Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Recipe Box

Food is a powerful source for stories. It’s hard to think of a food without having some sort of memory or reaction—either positive or negative. On Emeril Live on the Food Network, reactions from audience members are both visible and audible with groans and lip licking.

I have a friend who’s writing a memoir using family recipes. She collected many of these recipes from her mother. Each recipe had a family story associated with it. Her mother died many years ago from ovarian cancer, so she collected the recipes as a way to keep her mother’s memory alive. Up until recently, she kept the recipes in boxes. Now she’s compiling them on her computer and writing the memories associated with each one.

Whenever I eat bean soup, I remember a family reunion I attended as a child. It was in a church grove and attended by every arm of the family who lived in Schuylkill County. We had the usual picnic fare like potato salad, hot dogs, and hamburgers. My dad carried a steaming Styrofoam bowl of homemade bean soup. My little sister turned her nose up at it, so my dad had to coax her to try it. Corn on the cob roasted on an open fire. Butter dripped from my chin. My sister and I were most fascinated with the barrels that dispensed homemade root beer and birch beer. We drank cup after cup until our stomachs hurt. My Grammy won a hat during the Pinochle game. It was made of green yarn and Christmas cards. Grammy wore it to church in the winter.

Open your own recipe box. What are your favorite meals? Your family’s? When did you eat it for the first time? Who made it? Also, think about the meals you hated. Why did you hate them?
What happened during certain meals? Which dishes seemed to turn up at every family gathering? Make a list of as many foods as you can think of. Do this quickly. Jot them as they come to mind. To get started, open a cookbook or a recipe file. When you’ve finished the list, choose one or several from the list and freewrite. Go back periodically and add to your list.

If you haven't already, visit the sister site, CS Writing Workshop. I've added a new section called CS Notes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Father's Day

Happy Father's day to all fathers out there. I want to wish a special Happy Father's Day to my nephew Nate and to my niece Sapphira who recently had a baby boy!

Father's Day brings up a flood of various emotions. My Dad wasn't the perfect man expressed in Hallmark cards. It would be difficult for me to find a card for him today. For a long time, all I could remember is a strict and mostly stoic man. He was highly critical of me, and no matter I what I did, I could never please him. He said many cruel things to me, as I did to him.

It wasn't always that way. I do have some good memories of riding the ferryboat each Autumn and eating ice cream along the Susquehanna River. We had camping trips that turned into adventures. We hiked along the Appalachian Trail, and he'd tell me the histories of the towns we saw below us, and he knew all the names of the trees and wildflowers.

But then my mother left, and he became a different man. At 10 years old I was expected to take her place with the chores and the disciplining of my 2 younger sisters. What a rift that caused, a rift that almost didn't mend. My father spent less and less time at home, and we had to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we had no food in the house. I felt worthless and unloved most of the time. And lonely. I couldn't wait to leave home. I ended up dropping out of college to do it.

Things changed recently. I received a midnight visitor telling me had been missing. He had never shown up for his Wednesday night chicken pot pie dinner. At first, I thought my elderly visitor was being a nervous Nellie, blowing things out of proportion. My father was the type of man who disappeared for days and broke promises.

I didn't sleep that night. I didn't know whether to be angry or worried. Arriving at his home the next morning, it was obvious he hadn't been home. I panicked. The local police and fire department broke into the house. My sister and I had no keys. The house was in more disarray than I last remembered. The police were able to find him. My father had been in a near-fatal car crash and was taken to the nearest trauma unit. He had been unconscious and couldn't give any information about next-of-kin.

Upon arriving to his hospital room, I was shocked. He had been taken off the vent and was free of IVs and was cracking jokes with the nurses who doubled over with laughter. This little 78-year-old grey-haired man behaved so child-like. He brightened over an offering of vanilla ice cream. He was not the father I had left behind. Normally a very active, strong man, he winced as he hobbled around the hospital room. How long would it be before he could tend his gardens again? He had planted the most beautiful gardens, so that something was blooming year-round. The azaela bushes were trimmed to perfect spheres. The flowers lining the walk never had a dead head. Oh, and I can't forget the horseshoe pit in the backyard. He brags that that it is regulation sized. He was both intimidating and inspiring.

I had to laugh when during his period of lucidity, he asked about his camera. I've never seen him without a camera. I remember being in the car with him at times, and he'd suddenly pull to the side of the road to capture a rainbow or a beautiful sunset. Once we chased a hot air balloon to its landing, and he took a series of pictures of the landing, the folding of the balloon. He also had an annoying habit of taking pictures of me when I looked my worst. He said he liked things natural, not fake.

We told him that the car was totalled in his accident, that it was unlikely his camera survived the accident as well. The next day, my sister brought him his camera. We took turns taking pictures of him. After we left him, he chased down the nurses and snapped pictures of them.

Later, I learned he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. The symptoms became more apparant the more time I spent with him. Sometimes he did recognize me. I stopped moaning about the picture-taking.

He's been home for months and has gotten back to his normal activities. Photography field trips. Roller skating Tuesday nights. Polka and Square dances with his friend, Minnie. Evening bike rides. Hiking. He now calls me more frequently, but usually, he has forgotten that he had called me yesterday. I listen to the same stories and jokes. I laugh along with him, but inside I am crying. I listen and hold those storiesclose to my heart because one day he'll completely forget me, and all those stories he's fond of repeating will be locked inside him.

I wrote two stories about father/daughter relationships. They were written at different points of my life. "Rose Petals in a Jar" is written by an angry daughter. "The Roaring Bull and Electra" was written years before I'd know my dad would be diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Now for some writing prompts:
*Freewrite using the prompt "These are the facts about my father..."
*Write a good memory about your father. Develop it into a scene. Use dialogue and all your senses.
*Write the opposite. Create a scene with conflict. The worst fight you had, a disagreement, something that caused you misery.
*Write about the things your father has taught you.
*Write about the things you wish you had said or cannot say

These exercises are not supposed to be easy. Take a deep breathe and let go...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Family Albums & Dreaded Yearbook Pictures

During the last days of school, my classmates and I passed around our yearbooks and took our turns signing them. Later, locked up in my room I read the inscriptions. Each was individual in their writing style and handwriting. I remember the Sylvia Plath style narrative a friend wrote on the entire back cover. It was without clich├ęs like “embarking on a new future.” Rather, it was dark and more of a cautionary tale about life. How did this teenager know so much about life and the real world beyond the doors of our high school? I remember how tickled I was to see written, “You’re a beautiful and talented woman,” from one of the jocks who had spent most of high school teasing me about my nerdiness. Others signed with catch phrases that were popular then.

I’ve since thrown out my yearbook. Not to mention the horrible yearbook pictures of me, some of the inscriptions were too embarrassing reread. When I tossed out my yearbook, there was a lot I wanted to forget. Some of the inscriptions revealed things about me I didn’t like. Yearbooks tell a lot of stories. They’re a piece of history.

Dig out your own yearbook. (Assuming, unlike me, you’ve kept yours.) Read the inscriptions. What do you remember about the authors of those inscriptions? What type of relationship did you have with each? Where were they in the hierarchy of students at your school? Spend ten minutes freewriting about them.

Below are more ideas. Freewrite for ten to fifteen minutes on each. Use sensory details. Include dialogue if it applies.
· Your prom. Did you attend your prom? Why or why not? Describe what you and your date wore, what you ate, what music played.
· Who was awarded “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Best Dressed” or “Class Clown?” What do you remember about them? Were there others whom you felt deserved the awards instead? What has happened to those students? If you don’t know, make it up.
· What extracurricular activities were you involved in? Write about specific incidents.
· Who were your favorite teachers? Which ones did you dislike? Describe their physical appearances, speech patterns, habits.
· Were there any class bullies or anyone who intimidated you in one way or another?
· Who was your best friend? Describe the things you did together. Compare your similarities and differences.
* Write about school pranks
· Write about a class reunion. Describe who showed up, who changed, who stayed the same. If you’ve never attended one, write a fictional reunion.

If yearbook pictures aren’t embarrassing enough, dig out any family albums you can find. Spend some time looking at the pictures. Don’t think about writing yet. Note the feelings you experience as you turn the pages. What sensory details do you remember? Specific events? Choose a few photographs that evoke some type of emotion. Write about what happened the moment the flash bulb went off. Note everyone’s body language and facial expressions. Observe what is in the background. What are the subjects looking at? No go a bit deeper. What was each person thinking? Write from the perspective of each person in the photo. If you don’t know, make it up. Let your imagination take over.

More family album exercises:
· Freewrite about the members of your family. Go beyond their physical descriptions and describe them moving through their world. Describe their beliefs, mannerisms and quirks, favorite figures of speech. Try one of these prompts to get you started:
1) The last time I saw my mother (or father, grandfather, sister, etc.)
2) These are the facts about my father (or mother, etc.)
3) Grandma (or mother, father, etc.) always said

· Draw a floor plan of the house (or houses) you grew up in. Describe each room in detail as well as any memories you’ve associated with them. Describe the wall color, furniture, mementos. Write about what your fantasy bedroom or house was then.
· Write about the smells of your grandmother’s house (or kitchen or wherever else), your parents’ car, the back porch, the garage. List the sounds you heard in the morning and the ones that kept you up as well.
· Write about the changes that occurred within the family (i.e. births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc).
· Write about leaving home, about moving and packing.
· Write about the nicknames of family members and how they earned them.

Use these exercises for the yearbook and vice versa. These should keep you busy for a while.
For more writing exercises please visit the CS Writing Workshop.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Last Days of School

As I write this, my kids’ last day of school is days away. While I begin to worry about how I’m going to find quiet time to write or how to keep them off the computers and Xbox, convince them to clean out the cat box and run the vacuum, I also start thinking about my own last days of school.

In elementary school, the last day meant Popsicle and bubble gum parties, and eating lunch on the lawn. I’d stuff my book bag to overflowing with art projects and workbooks, papers. At home I’d spend hours reading over my old papers. I loved the workbooks, because we never seemed to finish them during the school year. I finished them over the summer. The end of the school year also meant half empty composition books that had to be filled up.

High school was a bit different. I couldn’t wait for the last day to arrive, for all my finals to be finished. Summer vacation meant being carefree. Long walks, going to the library and writing until the wee hours.

What do you remember about your last days of school? Did your summer vacations live up to your expectations? Did it mean you’d not see some friends? Did it mean escaping the class bully, at least until the next term? Did you go away to camp? Start with your earliest memory of your last day of school and freewrite for ten minutes. What sights, sounds, smells, etc. do you remember? Do your freewrite again about high school or college. If you have children, write about their last days. Note the physical sensations you experience as you write. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised about what you remember.

For exercises on the craft of writing, please visit the sister site, CS Writing Workshop. What does the CS stand for? Loosely translated, it means "writing disease." Check it out!