When my father needed a vice

Recently I blogged about the time my father as a boy threw an gold ring into a pile of green beans, where it was lost forever. I realize there is a sequel, also involving gold.

Fast forward 60+ years. My mother has just died of lung cancer and I’m helping my father clean out the sick room. It should be mentioned that despite a promising start, the last decades of their marriage were trying for him. Still, he was a devoted nurse in the months of her rapid decline. It’s also significant that he was a research scientist, given to unsentimental rationalism (like tossing an outgrown ring into green beans).

Back to the sick room. My mother’s gold watch sat on the night table. “What about this?” I asked.

“It isn’t running,” he observed. Before I could suggest a new battery, winding, or giving it to somebody, he added: “No point keeping a watch that doesn’t run.” I can still hear the ping in the bottom of the trash can.

“I guess not,” is all I could add.

That afternoon, we visited friends who were miffed that they’d called during the day and couldn’t leave a message. (My mother hated answering machines.) “That’s a problem,” my father said, pulling a notepad from his shirt pocket and jotting down: “Get answering machine.”

“And new clothes,” I added, since his wardrobe was decades old, chosen by my mother for thrift and easy-care. “Get new clothes,” he added to the list. “Will you help me tomorrow?” Yes I would.

He wasn’t finished with the to-do list. “I need a vice,” he announced.

“A vise?” I wondered why, since he’d long ago given away his wood working tools.

“No,” he said, reading my mind. “A vice. I think my vice will be a Jack Daniels every day at five o’clock. Let’s get some on the way home.” I should note that in the decades of my mother’s alcoholism, he hadn’t kept liquor in the house.

“OK,” I said. “Anything else? Scotch, mixers?”

“No, I’ll take it straight, on the rocks.” He checked his list: “Answering machine, new clothes, a vice. That’s enough for one day.”


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Posted in Just life

Gold in the green beans. Why?

My father grew up in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression, in a house so close to the next one that once, when a spark ignited the shingles, a neighbor simply jumped from his roof to my father’s and stamped out the spark.

Despite the general hard times, my grandfather had a modest, steady income, and my grandmother’s somber economies provided for the family’s needs with some carefully considered extras: one very good suit for my grandfather, books for the two boys, and a few nicely made dresses for my grandmother.

When my father was small, a relative gave him a gold ring. With most of my grandparents’ attention fixed on the flashier, more sociable older brother, it took awhile to realize that the gold ring was getting tighter on a growing boy’s finger until it couldn’t come off with any household treatment—pulling, twisting, soap or soaking the boy’s hand in ice water.

After some discussion of the probable cost, my grandmother took my father to the neighborhood jeweler and had the ring cut off. For some reason, my father was allowed to put the now C-shaped ring in his pocket for the walk home.

My grandmother must have been closest to the street, firmly holding my father’s hand. I picture him with his free hand fingering the ring in his pocket, the smooth sides, the rough cut. My grandmother isn’t paying attention, perhaps thinking how the gold could be melted down, or rejoined for an eventual grandchild. A flash catches her eye. My father is tossing the gold into a mound of green beans. She screams. The green grocer rushes out. She’s a regular customer, and he’s as outraged as she is at the wanton waste. The two of them, with my father forcefully recruited, tediously go through the entire mound of green beans, with rising intensity demanding of the unrepentant boy: “Why did you do that?”

My father can only say that he figured the ring wasn’t good anymore. “But why throw it in the green beans?” He doesn’t know. They look everywhere: under the tables, all over the sidewalk, even in the squash. No ring. My grandmother is furious, more so because of the boy’s placid refusal to provide an answer to the logical question: “But why throw it in the green beans?”

In fiction, I’m sure, there would be a motive, but years later, my father couldn’t say. Sometimes real people just can’t tell you why.

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Posted in Food, Writing

Call me names!

When I was about two, my mother said I invented a game called “Names.” The rules were simple: she regaled me with terms of endearment while I basked in the glow of Honey, Sugar, Sugar Pie, Sweetheart, Sweet Pea, Sugar Plum, Pumpkin, Pumpkin Pie, Honey Pie, Honey Bun, Baby Cake, and so forth. When she ran out of names, I announced Part 2: “More Names!” Names had a “No Multi Tasking” rule. No cooking, ironing, cleaning up, or other useful tasks. We had to play this game on the couch, with full attention to Me.

In time our relationship grew more nuanced (for sure), but I’m happy it started so well. Fast forward to meeting my husband, who is Italian. He was mildly surprised at the American habit of identifying love interests with food, especially vegetables. So “Pumpkin” must have sounded as off as “Oh Zucchini, it’s so good to see you.” Or, “Of course, Onion/Okra/Parsnip, whatever you say.” Apparently in his culture, food is food and people are people, and you don’t (baring cannibalistic predilections) think tenderly of eating people.

We lived in Italy during the Clinton Administration and the newspapers, quoting Bill speaking to Hillary, took care to translate “Honey” as “Miele,” with the subtext of : “We know it’s weird, but that’s what this American really said.” As if he might have called her Corn Syrup or Molasses. No big point here, except that if you tilt your head a little to see your world through another cultural perspective, it is a bit odd.

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Posted in Food, Just life

Is it better than your mother’s?

When I was a child, grammar descended on me in Barbetta, a grand (to me) Italian restaurant in NYC. I must have been about eight. I was the only child in the room, which gave the event both solemnity and anxiety. I was instructed to be on my best behavior. In fact, this periodic theater-and-nice-dinner-in-New York was part of my Cultural Education which my parents took quite seriously.

I’d ordered spaghetti, which seemed a safe choice. The mound of pasta that arrived was approximately the size of my head. I had the idea of a restaurant jail if I didn’t finish (after all, at home I sometimes had to sit for hours alone in the kitchen until I finished). So I dug in dutifully, which was noticed, alas.

A waitress came around, cooed a bit, as grown ups do and began the interrogation. How old was I? Eight. What grade? Fourth. “Do you like the spaghetti?” Well duh, lady, I’m eating it. By now the whole vast room was listening. And I’m thinking I have to get back to eating because of the restaurant jail thing.

But the waitress wouldn’t let go. “Is this spaghetti better than your mother’s?” My mother was sitting right there. I still remember heat waves of anxiety. Mom jail or restaurant jail? Clearly, the waitress was delighted to have set up such an exquisite entrapment. The whole room was enjoying a kid’s distress, not a fork moved. Remember how horrible that was, having grownups’ eyes on you? I didn’t have the social skill for: “They’re both good.” And “Not your business” wasn’t an option because of the “be on your best behavior thing.”

And again: “Is it better than your mother’s?” My parents could have helped, but they were enjoying the show. Clearly, this was an either/or. I remember sheer panic, my mind blank. No help from any quarter, the breathless room.

Finally what seemed a solution came to me: “No, it’s worse.” I expected relief. Not what happened. The room erupted in laughter. Even the waitress. Waves and waves of laughter. It took awhile for even my father to stop laughing enough to explain that I’d managed to land myself simultaneously in two jails. That is, my mother’s was bad enough but this was worse. The laughter died down, then rippled up, and I could hear in various quarters, whispered “no, it’s worse” and chuckles again. And still the head-sized mound of spaghetti, now labeled “worse.” One brief respite: my father said I didn’t have to finish.

This weekend I was in NYC with my husband and we passed Barbetta, now the oldest restaurant in the city still owned by the founding family. We went in. Still grand, still no kids, but waiters, at least, and smaller, more elegant portions. We spoke to a couple of the staff, both very kind. I’d like to go back. In fact, the spaghetti was better than my mother’s.

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Posted in Just life

When Point of View exercises get personal

unknownI’ll be leading a workshop on Point of View for the Knoxville Writers Guild (more on that here). In years of teaching college fiction classes, I’ve found that Point of View units can have dramatic personal impacts. Once again, art shapes life. I’d like to share three instances.

Coming Out in the Parking Lot
In the 90’s, I taught English at a US naval base in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, a hard, hard time for LGBT military. At least once a semester, I’d get a story about the troubles of a gay “friend” of the narrator. After a sympathetic comment on the “friend’s” situation I’d offer a conference on “point of view issues.” Inevitably, the soldier student would follow me to the parking lot, look around to make sure we weren’t being watched, and come out, there and then. Too bad “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” also included, “Don’t Touch” because I so wanted to give these hurting soldiers a hug, big and tough as they were. All I could do was be there, assure them of confidentiality, say over and over that there was nothing wrong with them, and that things would get better. You could see the lightening, the lifting, the relief. The next story, often, was in the first person: “I knew I was gay when . . .” Or third, from the central character’s PoV: “Ted knew . . .” A shift that made a huge difference, for the story . . . and the writer.

Calling Dad
Often, after students had written a few stories, I’d assign a revision from an alternative point of view, stressing that this is way more than switching pronouns. It’s about seeing with different eyes, actually inhabiting the skin of another character. In one fall semester, a young woman had written about a nasty divorce, leaving a mother and daughter (i.e. the writer) devastated. The point of view was the wronged wife. The daughter/writer had not communicated with her father for nearly ten years. Courageously, her revision took the father’s point of view. She brought the paper to my office, stunned. Her father had true grievances, she had realized. He had tried. He might be suffering the estrangement. “I called him up last night,” my student said. “He cried. I cried. I’m going to see him for Thanksgiving.”

Our Dark Sides
For the same exercise, a student attempted a revision from the point of view of a child molester. I warned her to be careful, and in fact she didn’t complete the revision. But the attempt was profoundly moving. She went to her own dark side. While certain acts are surely wrong, evil, unacceptable, they are not inhuman. There is a person within the perpetrator, she discovered, and there but for grace go many of us. It was a profound lesson from a simple English 364 class.

Reams have been written about point of view. The “right” angle can make or break a story. It’s demonstrably true that story, in fact, exists in the point of view. What we think of as a single incident—the party, the breakup, the journey—is profoundly different seen through different eyes. These are facts of the craft. But the craft is about the soul, and one of the gifts of teaching is to offer the tools for opening the souls.


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Posted in Writing

His brother’s hands, before and after

imagesOne of the rewards of the writing life is teaching writing. I taught composition for some years at a US military base in Naples, Italy. I remember a young soldier who had grown up poor in the Caribbean. He struggled with standard English, with school in general, and walked into my English composition course with probably as much sickening dread as I would have brought to Marines basic training. His name was Henry.

We were to teach the standard essay format with standard assignments (this is the military, remember). Next up was a “before and after” essay. I suggested picking a very concrete topic, and focusing narrow to make a larger point, although the larger p0int wasn’t required.

Henry’s essay was about the difference in his brother’s hands before and after the drug addiction that took his life, from a loving description of the smooth, killed, caring, clean hands of the “before,” to the cracked, stained hands and ragged, split nails of “after,” to the yellow pallor of those hands when Henry identified his brother’s wasted body. The essay took my breath away.

I wanted Henry to read it to the class. For him, this must have felt like being ordered to the front line of battle, but I was the teacher and he was a soldier, so he obeyed. I remember a tall, muscular man with cafe’ au lait skin that grew ruddy with embarrassment as he made his way to my desk and faced the ranks of uniforms.

He read the essay and finished with something like: “And that was the difference between my brother’s hands before and after drugs.” There were about twenty in the class, mostly men. Nobody moved after the last line. Then somebody clapped; then they all clapped. The ice broken, a few shouted; one whistled.

Henry turned to me, tears in his eyes. “They got it,” he said. “They understood what I was saying.” I said they certainly did.

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Posted in Writing

12 Reasons You Need a Writing Group

  1. You just don’t feel like writing today/aren’t inspired/lost faith. . . . The group meets on Wednesday. They expect some work from you and don’t really care about your drama. Besides, they’ve been there and pushed through and expect you to do the same.
  2. You have just written the most spectacular, beautiful, evocative prose since cuneiform. Doesn’t have a lot to add to your work in process but you can’t bear to cut it . . . The whole group in unison tells you to get over yourself and cut it.
  3. You have painstakingly researched factoid X and you are absolutely going to wedge it into your story, even if it doesn’t quite fit because you find it so fascinating. . . . Someone will point out the not-fitting part and suggest you save the factoid for cocktail party. Maybe somebody will listen.
  4. You are so immersed in your period/setting/topic that you assume that all educated readers know XYZ so you don’t have to give the slightest bit of context. . . . Your group will beg (or insist) to differ.
  5. You slack up for a bit and produce some writing that’s “good enough.” . . . Your group will say it’s not.
  6. You decide that writing is too hard. You are giving up and taking up something that’s easier. Like climbing Everest barefoot. . . . . Your group will tell you to keep writing.
  7. You are so invested in your character, you feel his/her pain/pleasure so keenly that you are just sure that intensity is on the page. . . . Your group will tell you “Nope, not yet.”
  8. You are so invested in your character that when it comes time for that character to suffer, you just can’t bear it. You also can’t bear to feel the pain yourself. . . . Your group will tell you to bear it. Go deeper.
  9. Your friends and family love you and all, but they don’t really want to hear any more about your writing troubles, or your plot, or your characters. . . . Your group wants to hear about all this. All they ask is that you listen when it’s their turn.
  10. Your character is edging so close to yourself that you lose perspective . . . Your group will point this out. Probably bluntly, but in they end you’ll (the writer you) will be grateful.
  11. You are totally stuck. Written yourself into a corner. Can’t make a plot point work. . . . Maybe someone will have an idea.
  12. You have taken this piece as far as it will go . . . Someone will raise an issue, ask a question, and after your initial shock, a door will appear in what seemed a wall, and you will find a way to go deeper, to do better. You will astonish yourself.

There are more reasons. These are just the first that came to me. My group would tell me there are more.

Can you suggest more?

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Posted in Writing

Creating My Red Summer

imagesThe first plot piece of my novel in progress (current title: Out of the Red Summer) was set when I was in grade school.

I was maybe 10 when my parents took me to see All the Way Home, the play based on James Agee’s achingly lyrical A Death in the Family. (I’ve blogged elsewhere on my thwarted fatal intentions for that evening.)

Sometime in my teens I read A Death in the Family, which opens with “Summer of 1915,” a mesmerizingly beautiful essay built on the simple ritual of men in shirtsleeves watering their lawns. Years later, in 2000, when my husband and I were contemplating moving from Italy to the unknown of Knoxville, TN, “Summer in 1915” made that move seem possible.

Soon, after moving here, we saw the Knoxville-based Carpetbag Theater’s searing spoken word performance of “Red Summer,” a re-creation of the Knoxville Race Riot of August, 1919. Not fiction but fact: Four years after Agee’s idyllic, fictional summer, Maurice Mays, a handsome bi-racial man (see above), was blatantly framed for killing a white woman. The next day, National Guard and hundreds of drunken, heavily armed white men were backed by National Guard machine guns as they opened fire on black Knoxville. Hours later, streets ran with blood. Bodies were dumped in the Tennessee River; black families fled the city never to return. In the coming months, all charges were dropped against the white rioters. Mays was executed, an almost certainly innocent man.

Agee’s idyll of summer evenings in a white suburb, and bloody streets in an August rampage: two sides of a deeply divided Southern city. Suppose there was a cross-over figure? I began to construct a fictional white woman who would weep for Maurice Mays, not because they were lovers (although he had many) but for a deeper cause.

As a historical novelist, I look for links, ideally collisional links between characters and their times. Characters who will be lurched to new circumstances, driven out of their boundaries, their self-images shaken.

So, having finished my third historical novel, Under the Same Blue Sky, and having done three set far from home, I came back to these collisions in the city where I now live: the men in shirt sleeves, and the men in rampage. I envisioned three women, different in class and color, who would be profoundly changed and tightly entwined by the Summer of 1919, and who would struggle to find a restoring peace for themselves and for Knoxville. They will be the three voices of my novel.











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Posted in New novel

How did s/he get that way?

imagesLast week, I led a workshop on memoir writing at a local senior center. Amazing stories came out, funny, sad, and precious. Here’s a variant of an exercise we did that I think would be useful for writers, and just people living in families with people who are not exactly, precisely like ourselves.


Think of family member (living or dead) with a strong characteristic, positive or negative: generous or stingy; faithful or faithless; hard-working or lazy; honest or sneaky, etc.  People say: “Well, X has always been that way.” Answer the following questions, inventing what you don’t know.

  1. Name:
  1. Characteristic:
  1. As an example of the characteristic , , ,
  1. Impact of that characteristic on the family and/or the person’s life:
  1. Name or invent an incident or a time in the character’s life which may have shaped or created that characteristic.
  1. S/he was __________ years old and felt . . .
  1. S/he so wanted . . . .
  1. At that time, the best course was to . . .
  1. Later, the characteristic really helped, like when . . .
  1. But sometimes, there were/are problems, like . . . .
  1. Something changed when . . .


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Posted in Writing

Listeners in Airports

airportRecently, a bit of snow in Philadelphia so overwhelmed American Airlines, that we got home 24 hours later than planned. [Insert here the litany of gate changes, delays, cancellations, rescheduling, cancellation, disappearing ticket agents, endless holds on phone, airport shut down, etc.]. While graciously hosted by my favorite sister and niece for an extra night, the experience leads me to suggest a new airport feature: volunteer listeners.

A church near home has volunteer listeners who offer active, compassionate listening services for members of the congregation. You can specify if you want A) basic listening; B) feedback; or C) advice.

So if Philadelphia International (PHL) had such a service, I sure could have used it. I’d pick options B&C, and ask for the listener with the FWL badge, for Fiction Writer Listener.

Me: Blah, blah, blah on the flight problems.
FWL: Oh, you poor thing. You don’t deserve this. A 24-hour delay when you had such a nice non-stop at a convenient time!
Me: Yes, and I  just bought overpriced lemonade from an airport kiosk which was much too sweet.
FWL: No way! Let me taste it. . . . You’re so right! When life gives you lemonade, it ought to be refreshingly tart, especially after such an ordeal.
Me: Absolutely. And there’s more.
FWL: Tell me.
Me: Well, I’m having trouble with my chapter 5. I need to add XYZ elements, but that would make the chapter too long.
FWL: Don’t you just hate that?
Me: I do. And there’s a tricky character transition as well.
FWL: Oh no! First the lemonade, and now this! How can a person go on?
Me: Not to mention the need to externalize some interior dialogue.
FWL: Flight cancellations AND the showing/telling dialectic. I’m surprised you’re still standing.
Me: Me too. So what do you suggest?
FWL: Well, if I may interject: your gate has just been secretly changed to gate E2 and here we are at E145. Since your flight is also way over-booked and you risk being bumped, my suggestion is to run.
Me: I will, but what about Chapter 5?
FWL: Definitely you should not accept any characters from other writers.
Me: I won’t.
FWL: For your security, keep a close watch on your personal plot points and word count at all times.
Me: OK, but . .
FWL: And, in the interest of emotional integrity, if you feel something, write something.
Me: I’ll try. There’s also a foreshadowing issue, you know.
FWL: I regret any inconvenience but you really need to go. Hurry, and have a nice flight. , , , Next traveler, please.

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Posted in Writing

Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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