissertation, too. I had finished all course work in 1984 and had begun to teach composition and children's literature in Missouri. Then the children came. I almost didn't finish my dissertation, but I had a wonderful chair in Dr. Robert Whitman, and he answered all my correspondence. He was there to ask questions every time I finished a chapter. When I left working on chapters to teach nearly a hundred students a term and take care of my young children, he waited for me to have time. Every summer I plugged away until I finished all chapters.
In Missouri I did write a few short stories for adults. Western Michigan University's English department accepted a story I had and even sent me $50.00. At the time payment for anything I wrote seemed wild. Even more coincidental, though, is the fact that several years later that would be the same department that gave me my first tenure-track job.
When my kids were young, I got to learn what kids love by doing things with my kids and by reading literature for children. I waded in lakes, skipped rocks, and jumped off what seemed like cliffs into a pool of icy water. I took my kids fishing although some of the fishing ventures with my eldest belong to an Everybody Loves Raymond episode. By the time my youngest was old enough to care about fishing I had gotten a little better and had some money to go on a few charter boats. Ron and Danny and I fished off the Keys. (Aaron chose to go parasailing.) Danny and I fished for salmon in Alaska. I, myself, have caught bass and sunfish and bluegill in Michigan and croakers in West Virginia. It's something I feel that harkens back to my grandpa and the fishing we did in the Nantasket Bay. I've never gotten very good, but I've loved it—loved looking at something that lives beneath the water. Touching it briefly and staring at its shiny skin before releasing it into the water again. Or, if it's salmon from Alaska, eating it. My kids, my husband, and I have been to a ton of amusement parks, too, although I won't ride upside-down roller coasters, and he won't ride roller coasters at all. You have young kids, and suddenly the roller coasters look like they need to be ridden. I was the first to take my eldest on a big roller coaster—I believe it was called Fire in the Hole—in Silver Dollar City. When we plunged underground into darkness, Aaron screamed so hard I thought I had killed him. Coasters in Silver Dollar City, the old wooden coaster in Coney Island, the coasters in Six Flags, in Disneyland, and in Universal Studios. I can trace my kids' growth by the size of the coaster and the way they looked at me riding. The virtual reality coaster at Universal Studios in Florida blew me away. I screamed my lungs out, and my kids vowed never to ride with me again.
My kids were growing up; I had to stop acting like such a kid. Sometimes that's hard. Ron and I took our kids to beaches, too. Sometimes I think the ocean heals everything. When I was young, I went with my parents every summer to Nantasket Beach to visit my grandparents. There were two things there that etched themselves on my brain: the coaster at Paragon Park and the beach. When my kids were born there was no coaster left in Nantasket, but there was the beach, and it was still the way it always had been—beautiful, clean, fun. I took my kids for a week vacation there while I led a writing workshop. I also gave readings from my first published work: Sea, Salt, and Air which is about growing up and Nantasket Beach.
I began writing that picture book in 1990. It was the first piece of my fiction to truly humble me. Like many people I know, I believed that writing a picture book is easy: it's not. It's hard, very hard. In fact, I spent as much time writing that work as I did writing a later middle-grade novel. I was humbled by the difficulty; I was humbled because, at the time that I began writing my picture book, I had already been teaching children's literature for a few years. I had trotted out all the picture book "rules": a standard picture book is thirty-two pages with the setup on an odd numbered page like 3 or 5 and the conclusion on the last page or page 32. I had talked about double-page spreads like 4 and 5 or 6 and 7 where the art spills across the horizontal page. I had talked about picture book rhythm, that the best books sing. When you finish, you want to go back and start again. I had talked about repetitive
phrases that delight children. Talking and writing are two different stories. My first book really humbled me because, even after writing and rewriting, I never got it: I wrote a pre-adolescent novel in picture book format although I know that some small children love it. I broke all kinds of rules in the writing, too—or unspoken ones.
Sea, Salt, and Air is written like one long prose poem. It is full of similes. My mind works in simile and metaphors: I start to write, and I can't seem to help myself: a tree is a steel fork; the sidewalks are old tinker toys, and the sun, as I say in this book, "sits squashed like a pancake inside the sky." Sea, Salt, and Air, besides honoring my parents and grandparents and family itself, made me realize how much I love language and how important the concrete is to creating mind pictures. Initially, I submitted over twenty pages of text. I was fortunate in that Harold Underdown, then the Assistant Editor at Macmillan Children's Books, saw talent in me. He schooled me in picture book art. He even went as far as sending back a dummy with my words pasted on it.
My husband and the kids and I had moved to Michigan. I was writing and getting published. I was teaching. At first we lived in the "student ghetto" area of Kalamazoo. The idea for my second novel came from living there. One day the mother of my kids' friends came running over to our house. She didn't have a phone. There were a lot of things she didn't have. I needed to call the fire department. A pan on her stove had caught fire and the wall behind was on fire. That moment stuck with me and became the seed for When the Frost Is Gone. I dedicated that book to my husband for he was my chief model for Mr. Pettinato, the person who everyone calls the Building Man.
When the Frost Is Gone allowed me to move from the tight construction of a picture book into the looser prose of a middle-grade novel. My subject matter was just too complex for the picture book form. I began working with dialogue and extended scenes, one of which is a fictionalization of what I encountered in the neighborhood Laundromat. Living on that block I encountered a lot of outside prejudice. It was a mixed, interracial area in a community which lacks interracial co-mingling like a lot of the United States. We are a nation of many nations, and, while we are a democracy, and while I love this country because I think we are one of a few nations where anyone can succeed if he or she really tries, I have, throughout my life, seen that we have a long way to go to be a unified people. Too many of us are afraid. Too many of us are unschooled in the ways in which to approach other people. Too many of us lack a language by which we can bridge the divides. It bothered me living where I did—it bothered me to see how others treated our neighborhood, and, after the fire, I decided to write about it—about a girl living in a neighborhood like mine. For the length of the book,
seventy nine pages, I tried to handle too much, but there was a poetic brilliance about it that I'll always be happy about, and its message meant a lot to me.
My third book, Dear Elijah, was longer yet. From a book very concerned with society, I moved back to the personal and to an issue which had haunted me as a child: how to communicate with God in my own language; how to be a female and believe in a faith that I saw as flawed when it came to its relationship to women. My father had also just died, and, in many ways, Dear Elijah was my eulogy for him. It represented my love for him and my love for the rituals that surrounded me as a child. Rebecca would write to Elijah about her dad, about her growing up, about her relationship to God and prayer, and, in the writing, she would come to know herself.
With Two Suns in the Sky I took a subject that really needed to be written about—that being the one refugee shelter that the U.S. had during World War II. Quite by chance, I found out that there was a shelter called the Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario, Oswego, New York. It housed a little under one thousand refugees who were invited guests of President Roosevelt. At the close of the war they were to return to their homelands—ironic since so many of them had no homeland, no passport, no place that wanted them. The majority of these people were Jews who had somehow made it: they had been in several concentration camps and had escaped or they were interned in Italy, or, somehow, they had crossed the Julian Alps and gone into hiding. They were survivors: strong, smart, and lucky. I had the good fortune to interview wonderful former refugees who opened up a whole new world to me: former refugees, people who lived in Oswego, and historians who could direct me to the right places. I pulled together my research skills and my own inquisitive nature. There are issues in this book that link it to my previous works: my desires for community, my sense that we all need to be responsible citizens, my concern with teenagers and their need to find a sense of self-worth. I could thank so many people, too: my university for giving me the time to write the book; the Scott O'Dell committee for honoring it, John Allen, my enthusiastic and dedicated editor, and the Cricket Group for their willingness to publish my book—their willingness and enthusiasm and belief in me and my subject. Thank you, Marianne Carus!!
My kids are much older now. So am I. I am hoping that when this autobiography gets published, I will be in a new phase of my life with my husband and my children and, hopefully, all our animals—or at least mostly all of them. I'm not sure about the blind cat Spottie who is now eighteen.
A few months back my son asked, "How did you feel when you were notified about the O'Dell?" I remember getting the call—feeling happy and sad all at the same time. The evening before I had found the answer on the Web to a strange mysterious ailment that was plaguing me. It would take a few years before my blood work and the doctors caught up to my research—that I had UCTD, undifferentiated connective tissue disease—an autoimmune disease that is a bit like lupus and scleroderma and, because Sjogren's piggybacks on these diseases, includes all elements of Sjogren's. I had to use eye drops because of lack of tears in my eyes. I had to drink more because of lack of saliva. I had to take pills because my stomach muscles weren't working right. I was tired—in fact exhausted—because my iron wouldn't process accurately; and my joints, all my joints, cried out in pain. I went from writing about survivors to being one.
For a time I was afraid of everything: of planning for the future, of thinking about the future, of thinking at all—of doing. Being exhausted didn't help much. Then, slowly, I took back my life—not the one I had because I probably would never get that back. I could never call myself healthy again. But my life, this life, was and is more than it ever was … more precious, more important. Everything has changed because everything is what I've been capable of seeing—or not as the case may be—and every year I get older is not getting older but a year more that I'm here living with my family.
Have you ever seen a sharp-shinned hawk on a branch right outside your window? I have. Have you seen Mount McKinley in all its glory and hiked through Denali National Park with your son? I have. Have you snorkeled with your family and moved amidst a nursing shark and undulating jellyfish? I have. Have you moved up the ladder from instructor to assistant professor to associate professor to professor? I have. Loved and been loved? I have. Done two steps of a shoulder-in with your horse? Done a canter so beautiful that your teacher says that she couldn't even hear you, it was that soft? Written a book that makes you cry and laugh that scares you and excites you? Slowly, even painfully, I'm finishing another—about a boy whose mother is ill, whose mother doesn't get better, about a girl who rides circles with her horse, about a horse who moves into a place where everything is whole and beautiful. About four-leaf clovers. Mostly to have time on this earth so I can keep loving my family and my pets and my friends. Mostly to give joy to my family and have my children do well. Mostly to write and have other books published.
And to keep talking to you, my readers. To keep listening to you. And talking.
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