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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Untold Stories: Part 1

I’ve been listening to a Jim Hollis lecture from the Jung Center archives here in Houston. The subject for this course was the power of untold stories. We all are the sum of the stories of our lives. As writers we know that—whether writing fiction or memoir, we write ourselves. The most imagined fiction has our stamp, our voice, our “trademark” if you will, and that special voice is marked by the stories our lives tell. Or, as Hollis often remarks, the stories that tell us. We are the story told.

But what about the stories we don’t know, but that, as he puts it, we live “in service to.” Like the stories of gender we live by as women, or as men, that may have limited our options. Or, the stories of religion that inform our choices before we are old enough to know other religions offer different choices. The stories that inform our lives may be helpful—give us ballast when we flounder—we “know” what’s right because. . .  Well, because we know what’s right: we’ve been taught, told, trained, often without even realizing it. Sometimes, however, the received “key” stories may sabotage our choices, limit our goals and dreams, even define us into a context we “know” is not our true self.  

Hollis points out that in his work as a Jungian analyst, he has tried to trace his clients’ stories back through generations and has discovered we usually know only back three generations, that is back to our grandparents, and often even those stories are vague, or have been silenced by parents. We may know who our great-grandparents are, that is four generations back, but usually their stories dissolve in a mist, silenced perhaps or never brought forward for a multiplicity of reasons.

Consciously, that is, we as progeny may know little about grandparents and even less about great grand-parents, but their stories may not be any less informative of our present lives.  Furthermore, it is often that third generation—forward—that has the need and skills to uncover the untold story behind the family norms or practices or beliefs and trace them to the ways they are unconsciously influencing their own lives.

I have a “story of my life” that begins just before I turned 10. I’ve written it in many versions and for many years it was always the same. Then, once, in the middle of my life, suddenly, something my mother added to my story changed it completely: suddenly I knew, I understood the missing link. The blank page filled with text and though there was nothing I could do about the ending of the story (at the time) there was information that allowed me to deepen my understanding of the middle chapters.

So allow me here to tell, or perhaps retell, my story. It begins with my grandmother—three generations back. I know little of my great-grandparents on either side, but the tragedy surrounding my maternal grandmother’s story still haunts me and informs much of my own story.

My grandmother Ella and I shared a room in our house when I was a child. Her husband Joe Levy, my grandfather, died when I was around 6; I remember his death, the whole family converging on our house—a duplex on Truxillo, in the heart of the then Jewish neighborhood in Houston. I remember white sheets over the mirrors and lots of food arriving and aunts telling me my mother was upset and to be aware of all the sadness. I was sad too—I loved Grandpa Levy; he was a kind old man who lived at the end of our block in another duplex; my mental picture of him remains: his thin frame bent over a huge radio he loved to listen to. I don’t remember much interaction between him and my grandmother, but then they were of a generation that would have been rather formal, in front of people.

Grandma Levy came to live with us after his death, and we moved to a bigger house, a three bedroom bungalow at 3007 Wichita not far from Truxillo.  I shared my room with Grandma and we became “best friends.” I remember that period well—shortly before my father died of complications from his Type 1 Diabetes, a disease he developed before my brother Herby and I were conceived. I remember that period as happy, in spite of the dark cloud that hung over our home as a result of his condition—the insulin bottles at ready in the refrigerator. The kitchen scale weighing his food. His doctors visits, my mother’s concern.  Yet I remember him smiling, happy, loving, dancing in the living room with Mama, calling her “his girl.”

Grandma Levy was my ally when my mother was mad at me. She protected me from her fury: “Frances, it’s okay, leave her alone.” Or “Frances, she ate her vegetables, can she get up from the table now?” as she scooped them off my plate and threw them in the garbage. She was the one person in the world who could tame my tangled curls: she would get out her large-toothed ivory comb and dip it in a glass of water, and curl my hair around her fingers so that damp, they would dry in chunky ringlets. I have a picture of me standing in a white cotton dress, my bright red curls a display of her patience and care.

And I knew her story, part of it at least, for as long as I can remember. Ella Jerwick Levy (1876-1965) came from a shetl in Poland or Russ Poland, (near Bialystok), on a ship by herself at age 17, in 1893.  Her older brothers—whose last name was Jerwick but whose first names I cannot ever remember hearing spoken in the house, and for good reason, had traveled ahead of the rest of the family to America to work and earn enough money for passage for Ella and their parents.

But by the time they had saved enough for passage for three, Ella’s father, my great-grandfather, was too ill to travel and his wife, my great-grandmother Malka, for whom I am named, had to stay back to care for him. So Ella made the trip by herself and never saw her parents again. But she had purpose, for Ella had a true love, her fiancé Calman who had come to America some time before her, and the reunion with that true love sustained her during the arduous journey to America. She would leave her parents, but she would find Calman and they would be married.

She took ill on the voyage here, so the story goes, and lost all her hair. My mother called her illness diphtheria, but my husband tells me there is no hair loss associated with that disease. Suffice to say Ella suffered from a serious illness that kept her quarantined when she landed at Ellis Island. When she was released, her brothers met her in New York, and she was astonished to find herself in a real city, a huge place to her even then, in the 1890s. She’d never imagined getting off the ship and finding herself in the midst of so many people: how would she ever find Calman?

Her brothers were unconcerned. They had settled in Owensboro, Kentucky, 100 miles West of Louisville, and they took Ella there. where they had pledged her to marry Joe Levy. I never imagined how they got her to Louisville until recently when I was telling my daughter the story of her great-grandmother—she will have the story four generations back—and she said: “by covered wagon no doubt.” I think I’d pictured them all on a train, but indeed, I don’t know if there were passenger trains from New York to Louisville at that time, and if there were the fares would have been expensive.

Ella was betrothed to Joe Levy, a man much older than she; with him she conceived 13 babies and 7 of them lived. My mother was their 7th child. Grandpa Levy had the wanderlust and took Ella and his growing family from one city and one opportunity to another until they settled in Kansas City, Missouri, where my mother was born; and later to East Texas, Lufkin, during the depression, where my mother graduated high school, and finally to Houston after my mother moved here and married Philip Kalman, an engineer from a “very good, religious family.”

The point is, however, this is as much of the story that I knew from childhood until sometime in my forties, mid-life, a time of unsettling changes for many of us, a time of intense searching and self-discoveries and crises and solutions.

And now I must back up: first, the name Calman carries irony in and of itself. My maiden name is Kalman—as you see—the surname of my father Philip Kalman, a civil engineer with a college degree from University of Texas at Austin, a man with Diabetes who died at age 39 when I was nearly 10 years old. I always found it interesting that Grandma Levy had a Calman and my mother had a Kalman and both of them lost their C/Kalmans during their younger years (my mother was widowed at 34). (I write this while sitting beneath a huge contemporary tapestry by the Israeli artist Calman Shemi. Such Jungian synchronicity solidifies the connections in my mind.)

The story, haunting as it may be, grew horrific when I learned the full truth of it. For though I grew up thinking that Ella never saw her Calman again, I learned in my forties that indeed she had. And that is the hidden story, the “untold” story that informed my life without my ever knowing it.

For Calman did find Ella, in Kentucky, though I never knew how he found her, what path he’d taken, what kind of detective work it required for him to find his fiancée in this vast “new” country. He found her, and he lost her, and no one knows where he went from there, or what his last name was, or how we, Grandma Ella Levy’s descendants might locate his descendants, and how the story of lost love has affected their lives as well.

Ella’s brothers, the Jerwicks, refused to let Ella and Calman marry because they would not break their promise to Joe Levy. Ella had nothing to say about it. They refused; she obeyed their demands. And she lived her life with a man she didn’t love.     

I never knew just how unhappy she was until recently—just a few years ago when my cousin Mimi Levy Ryan made a DVD with a collage of old family movies and one of the earliest captured my mother’s family way back before I was born. They must have been living in Lufkin; several of my mother’s siblings were married to people I easily recognized, in their youth; my mother was of high school age. One of her cousins, now in her 80s, was there with her fiancé, who picked her up and swung her around to the delight of everyone else. Everyone but Ella, whose frown remained stoically planted throughout the clip.  Arms folded firmly in front of her body, she ran away from Joe when he tried to embrace her: Joe–caught up in the spirit of the moment; Ella—angry, miserable, hurting. She ran from one end of the crowd to the other, away from him.

I played the scene over and over, mourning her sadness, her tragic life, her loss. And by the time I saw that DVD, I knew the story behind the story of her life. That she had lost her love, and found him, or him her, and lost him again.

We can call it patriarchal, we can call it abuse, we can call it ordinary for its time. We can call it by many names, and proffer many explanations; but it doesn’t change the unhappiness of her life, the ways it spilled into the unhappiness of my mother’s life and the ways it created tragedy in my own life—one I have struggled to make sense of; one I have pondered and analyzed since I myself was 17. One part of the mystery was revealed to me when I was in my mid-forties during the bleakest time of my married life; another part crystallized in that home movie reproduced on a DVD I discovered during the happiest period of my adult life: now.  

End of Part One

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Dear Ileya,

Driving home tonight after our meeting at Path of Tea, I reflected on your comment: you read my blog and it’s time for a new entry. How honored I felt that you follow my words; how odd it is for you to know me at this time of my life, when writing isn’t the first thing I do and often the last each day.

For so many years my life revolved around writing, teaching, researching, giving academic papers, going to professional meetings. That kind of life requires so much alone time–I only met friends after 4 PM so I could be quiet and introverted all day. Or teach and then meet them. It’s how you write, it’s how you teach, it’s how you search for meaning in life, it’s how you get degrees and then use them.

And I loved it. I felt very privileged that I had the mental capacity do live this kind of life. And though often a struggle, the financial means to see it through in a simple way.

My life has changed radically since I retired from teaching, moved to Houston, married my high school sweetheart–your uncle by marriage. And I love my life. But I don’t stay home, introverted, searching for meaning, struggling to put my thoughts into words. I play a lot, work some, meet up with friends I knew growing up here. I piddle with my house and sometimes garden. I cook (something I gave up once my kids left home).  I am happier than I’ve ever been. Maybe for me, writing was a way of being happy and now that I’m happy in a new way, the NEED to write and seek answers is less pressing.

And yet, and yet–I want to write. I love writing. I love the feeling of creating and putting thoughts together and learning what it is I’m thinking that made me need to put those thoughts on paper (or screen.)

So I started a new project reflecting on my life, a memoir of sorts, that looks at my ancestors, the people who shaped who I have become. Some of it’s painful–that’s inevitable. But it’s time to speak.

I want my grandchildren to know who they come from, at least on my side, and what kinds of things they can’t know without me that might ultimately play a part in shaping who they become. And so it is time for me to begin to get my thoughts out and, as writing tends to do, let me in on what I know about myself and about the world.

I am going to post a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago, Part 1 of what I hope will be a longer work. Thank you Ileya, for the gentle nudging it took for me to “go public” with this next entry.

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A Nation in Mourning

What happened to America? Where has it gone? I miss the olden days; does that mean I’m old, or does it mean I’m sane?

Of course, anyone over 40 remembers playing outside as a child, riding one’s bike anywhere in the neighborhood, walking with friends to the corner grocery, shopping center, or drugstore. Anyone over 40 remembers how it felt to feel safe.

It’s been many years since we’ve known that kind of peace and security in America. Anyone over 50 remembers the Kennedy assassinations, followed by Martin Luther King’s, and later the attempt on Reagan. We all still mourn the loss of John Lennon–and wonder what in the world that was all about. We wonder about other catastrophes–Oklahoma City, then 9/11 and too many others to list here. What for? To prove we aren’t safe?

I can’t find the words to express the shock and sadness of the latest violent outburst of a madman–by that I don’t mean to say he’s insane and therefore not responsible–just “mad” on every level.

I think of a 40 year old, intelligent, loved, beautiful woman, a Congresswoman, lying with a hole in her head fighting for her life. Because she chose to speak to her constituents at a neighborhood shopping center and grocery store–the kind we all used to walk to in our youth.

And a child in fact now dead because she felt safe going to the rally to meet this woman, and try to learn from her. And others, old and young, injured or murdered because some “mad” man chose to shoot them all. Simple as that.

Mad! We’re all mad as we mourn. Mad! But we weren’t all mad before the Saturday shooting. No. We were just . . . living in America. Not safe, not secure. But living here and wondering what form of madness would come  next. Now we know.

Yet, I don’t know who to blame. The “Mad” talk show hosts who spout political venom? The “Mad” politicians who accuse one another of being UnAmerican or standing for the “wrong” principles? Why are so many people MAD, and when will they realize that being MAD all the time breeds a MADNESS we cannot control? A Madness that dooms us, our country, our children, our people of all ages.

Where is peace? Where is respect for the right to be right or wrong? Where is security? Where is America?

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New Year’s Resolutions

Okay Blog readers: Help me keep these New Year’s Resolutions.
1. I resolve to write twice a week. There’s a new coffee shop near my house–Dunns Brothers Coffee, right behind Costco. It’s clean and light and the coffee and scones are awesome. I resolve that on days I can’t stay home and write–too “antsey,” I will take my laptop and plug into their calming energy. I will write blogs, newsletters for weight management, and finish some plays I started. I will also use this “me” time for submissions of old ones (in two days a week?).
2. I resolve to learn how to use facebook and twitter as marketing tools. This is really a tall order as I don’t find either social medium exciting or even very interesting. So I need a new way into these two, very effective for most people, tools.

I want you out there to encourage me. Send me a line now and then asking for information. Ask me to blog. I have so many false starts here on my dashboard. I do want to finish them off and start new ones.

Thank you and Happy 2011.

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Creativity often requires self-sabotage. For example, by calling my blog “Writing Into Fragments,” I convince myself that I can get back to writing longer, more difficult works by sliding back into the creative mode through writing fragments about writing.

And yet, these fragments so far haven’t been so much about writing as about defragmenting myself,  allowing for some difficult issues regarding family to surface, and creating a space to celebrate my move back to my home town of Houston along with renewal of old friends and estranged family.

Writing used to be second nature for me: I decided to return to college for a bachelor’s degree sometime in the mid-seventies; I began writing fiction when my dear friend Peggy Brown coerced me into taking a summer fiction workshop with the new writing professor Ronald Tobias at UTD, in 1981 (I think).

By the time I wrote my dissertation in the mid-nineties, I was a seasoned writer with a nice publication list (under a former married name) and a habit of living in bookstores and libraries in and all around the Dallas/Fort Worth/Denton metroplex. My life was circumscribed by intellectual pursuit–entertainment was hanging out with others like me, attending mostly women’s studies conferences, publishing in obscure book review journals and other forums read by other literati. In addition, I published two books, which I’m trying to link to this blog as a professional statement. This segment of my life represents my kind of fun, then.

My life has changed so drastically it would take two novels and a couple of memoirs to capture the differences. And while my writing life was fuller back then, my private life lacked passion, security, and shall we say flavor. I lived a narrow life. I prefer this broader more eclectic present shared with a loving partner and surrounded by family and friends from a wide variety of careers and backgrounds.

And yet, I must now embrace the former me as well: the me that writes. As I creep back into my old ways, I find I must play games with myself, find ways to entice the creative juices to bubble forth. I have begun writing plays–first  LUNCH a long family dramedy with a niece, Leslie Rice Hart, that ultimately introduced me to a wide and committed community of playwrights here in Houston. Since that first play, which enjoyed two public readings, I’ve written about five short plays for local festivals, two of which have been produced so far. The lastes short play, THE THIRD DATE, written with my life-long friend Dottie Simon Unger, is entered in this year’s 10×10 competition–and we find out tomorrow night if it will be produced this year. It’s all been a lot of fun. (It wasn’t but still had fun. Will search for other 10 minute play festivals.)

Now I’m ready to plunge into another full length play, and play with the idea of getting my long dissertation–a comprehensive biography of my spiritual guide, Claire Myers Owens (1896-1983) published. It’s been close to publication twice. Perhaps a third foray into the painful process will bring it to print and for me to closure.

I’m now noticing, however, the game I play with blog categories. In addition to writing, I’ve identied one called “Wellness and Weight”–a forum I intend to use as a means of clarifying my transformation from professor of Literature, Creative Writing, and Women’s Studies to counselor of Wellness and Weight Mangement in my husband’s medical practice. How are the two careers related? What are the crossovers? And more importantly, how can I express my true belief that wellness is the only way to manage health and weight, and that the WIN supplements we use are the best alternative to prescriptions for creating and maintaining a healthy life style. Preachy? Is it preachier (or any less important) than understanding the historical truths of suffrage, or the mind elevating devices of reading Faulkner or Anais Nin (among many others)?

And the third category I recently added–“Things of Beauty”–intends to express in writing the aesthetic sensibility I find in nature and art and the ways they too are linked to creativity.

Am I jostling those creative juices? Or feeding my ego, gratuitiously? Or hoping to carve out a time for myself in this new busy life I have recently created? You tell me.

Comments Invited: How do you nurture your creative soul? How do you distinguish gratuituous ego from self-determination? How do you reinvent yourself periodically? What life-determining choices influnce your day-to-day routine?

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Mother Fragments

This whole blog could be about my mother.  But then I wouldn’t be writing fragments; I’d be writing consistently about my mother.

There is so much to say–but I had a memory yesterday that truly is a fragment and part of a much longer story.

My mother died on June 29, seven years ago. I’d just reunited with my high school sweetheart, Bobby Friedman, and we were on the last day of our first summer vacation together the day she died. We’d made an extended car trip, starting in Fort Worth where I was Professor of English at Tarrant CountyCollege and driving together north to Mount Rushmore, then to Yellowstone where after two nights in their lodges, we drove through the Tetons to Jackson Hole and flew to Seattle–then took a ferry to Victoria, BC– Canada and after four or five glorious days, rented a car and drove to Vancouver. 

Okay, so it was a dream trip–after a lifetime of mssing one another, we reunited and celebrated on our “reunion trip.”  Bobby had bought a new red Solara convertible for the first few segments of our adventure and we planned to pick it back up in Wyoming and drive back to Texas together.

It would seem my mother had other ideas. She always had: she had broken us up all those years ago, the summer after my senior year. Heartbroken, I believed my true love believed me when I told him the break up was my mother’s requirement. I’d fought her for years! After all, we were both Jewish, he was pre-med, and I planned to become a Dental Hygienist, a two year program that would allow us to get married and me to earn a nice salary while he finished his training.  At 17 and 19, we had a life plan, realistic goals, and a smooth, happy, loving relationship.

But Bobby, shocked and hurt, didn’t believe my mother had insisted we break up, he thought I wanted out and used her as an excuse; he went off to medical school as broken hearted as I was when I started my dental hygiene program; he married another the following year; I married another five years later. Nothing was ever right again for either of us, but neither of us knew that other one suffered. Not for over forty years.

Anyone who hears this part of our story asks: why did your mother break you up? The answers, if I ever have them, will come only after extensive writing and searching–something I’ve spent my life doing already.

For this entry, however, I must go to my mother’s funeral and the days that followed. Bobby drove home, alone, from Jackson Hole, where we’d left his car, to Houston; I flew to Harrisburg, PA where my mother and step-father had spent their final years near their youngest son Joe.

All the other brothers were already gathered by the time I arrived. My two married children met me there–Earl and Pepi, with her seven month old baby Miles, whom my mother never got to see.  Pepi had planned to bring him there to meet his great grandmother the following week; she would have been semi conscious by then anyway, but at least they would have “met” in this lifetime.

I managed to put together an outfit appropiate for a funeral, “borrowed” a lovely scarf I’d brought my mother from a trip to Italy the previous summer, and drove to the funeral home.

The last time I saw Frances Alene Levy Kalman Rose was in her coffin, the first dead  person I’d ever seen up close. I told my sister-in- law Jill–she looks alive. Jill assured me she wasn’t. I said: “I feel like she’s going to sit up and start talking any second.” Jill shook her head. “Touch her forehead,” she told me. I did. It was, of course, stone cold.  I shed no tears, not then, not at the funeral or the graveside service that followed.

I’m not sure how many of the siblings spoke. I just remember one part of my eulogy: “She always wanted what was best for us. And she always seemed to know exactly what that was.”

I was shocked when the audience laughed.

Such a loaded comment–especially having just returned from the reunion trip with Bobby. And yet, I had not realized the underlying meaning of my words, though people who knew nothing of my story, discerned the irony.

The following week my daughter and I spent cleaning out the townhouse, shipping boxes to siblings of memorabilia they couldn’t take home themselves, shipping some things to ourselves. There wasn’t much stuff, but enough to take some thought and planning.  We had to hang out in Pennsylvania that week anyway; Pepi was due to be in a wedding in Philadelphia over the 4th of July, and I had promised to play “nanny” while she and her husband James attended the various events.

 We rented a van and drove on the turnpike, met James at the airport and continued to the hotel.

Two things happened that belong in this post. First, on the day of the wedding, there was a fire in the kitchen, and we all had to evacuate. Exciting? Sure. The bride appeared in jean shorts and her veil, trailed by her entourage of hairdressers and make up artists. Joe, Meriellyn, and Evan had met us there for the weekend and they helped care for little Miles during the evacuation.

Early that evening, while Pepi and James were at the wedding, I took Miles for a stroll around the nearby park–a square filled with walkers and other strollers. No sooner had we crossed the street and entered the square, a butterfly landed on the stroller. Lovely, I thought. I watched, expecting it to fly away with the first bump, but the butterfly remained firmly attached to the stroller, facing Miles. We circled the park several times; the butterfly held fast.

“Mama,” I said. “It’s you, isn’t it.” I felt my eyes tear for the first time. “You came to see Miles, didn’t you? He’s beautiful. Perfect.” The butterfly fluttered its wings, but held fast to the stroller until we went back to the hotel.

Comments Invited: Do you have mother memories you wish to share? Ironic moments? Serendipity? Synchronicities? Lost loves? Reunions?

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Family Fragments

Special Moments

I come from a big unruly blended family, although at the time it was formed, there was no name for it: 1954. My father died 2 years earlier, leaving me and my brother Herb with my mother. Honestly, I missed my daddy terribly and wouldn’t have wanted my mother to remarry anyone. But her choice of a second husband had deep consequences for me, though apparently not for Herb. He inherited 3 new brothers with a 4th on the way a year later. He had his own baseball, basketball, and football team; I had a sense of desolation and hopelessness I still deal with.

Let’s flash forward to this past weekend–that 4th brother brought my total to 5–one whole, 3 step, and this last one considered a half-brother. My baby brother Joe. 

Naturally as a big sister 13 years older, we were very close siblings for life. About 17 years ago, he had twins, a boy Evan and girl Meriellyn. I used to see them about 3-4 times a year, since we lived in different parts of the country. Meriellyn and I have always had a wonderfully close relationship with a deep love and trust of one another.

Due to a fairly disruptive visit to my home in Houston 5 years ago, and an ensuring break from that branch of the family, Meriellyn and I had little contact for the longest time in our lives. But this weekend ended that period of enforced separation: we met again as a family at a nephew’s graduation (Herb’s younger son) from University of Delaware, where he received his doctorate in chemical engineering. It was a great occasion for all of us; but especially for Meriellyn and me to be able to see one another after such a long hiatus, and to renew our loving aunt/niece relationship. We went out for a mani-pedi expedition after the graduation ceremony on Saturday. What a blast we had. She plans to come visit again this summer. Alone this time–without the stress of two whole families trying to coordinate a week long summer vacation.

I am so thankful this fragmented disruption is healing now. A gift! Perhaps this will mark the beginning of my being able to write about my childhood and that family from which she descends. Perhaps someday I’ll heal from my mother’s disruptive decision to remarry all those years ago.

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