Thursday, September 8, 2011

My current writing project is the memoir of a childhood friend.

Here's the latest version of my pitch:

Karen Murphy, a gifted, white fourteen-year-old, feels her anxiety building as she reads countless newspaper articles, and listens to her older sister's accounts of assaults and vandalism at the inner city school she will soon attend in northern California's San Francisco East Bay, at the height of the racially charged 1960s. Karen's fears are realized on the first day of class when her sister's friend is attacked in a campus bathroom.

Karen quickly discovers that her greatest threat is her teachers, who not only are incapable of mitigating the campus unrest, but in fact, unwittingly widen the racial chasm among students with biased, potentially explosive, class assignments.

As the months pass, Karen develops friendships and learns survival skills. Just as she begins to feel that she may complete the school year without suffering any physical harm, she steps out of her early orchestra class and into pandemonium.

Will Karen escape injury in the campus riot that erupts on the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Right Writer

My brother thinks he’s a writer. He caught the bug recently, and now his favorite line is, “I can’t not write,” whatever that means.

Gary got the idea to write a column for a hot rod magazine he subscribes to after the death of one of their columnists. I’m pretty sure he subscribes to every hot rod magazine in publication. His beard has been graying for years, and lately he reaches for his “readers” when he opens the latest issue. But I’ll bet he’s still more entertained by the pictures of all the pretty cars painted in crayon box colors, with shiny chrome blowers protruding from flame-striped hoods, than he is in the actual stories. You know, “I buy ‘Street Rodder’ for the articles.” Personally I’ve never understood how big tires and bellowing engines could appeal to anyone over the age of sixteen.

He sent me a draft of a story he had written, chronicling a 10-day trek to the Bonneville Salt Flats in his recently restored lime green ’48 Plymouth, with a fellow hot rod aficionado. He wanted my opinion of the story, and some advice on how to get it published. You see, I really am a writer, and he knows this. I have taken countless writing courses, entered contests too numerous to mention, placed respectably in a few, and have indeed been paid for my work.

I am always happy to share my expertise with any fledgling writer, even Gary. I willingly put aside the decades of contempt I held for the relentless teasing he and our older brother, Bill, subjected me to as a child. Curled up on the pink chenille spread covering my bed, my head buried in a book, I asked for nothing more than a little peace and quiet. From periodic popcorn pelting to the stinging spray of a transparent yellow squirt gun, there seemed no end to their infantile pranks. I can’t begin to count the number of times my mother responded to my plaintive cry, “MAAWWM!” I can still picture her running from the kitchen wiping her hands on a dish towel, screaming, “Now, you boys, leave her alone!”

But I digress.

He asked me the best way to approach a prospective publication to pitch his idea for a recurring column. He said he had had a number of letters to the editor published in one particular magazine, and thought he had developed a rapport with the editor. So rather than continue to supply his captivating turns of phrase for free, Gary decided, why not start getting paid for his “work.”

After reading his piece, I emailed a reply. “Good first draft. I like your folksy, down-to-earth style, not unlike that of Mark Twain.”

I lived to regret that comparison. He now signs all his emails, “Sam.”

My reply continued. “First, get the guidelines for submission from their website. Find out, if you can, how much they pay. You’ll need a query letter. I can help you with that. Since you want to write a recurring column, you’ll need to bundle several pieces together, to provide a sample of your work. Send them to me first to polish – you know, check the spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc."

God knows Gary never got higher than a C- in his English class at Castlemont High in Oakland. I, on the other hand, skipped 3rd grade, excelled in English throughout my formative years, and indeed earned a multitude of certificates of excellence in spelling bees.

I patched that missive off and waited for Gary’s reply.

The next day, I received this. “I couldn’t wait, so I just sent my story idea to the editor in an email. Was that okay?”

Horrified that he had blown his first (and probably only) hope for a paid writing gig, I dashed out a quick email back.

“Slow down, Bro, you’re gonna look too anxious! The publishing world has rules, and these rules must be followed. But I think we can salvage this if we just take our time.”

Before I could hit the Send key, a new email message landed in my Inbox. Another one from “Sam.”

He had forwarded to me the response from the editor to the one he had originally sent. “Looks good. I might be interested. Send me the complete story, with pictures, when it’s finished, and I’ll be in touch.”


It’s not supposed to work that way! What about the query letter, the polishing, the bundle? And wait a minute, he’s not the writer in the family, I am. We all have our designated roles. Bill is the artist, I am the intellectual, and Gary is...well, the middle child. A sort of place holder, a temporary distraction, until the baby, Mommy and Daddy’s little princess, is born.

Still, he was seeking my guidance. What’s a good sister to do? I couldn’t just abandon him there on the threshold of his newly discovered ambition, however unsuited to it he may be.

Before long, I was correcting spelling, unsplitting infinitives, inserting verbs where no verb had gone before, and generally spit-polishing Gary’s Twainesque works. I even started recommending other publications for him to submit his work.

When he got the check in the mail, I was the first one he called. “I owe you dinner,” he said, after he shared the news. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

You’re darned right, you couldn’t, I thought. But I kept this to myself. After all, he’s my brother. And besides, he knows that no matter how successful he becomes, I’ll always be the princess.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Steve Del Masso

Back then, we called it Jr. High - the school years of 7th through 9th grade. Jr. High was not at all like elementary school. For the first time, we had a different teacher for each subject, in a different classroom. We had lockers with combinations we had to memorize, and gym class, in which we had to undress, shower, then dress again, with no privacy. We also had one hour each morning called "homeroom."

Homeroom was the class period in which we were informed of the day's announcements. I don't remember much about homeroom except that we were assigned to this class alphabetically, by last name.

My best friend, Jan Davies, who had also attended elementary school with me, landed in the same homeroom class with me. So did a lanky, sandy-haired boy with piercing blue eyes named Steve Del Masso. I'm not sure if we shared a homeroom class all three years. But I'm certain I fell in love with him the first time I looked into those blue eyes.

My memories of Steve are, admittedly, vague. It was a long time ago, after all. Pictures help to bring back the images of our young love. He used one I posted on my Facebook page many years later as his profile picture. It's of the two of us standing on the school ground the last day of 9th grade. In it I am wearing my middy, an atrocious white sailor style blouse with a black tie around the collar. According to tradition, 9th grade girls wore them to school on Fridays. I don't know how this tradition got started, but I do remember feeling proud to be among the privileged few permitted to wear this hideous garment. Steve is wearing a navy double-breasted jacket and matching tie. I'm pretty sure he wore that on every dress-up date we had. We have an arm around each other's waist. His expression resembles that unmistakable deer-in-the-headlights look. Judging by my ear-to-ear grin, I was over the moon.

I don't remember much about the day's activities, except that the teachers had organized all sorts of silly games for the 9th graders to play on the lawn. We all competed against each other in a sack race, hopping along to the finish line inside burlap sacks we held up to our waists.

My most vivid memory of that day is when we were paired off to run the three-legged race. For this race, two students each put one leg in the sack, held each other around the waist for balance, then raced together against other pairs. Steve and I were partnered. I could hardly contain my excitement at being permitted to be that close to Steve.

We also attended a couple of Job's Daughters dances. I have a picture of us pressed up against each other dancing to a slow song. I'm sure he wore the same jacket and tie. I don't remember noticing that then, and if I did, I didn't care. I was with Steve Del Masso. That was all that mattered.

We dated a few more times in high school, and the following summer, when he got his driver's license and pickup truck. I remember one double-date to the drive-in. It was the summer of 1970, and the movie was "Mash." The four of us climbed into the bed of his truck, and bundled up under sleeping bags to stay warm in the cool, Bay Area night air. He pulled out a can of Coke, poured something into it, then handed it to me. Rum & Coke, he told me. I remember liking the taste of the sweet drink. I also remember feeling a little dangerous and daring drinking liquor for the first time.

We lost touch after high school. I remember seeing him at our 10-year reunion with his wife. I don't even think we spoke. Divorced by then, I probably saw no point in wasting my time with a married guy, when there were plenty of single ones to chat up.
39 years after our high school graduation, and my first rum & coke in the bed of his pickup, Steve's name appeared on my Facebook page. All my Jr. High emotions came flooding back. I couldn't get the pictures of us together posted quickly enough! I sent him a message confessing my school girl crush. We exchanged a few more communications, then agreed to meet for old time sake.

He remembered two double dates in his pickup. I teased him that, thanks to him, I never did see "Mash" all the way through. As we caught each other up on our lives, I was surprised at how little I knew about him back in our school days.
Remarkably, he was a straight A student through high school, was president of Phi House, played tuba in the band, and won a music scholarship.

Years later, he took over his dad's produce distribution business, and built it into a highly successful enterprise. He introduced me to his dad when I visited the shop one day.

"Dad, remember when you took me to the store to buy that blue jacket in 7th grade?"

Mr. Del Masso nodded.

"It was for me to wear on a date with Camille," Steve said with a smile.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Early draft of an introduction for my memoir

Our assignment for this week's memoir class was to find a theme running through our stories, then write an intro to our memoir expressing the theme. Patty, our instructor, had explained that if we worked with them long enough a theme would reveal itself. I struggled with this for a few days, reading, sorting, then rereading and resorting. I was in the middle of writing an email to Patty, questioning whether a memoir was actually what I intended for my end product, since it seemed my stories had no common thread. As I tried to explain to her how my stories seemed unrelated to one another, I realized I could no longer figure out how I had separated them earlier. They all seemed to speak to one theme - Relationships. Below is an early draft of my memoir's introduction.

Relationships are not stagnant. They change with the seasons of our lives.

My two brothers are much older than me. When we were young, they played cruel tricks on me, often bringing me to tears, then laughed as my mother scolded them. Many years later, one of my brothers, Gary, introduced me to a good friend of his, Jerry, who would become my husband. The other brother, Bill, the oldest, and the instigator of most of my childhood teasing, suffers from Parkinson's Disease. Now bedridden, he resides in an assisted-care facility. Gary and I visit him regularly, though not often enough. At family gatherings, Bill used to chase our squealing kids around the house, threatening to kiss them. If he caught one, he would grab her up in a bear hug and plant squeaky kisses on her neck and face until she wriggled free. Someone always seemed to be hollering at Bill to leave the kids alone.

Relationships mold our lives. Never a demonstrably affectionate family, my brothers and I seldom hugged each other over the years. And I can't remember a time when either of my brothers kissed me, or I, them. Now I plant a quiet kiss on Bill's forehead before I leave him at the end of each visit. Gary and I exchange a hug whenever we get together.

Time warms some relationships, and cools others. Gary and I have a closer relationship now than I'm sure we would have had if I hadn't married his good friend. My mother and her sister, Ruby, were close as children. As Ruby's alcoholism escalated, my mother's disdain for her grew. I'm sure they both suffered from the resulting estrangement.

No one is immune from the effects of relationships.

This is a story about relationships.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


I open the door to the bright, expansive common room. Warm autumn sun beams in from windows on the opposite wall high above the door that leads out to the tidy garden patio. I steel my churning stomach against the smell of disinfectant poorly masking the urine odor. Bent bodies barely supporting lonely, vacant faces are scattered about at the round tables that fill the large room. Reminding myself to smile, I greet those whose expressions flicker with comprehension. Weaving through the wheelchairs and shuffling slippers, my steps are quick and light. I am ashamed of my forty-something agility.

I ascend the staircase and find my mother’s room. The bathroom door is propped open, nearly blocking the entry doorway. This is undoubtedly to ensure some privacy from the nosy residents who stroll up and down the hall and peer in at her.

I nudge the door and squeeze through the narrow space silently so as not to startle her. She is dozing in the recliner my brother, Gary, and I bought her two weeks after we moved her here.

Mom awakens to my soft touch on her shoulder and gets up to offer me her seat. It’s the only chair in her half of the shared room, so she sits on the end of her twin bed. The flowered coverlet does little to cheer up the dormitory setting.

I offer her a piece of the raspberry scone I bought on the way over. She spreads open a Kleenex and lays it across her trembling outstretched hand. I set her portion of the treat in it. Mom nibbles the scone and comments that she doesn’t get sweets much here. I notice that her tremor is not bad this morning. It may be the hour, I tell myself. Her Parkinson’s medication causes noticeable peaks and valleys of effectiveness over the course of the day.

“Did you pay my bills?” she asks.
“Yes, Mom. I paid them.”
“Well, do you have the receipt for the rent?”
“They don’t give me a receipt.” I know this answer will not satisfy her.
“Then how do you know if they got it?”
I stifle a sigh of exasperation. “I bring the check when I come to visit you the week it’s due. I hand it to them in person.”

She asks nothing more; her eyes register uncertainty. I wonder if I’ll trust my daughter to pay my bills when I’m too ill to pay them myself.

We engage in small talk for a time. She asks about Kristen, my twenty-two year-old daughter. I tell her she’s fine, still dating the same guy.

After awhile she comments that it’s really not so bad here. That she doesn’t really mind staying here.

“That’s good,” I reply, unable to think of anything else to say. I am relieved she’s not unhappy. I think maybe she has accepted the change as permanent.

It was a difficult decision to move her, one that my brothers and I put off too long. When we finally accepted the fact that she needed more care than we could provide her on a drop-in basis, we convinced each other it was time to relocate her to a facility that provided twenty-four-hour care.

We never convinced Mom. She didn’t go willingly. Wouldn’t let go of the notion that one of us could care for her in our home.

I don’t tell her that I’ve begged Kristen never to put me in a place like this, just as Mom begged my brothers and me. I temper my pleas with reassurances that I will trust Kristen’s judgment, and go quietly if there is no other option. I won’t be difficult.

Still, I can’t imagine being bathed and fed by strangers, however friendly and pleasant they seem. I can’t imagine sharing a bedroom and a bathroom with a woman who wets and soils herself, whose expressionless face is the last thing I see when the lights go out.

I glance down at Mom’s bare feet and notice that her nails need clipping. I wonder if other daughters take care of these personal needs for their mothers. Mine doesn’t ask, and I don’t offer.

A young woman with a caring smile, dressed in a white uniform, looks in on us and reminds Mom that it’s time to go downstairs for lunch. I thank the woman and gather my things together, grateful that the awkward visit is over.

I descend the stairs slowly, so as not to get too far ahead of Mom. At the bottom, I kiss her soft cheek, tell her I love her and that I’ll see her next week.

“Love you,” she replies, then turns to make her way haltingly to her assigned seat.

Again I remind myself to smile and nod at the other residents as I glide toward the door to freedom.

Riding home in the car, I cannot erase the image of my mother and her lonely existence. I resolve to take nail clippers with me when I visit next week.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Lavalier

I don't know how the lavalier came to be owned by Aunt Ruby. I do know that it was a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother on the occasion of their wedding.
A tiny diamond twinkles at the center of the delicate gold Victorian-style pendant. A crescent shaped natural pearl dangles at the bottom. Hanging in our family room is a cherished photo of my grandmother wearing the lavalier.

There was always some disagreement among my mother's siblings about who should have inherited which family mementos. There weren't many. Our family was not well-off. My grandfather, a grocer, died in his late 40's of pneumonia following gall bladder surgery. My grandmother managed to raise her four young children by gradually selling off property my grandfather had aquired during their marriage.

If there was a will, it didn't specify who would get the few trinkets left behind when my grandmother passed away. Her wedding band went to my Uncle Curtis' eldest daughter, Claudia. My mother got granny's engagement ring, which I now have. Ruby ended up with the lavalier. Sounds fair enough now, but my mother and my aunt always bickered with their brother about the wedding band.

When I married the first time, at nineteen years old, Aunt Ruby came out for the wedding. She let me wear the lavalier during the ceremony as my "something old." It fit perfectly against my antique white high-necked gown, and accompanied the headpiece I wore, my grandmother's, that my mother had updated for me. Aunt Ruby made it quite clear that the pendant was just a loan, that she wanted it back at the end of the day.

Twenty-three years later, I invited Aunt Ruby to my second wedding. I asked if I could borrow the lavalier again. This time the pendant rested against my skin, framed by the cream-colored jacket that topped a matching soft, flowing skirt.

After the photographer finished posing my new husband and me with all the combinations of attendants, relatives, cake and bouquet, I found my aunt chatting with my mother at a table near the buffet.

I reached around my neck to unhook the precious memento, when my Aunt stopped me.
"Honey, why don't you keep it? I don't dress up much anymore. You'll get more use out of it now than I will," she said. Then she leaned in a little closer and winked. "Besides, I don't want Curtis' girls to get it when I die."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cupping my hands on the sides of my face, I’d press my nose against the bowed screen door and peer into the dark room.

"Come on in," Aunt Mabel would call in her raspy voice, as she slowly rolled her heavy body upright on the sagging, threadbare couch, and slipped her bare feet into worn rubber thongs. Carrot-colored strands of hair streaked with gray cascaded across her generous bosom.

Pulling me close with pale, fleshy arms cinched in the sleeves of a red and yellow muu-muu, she would plant a squeaky kiss on my cheek. Then through a gravelly chuckle, she would mumble an apology in Mom’s direction for not having tidied up before we arrived.

"I just couldn’t get started this morning," she would say. Fact is, she never got started. A thick layer of dust covered the plastic flower arrangement atop the TV/stereo cabinet, and the collection of movie magazines, creased open to half-read articles. The sweet smell of bacon hung in the air and mingled with the stale odor of soiled carpet and yesterday’s trash.

Mabel’s first four children were all aspiring make-up artists, their skills honed from years of applying various shades of blue eye shadow, black liner and mascara, pasty facial powder, and pink carnation blush each morning before school. When they returned home in the afternoon, they could count on her being there, curled up on the couch, half-listening to the drone of a soap opera.

Lisa, the last girl, chubby and warm, toddled around barefoot in a faded outgrown cotton print dress, and dingy, hand-me-down panties. Her curly chestnut hair and brown skin, in stark contrast to that of her blonde, fair-skinned sisters, exposed her mixed ethnic background. Her father was Samoan, we were told, though she shared her siblings’ surname, and she called their father, "Daddy."

The three eldest of Mabel’s children, Sonya, Paulette and Diane, formed a singing group in the 70's and performed at a number of local country-western clubs. All their costumes were sewn by their mother, without dress patterns, on an old sewing machine she had set up in the kitchen.

They cut a record once, "How Much, How Many", a tale of love lost. It was written by Aunt Mabel.

Over the years, battered hopes and broken marriages brought the girls home to their mother from time to time. It seemed Aunt Mabel was never without a household of offspring, and their offspring.

Aunt Mabel bore one more child in her mid-forties, her only son, Warren, before Mother Nature mercifully imposed her fool-proof method of birth control. Warren lived with his mother until she died, at first for her support, then later to care for her.

Sometime back, while sorting through a box of old photos, I came across a portrait of myself as a grinning, dimpled two-year-old. Printed in soft sepia, it had been brought to life by the feathering of subtle shades of gold, blue and pink into the hair, eyes, cheeks, and clothing. I remember being told that Aunt Mabel earned a salary at this for a time in her life.

Aunt Mabel’s death didn’t make the six o’clock news. She left no mark on the world. Her quiet legacy is only the portraits she endowed with a soul, and the love with which she enriched the lives of those lucky enough to be a part of hers.