Friday, November 19, 2010

Saying Goodbye Isn't Forever

One hundred years ago it would have been a final goodbye, crossing the continent to a new home three thousand miles away. I've left the land of my birth, the houses where I grew up and raised my children, the streets on which I cruised and crashed and went from here to there, the graves in which my mother and sister lay side by side, even the ocean across which I flung the ashes of my father. Though he lives, I've left my son in a place of his own I've yet to see.

Today BassMan and I embarked on a new journey. We're headed to North Carolina, to a new home yet unchosen, just the two of us. With two dogs in the car, we're driving very far (nod to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with that reappropriated line.) We did this kind of journey shortly after our marriage 24 years ago, but we knew our stay in Japan would be temporary--a three-year stretch for his military career. I was pregnant with my first child when we stepped off the plane in Osaka and took the bullet train down to the little Japanese hamlet where I'd give birth seven weeks later. We blinked a few times and baby number two made his appearance. Another blink and the duty in Japan was over and we were back home in California.

Or I was. BassMan's home wasn't California. He returned there because of me. Because we thought we would be taking custody of my departed sister's son. Much to our disappointment, Jacob wound up with his dad and we began a 20-year residency in the land of my birth. BassMan endured it for me, while all the while his heart was in Carolina.

The state of California's economic woes precipitated our move east. When BassMan's job was eliminated by the city for which he worked, he sought employment near and far, but far won out. In these days of bankruptcy, foreclosures, long-term unemployment, we were grateful he was offered a position with a company within a month of his layoff. He was even offered a choice of six locations. None of them nearby. One of them, however, was somewhat near his aging parents and my remaining sister. The choice was easy, but enacting the choice was hard.

Our house sold in three days to the first couple who viewed it. We packed up and pulled out of the driveway barely a month after the house went on the market. With no house to go to, we'll stay with my sister until we find a new place to call home. Writing this reminds me of a needlework plaque we got for a wedding present from one of BassMan's relatives: "No matter what, no matter where, it's always home, when love is there." I know we have the love to make a new home anywhere the road takes us.

I'm already missing my son. He's fully grown, a man in his own right, and yet this kind of missing is so different than what I feel for our daughter who moved away to attend grad school in Washington, DC. She went on her own, for reasons of adventure and learning and cultural enrichment. There is a part of me that feels we've pushed him from the nest with this move and there's a good bit of (s)mothering wonder about whether he was ready. Like any good purpose, we'll have to wait and see.

Still, it's not like it was a hundred years ago when trains took weeks to go from east to west and cost prohibitive amounts of money. Saying goodbye isn't forever any more.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Father's Day Retrospective

Two days past Father's Day and I'm now ready to write about it. My parents divorced when I was seven and my father lapsed back into the scalawag life he'd known before marrying my mother. She was supposed to be his savior, the one who'd keep him on the straight and narrow while he morphed into a husband and father. It worked for a few years, but his wandering eye caught another and he slipped back into his old ways.

Did I mention that among his many talents--and yes, he was quite talented--he could swallow swords and other long, sharp objects. After my mom packed up her two daughters, my dad hitched up with a circus in Hawaii and left us with my uncle and aunt. When the circus tent folded, he came home, begged my mom back and my younger sister Angela resulted.

My novel in progress, The Sword Swallower's Daughter, began as a love story about a daughter lamenting the loss of a father who bailed out of her life when she was seven. Sound familiar? The first version received adulation from agents who praised my writing, but wouldn't make an offer of representation. The story was just too soft for the edgy title. I let the novel sit for a year, then picked it up again last January and hacked out the gooey sections. In their place are new scenes, a protagonist who grows through the story with flashbacks that reveal a horrifying secret she's kept to herself for 30 years. The original version contained a lot of both my dad and myself in the characters. The new version is still much of him, but nothing of me. The protagonist in this story is scarred from something far worse than her father's disappearance from her life.

Here is the intro to the first chapter of the original version. It's still there, but it's no longer the opening paragraph. I love this section for how it truly describes the daddy I once had.

Other fathers looked like Ward Cleaver in suits with white shirts and skinny ties and drove huge cars with bulging bumpers to work in offices or stores. They took their wives out for dinner on Saturday nights and left the kids home with babysitters to watch TV and eat pizza. My father was Italian and had an eagle tattooed across his chest and a pierced ear. He drove a 650 cc Triumph Bonneville motorcycle to work at an Esso service station and went out nearly every night without my mom. Some kids went to the Colorado River and water-skied on weekends; my sisters and I hung out at the beach where Daddy entertained beach-goers with his sword swallowing act. When I think of my daddy, I remember him like this.

You can read a bit more of that opening on my author's website at

So anyway. Father's day 2010 is behind us. It lingers in my heart always. What about you?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Travel With Me On A Mother's Day Blog Tour

Welcome to the Twitter Chats Blog Tour, organized by Mariana N. Blaser at mariblaser’s randomities and Anne Tyler Lord at Don’t Fence Me In. Today's theme is Mother's Day.

You will be directed to your next stop at the end of this post. Please feel welcome here, and have a happy Mother's Day!


I’m sitting on an airplane enroute to Lisbon as I write about my mother. She’s been gone nearly seven years and I can still remember her face when she stepped from the jetway in Tokyo the year she came to visit me. She had never been out of the country and her excitement overwhelmed the jetlag from the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles.

My mother loved to travel. Did we go places much when I was growing up? Not really. We took one vacation during my childhood years, a road trip to Texas to visit the family of my new stepfather. Travel was something other people did, something she longed to do, but never had the funds or the freedom to enjoy. As the daughter of a railroad man, she’d hung out at train depots growing up and rode the rails from her home in Iowa to California when she was a young girl. She fell in love with California on that trip and decided she’d live there one day.

Coming of age in the post-WWII era, my mother was a victim of choices—her own and those thrust upon her from parental expectations. In her churchy Midwestern world, after high school the rich girls went to Europe, the smart girls went to college and the good girls got married. My mother was neither rich nor scholastically inclined, so she graduated high school and got married. She scandalized the town two years later when she filed for divorce, packed up her few belongings and headed to California.

Ten years later she was in a disastrous marriage to my father with three young girls and a piano. Three things got her through those years, that piano, her singing and her love of travel. Music took her places where planes, trains and automobiles couldn’t go. I remember her playing and singing pop songs that are now standards like, “Fly Me to the Moon,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and “Somewhere My Love.” Music was the vehicle that transported her beyond the overdue rent, broken down car, and holey underwear.

I’ve drawn much from my mother and father in The Sword Swallower's Daughter, the novel I’m currently revising. Here’s an excerpt that captures the transformation that occurred within my mother when she sat down at the piano:

”We returned from school that day to the sound of her pounding out “Clar de Lune” on the piano. Mama’s piano playing was a barometer to her moods. When she played and sang sad love songs, she was irritable. When she played upbeat show tunes, we pretended we were the Lennon Sisters and joined in fun rounds of musical togetherness. Sometimes she played hymns, especially for wicked Uncle Teddy, who insisted she sing “How Great Thou Art” every time he saw her. But when she played from her big, brown classical music book, she channeled the tension of her life into the music, because when she closed the piano lid and stepped away, her face was smooth and her voice as soft as a soap opera star.”

Had my mother been raised in a family that dared to dream, she might have considered a career in music. Had she believed in herself, she might have listened to those in California who suggested she sing jingles for commercials, background vocals in Hollywood studios, even piano bar at one of the posh nightclubs of the day. As talented as she was, as much as she loved to sing, she simply had no confidence in herself. She didn’t dream of being famous, of stepping in and out of limos in exotic locations, her dreams were simple exhaustion borne of just getting by.

You’d think that this musical legacy may have led me into music. Sadly, we had no money for music lessons, or even renting a cheap student instrument during elementary school years. My mother, so broken from her past, didn’t have the confidence to teach any of her three daughters to play piano. I taught myself to read a melody line with my right hand and chord with my left hand. Sing? That gift skipped a generation, landing squarely in the voices of my two children. Elisabeth, who has perfect pitch and reveled in her piano lessons until 12th grade, has no time for the gift right now while she works through grad school as an English major. Jonathan, who was born with a song in his heart, delights me with spontaneous songs emanating from the shower, across the house, from the stage of his college choir. But travel? They’ve got that bug, and good. But what do you expect from children born in a foreign country, whose passports were issued before birth certificates?

In 1989 my mother took her only trip out of the country to be with me for the birth of my son in Tokyo. As a teenager during WWII, she’d struggled with prejudices against the fearsome Japanese she heard about in newsreels and newspapers. Upon his return from the war in Japan her brother gave her a tiny gold ring he’d removed from the finger of a dead Japanese solder. I’d always felt that ring had bad juju and when we began planning her trip, I suggested she bring the ring back with her and we’d present it to the Japanese military commander on the base nearby. She agreed and we were both thrilled with this restorative action. Bad juju passed into other hands though, as her jewelry box with that ring and other family treasures were stolen during a home robbery only weeks before she was to leave on her trip.

I’ve often said that a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Park and the A-Bomb Museum there should be a pilgrimage of every human being sometime in their life time (along with Auschwitz). We took my mother to Peace Park, where she was both horrified and healed. The destruction and human drama that was Hiroshima seared her mind like the images the nuclear blast put on the walls of the city. Yet her interaction with the friendly, helpful, humble Japanese people healed the prejudice she’d long harbored.

When she got sick from the cancer that claimed her life, she and I had been dreaming up a trip to England. She wasn’t able to take it, but I did it for her. I wrote about that trip in Ghosts of the Windswept Moors.

And so it is that she loved to travel. I always take a part of her when I go.


Thanks for stopping by! Your next stop for the Mother's Day Twitter Chats Blog Tour is Marisa Birns of Out Of Order Alice: -- @marisabirns

The complete list of participants can be found at the host's blogs: Mariana N. Blaser and Anne Tyler Lord.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Life is a Novel You Write One Breath at a Time

Life is a novel you write one breath at a time. Although you don't choose each breath as intentionally as an author selects words to progress a character's story, each breath completes a moment that propels you toward the plot of your life.

Your life's plot is the purpose and intentions that carry you through each day. Here are some common genres found in literature that may help you determine the plot of your life:
  • Mystery: What clues have you uncovered that hints at your life's purpose?
  • Adventure: Do you have a map and compass for future exploration, or do you draw only from adventures in the past?
  • Romance: Romantics live for expressions of love and see beauty in common things and events.
  • Thriller: Do you live on the edge, surrounded by intrigue, dark forces and spine-tingling suspense?
  • Paranormal: Shades of things that go bump in the night, of fangs, and shadows, and eerie echoes from the otherworld are normal in your world.
  • Comedy: The difference between your life and a tragedy is your point of view. Do you hide behind humor or just can't help laughing through adversity.
  • Science Fiction: You know you were born in the wrong century and are still hoping jet-packs replace motorcycles and cancer is a thing of the past.
  • Fantasy: The realm of magic with wizards, dragons, fairies, elves, unicorns and other mystical creatures of classical or contemporary design fills your imagination.
  • Bestseller: You've taken elements from all the above and with smart choices, resourcefulness and perseverance, your life is exciting and you can't wait to breathe through another chapter.
Imagine your life as a novel. In what genre(s) do you live?

Happy New Year: 2010

New Year's Day places a date on the calendar when we can turn the page on the past and write the first letter of the future. (Thought of the Season)