Lift the Flap

My mother sits at the kitchen table, her purple bathrobe loose around her thin body. She covers her face with her hands.

I drop to my knees beside her chair and look up at her. I am like a baby bird, waiting to be fed my mother’s wisdom and understanding and love.

She drops her hands to settle in her lap, her fingers interlocking, but she doesn’t look at me. “I can’t tell her. You’ll have to.”

“But why?” I whisper, shame coloring my fair skin pink.

My mother shakes her head, closing her eyes, and I know she is remembering another moment spent in this very kitchen when she was much younger, seventeen years younger in fact. But she has misunderstood my question. I’m not asking why I have to tell my grandmother or why my mother can’t tell her for me. “Why tell her anything?”

My mother stands up and grabs my hands. I am surprised to feel her hands are as icy as mine are hot. “Hush, now,” she says, pulling me to my feet. With a quick squeeze of my hands, she releases me, moving over to the counter where her purse rests. She hands me five dollars. “Get the donuts.”

I nod, recognizing the urgency in her voice even if I do not completely understand it. I admit I am surprised by the request. The doctors have counseled my mother on limiting my grandmother’s sugar intake and my mother, “the Sugar Nazi” as my grandmother calls her behind her back, has taken their advice seriously. As I hurry out of the house, she calls after me, “The white kind!”

I set a fast pace despite the summer heat and while I walk, I think of what I will say to Grandmother Rue when I return from the bakery on the corner. I should keep it simple. State the facts and wait for her reaction. But what will her reaction be? She is so old, her joints stiff with arthritis, her eyes nearly blind. We don’t really expect her to live much longer, which is why I don’t want to tell her. And which is why my mother’s desperate call for donuts is so frightening.

When I return, I do not enter the house right away. Instead, I pause and peek in the kitchen window. I see my mother, sitting at the table. She has changed into a dress, the cotton material decadent in blue Hydrangeas. It is my grandmother’s favorite dress, the color blue matches her eyes, which are the same color as my mother’s eyes, the same color as my eyes. My grandmother sits across from her, her back to me. She is wearing men’s striped pajamas and a white ushanka, the thick sheepskin and ear flaps a perfect hat for frigid Russian winters, but a conundrum in this summer heat. I know there is a story behind the hat (she wears it everywhere and in every season), but she does not share the details, only corrects my mispronunciation of ushanka. I once thought something was wrong with her hair and perhaps that was the cause of her attachment to the hat, but I was wrong because the one place she takes it off is at the beauty parlor. This perplexes the stylist, a woman named Jan, who spends an hour getting grandmother’s hair set with perfect finger-curls only to watch them be crushed, hidden beneath that inappropriate hat before Grandmother Rue thanks her formally and walks out the door.

My mother spots me looking in the window and leaps up. When I walk in the back door, she grabs the box of powdered sugar donuts out of my hands. She won’t meet my eyes and I realize that she is just as afraid to hear my truth as I am to speak it.

Quickly, she places two donuts on a chipped plate with pale blue flowers adorning the rim. It is a plate from my grandmother’s days as a young bride and is chosen to make my grandmother happy, much like my mother’s pretty dress. But the plate just seems like a sad reminder of happier times and I wish my mother had not chosen it. She hands the plate to me and nods once. It is her signal to me to speak and get it over with.

“Hello, Grandmother Rue,” I say, setting the plate down in front of the old woman. I feel a trickle of sweat slide down between my breasts from my fast walk to the bakery.

Grandmother Rue doesn’t even look at me. She reaches quickly for the unexpected treat before my mother can change her mind and take the plate away.  She lifts one donut to her mouth and takes a bite.

I pull out a chair and sit next to her. “How are you feeling today?”

She remains silent, quickly finishing the first donut and moving on to the second.

I take a deep breath. I need to tell her of my shame before she finishes her last donut. “Grandmother Rue…my father…well, he—“

My mother suddenly lunges forward, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Lift the flap.”

I frown, wondering what kind of code she is speaking in.

“She can’t hear you. Lift one of the flaps.”

I swallow the saliva that seems to be collecting in my mouth before reaching over and lifting the soft flap that covers her ear.  I lean in as if I’m sharing a secret. “I’m pregnant,” I say.

Grandmother Rue looks up from her donut, her lips coated white with powdered sugar. She needlessly straightens her ushanka and then turns her attention to my mother for confirmation I think, but no, she points her finger and says in a matter-of-fact voice, “This is your fault. Now she’s got his devil-child.”

My mother flushes and begins to weep. She believes Grandmother Rue is right, that she is to blame. I remain in my chair and watch as my grandmother licks her finger and then runs it over the plate, picking up the loose sugar from her donuts before sucking her finger, greedy for the sweetness.

This scene was written for the Scriptic prompt exchange. My prompt of “Lift the flap” came from SAM.  Cheney ended up with my prompt suggestion of “a black and white photograph, the edges curled and yellowed, found in an old, empty Folgers coffee can.”

Some of you may remember Grandmother Rue from another prompt challenge I was a part of this past week. I’m not sure if she and her daughter and granddaughter will turn up in anything else I write, but I couldn’t let them go just yet.

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June Camp NaNoWriMo Stats

Well, the June camp of NaNoWriMo is officially over and I failed to reach my goal. Yes, we had family visit and we took a mini-vacation and I have three kids and my husband did not travel like he normally does, but those are just excuses because in the end I still failed. I started out strong and I got close to reaching 50,000 words. (I must’ve been in Never Never Land when I suggested trying for 75,000 words!)

I wrote a total of 43,623 words, falling short by 6,377. It is an accomplishment, of course, to go from zero words in May to over 40,000 by the end of June so I am happy with that. As far as what I wrote, well, I think I learned my lesson for having no plan. But within all of those words, two NEW novels broke out, not that I need any new projects to work on!

The Power of a First Word

She sat in the dark, rocking the fussy child. She was so tired she didn’t remember climbing the stairs to answer the crying toddler’s wordless call for comfort. It had been a hard pregnancy, a hard birth, a hard year of transitioning from three children to four. And this child was proving to be hard in every stage.

The toddler placed her small hand on her mother’s cheek. “Mama.” And then she snuggled into her mother’s embrace and slept.

The simple word had been a breath, a murmur that had escaped much like a sigh, but it reverberated in her heart.

This post is in response to Velvet Verbosity‘s 100 word challenge using the word Murmur.

Bombshell by M-A-C

It was her one night out a month, a time to be with girlfriends, to leave husband and child to gorge themselves on frozen pizza and chocolate milk while she sipped French wine and talked shoes and upcoming vacations. Walking into the restaurant, heads turned and she couldn’t resist putting a bit of swagger into her normally reserved walk. Yes, she looked good, pretty even. She was wearing high heels, her favorite blouse, the one she never wore because of the “Dry Clean Only” on the tag. And no one had to know her lipstick was older than her preschooler.

This post is for Velvet Verbosity‘s 100 Word Challenge. The goal: to write exactly 100 words using the word of the week: swagger. I should also thank my friend Beth for inspiring me.

Keeping Score

“It was a nice service,” Peter said, pulling away from the curb. He glanced into the back seat at me, but his comment was meant for his mother sitting in the passenger seat.

“Except for that bum cozying up to Martha.” Louise frowned. “Here she is, burying her husband and she has to deal with that no-count grandson.”

“You know him?” Peter squinted, his sunglasses forgotten at home on the kitchen counter.

“I know plenty. I know he’s living out west, that he hardly ever calls. Martha practically raised that boy.”

“Maybe he’s busy with family, an 80-hour-a-week job.”

“Don’t be silly, Peter.” She clucked her tongue. “He needs to go back where he came from. Leave her to the grieving.”

“He came from here,” I pointed out.

“How many years has he stayed away?” Louise continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Fine time to come back if you ask me.”

“He came to the funeral. Doesn’t that mean something?”

“The very least he should do, Darcy. Didn’t I say they raised him?”

Peter’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror and I smiled, making a slash in the air as if marking on a tally. Peter’s mother usually ignored me, pretending I was invisible so it was fun for me to make her acknowledge my presence.

Peter changed the subject. “We should invite Julia over for dinner while she’s in town.”

I didn’t answer, thinking about how my best friend from high school still had a crush on my husband.

“What?” He turned down the radio.

“Julia still has a crush on you.”

He snorted. “I’m small potatoes compared to the guys she dates in New York.”

“I always liked that girl,” Louise said, reaching over to pat her son’s leg. “Such a sweet thing. And pretty!”

“She sleeps around,” I said, guessing she might.

“You’re such a gossip, Darcy.”

That was two I thought, keeping score, smug with satisfaction. This time Peter kept his eyes on the road.

 

This writing exercise was for Trifecta’s Week Thirty-Three Challenge (second prompt): Write a 33-333 word response using the third definition of the word score (an account or reckoning originally kept by making marks on a tally).

What I Tell You Three Times Is True

I slip into the stairwell of the derelict hotel and begin to climb the five flights of stairs. My footsteps are steady, but my mind weaves erratically. I don’t want to think, but my mind won’t behave. At the first landing, I pause and breathe. I do not want to stop again.

When I reach the second landing, I think of my mother as a pretty teenager. Grandmother Rue looked up from her snap peas to study the boy dating her daughter and spit in the bushes. “Nothing but trouble.”

By the third landing, I remember the story of my mother treating Grandmother Rue to donuts, hoping to sweeten her up before confessing her unplanned pregnancy. Grandmother Rue, unaware of the powdered sugar lining her upper lip, shook her head. “Nothing but trouble.” And then she bowed her head and prayed for the grandchild that would become me.

I continue to climb, unaware of passing the fourth landing, as I remember my mother crying at the kitchen table, a black eye and busted lip telling the story without her ever saying a word. “Nothing but trouble,” Grandmother Rue muttered as her arthritic hands pressed an ice pack to her daughter’s temple.

I begin to tire as I pass the fifth landing and I wonder if I beat the sun to the top. It is only when I reach the door to the roof that I hesitate. Even my mind stutters to a stop. But I only allow a few seconds to pass, to breathe deeply, and then I push open the door as the sky begins to lighten. I hurry to the edge, wanting to watch as the sun slowly reveals the town. Birds chirp hello, a car backfires good-bye. Grandmother Rue had a saying: three times and its true. My father is nothing but trouble, I agree, placing my hand on my belly where his baby grows. And then I jump, but I do not fly.

This writing exercise was for Trifecta’s Week Thirty-Three Challenge: Write a 33-333 word response to the following quote: “What I tell you three times is true” by Lewis Carroll. The actual quote does not have to be included.

Sonnet vs. Sestina

I use to write poetry, years ago. Until I had a teacher who told me I was definitely more of a prose writer than poet. And as I also wrote short stories, essays, novels I was okay with her pronouncement. I guess in my youth I’d been toying with which to be. Poet? Novelist? I didn’t think I could be both.

A few years later I took a poetry class. Not because I had changed my plan to be a novelist. I just needed the credits and the class fit into my schedule. And maybe I could improve my skills. In that class I was introduced to a broader range of poets and poetry forms. The sestina is the form that I remember best. And the form I most enjoyed writing. It was like a puzzle, trying to tell a story within precise rules.

I’m currently reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life and I came across a short section where she discusses creating in the wrong structure and she compares sonnets and sestinas:

It’s amazing that such a goofily willful form [the sestina] survives, but some contemporary poets are intrigued by all that self-guiding structure…Unlike the testy sestina, the sonnet’s length and rhymes make it pleasing to the ear, and provide room for linguistic and thematic invention…The difference between the sonnet and the sestina is the difference between going fishing with a fishing net or in a diving bell: Both devices are built for the water, but the diving bell is hard, inviolate, confining, and inviting only to extremely curious fish; the net is flexible, porous, and expansive — perfectly designed to haul ’em in.

It sounds to me like she doesn’t appreciate the sestina at all! But then I’ve never tried to write a sonnet so perhaps I’m missing out. What do you think? Do sonnets make you soar while sestinas trap you with their rules?

Check out my attempt at writing a sestina here. I was inspired by a postage stamp-sized ad I read in the paper years ago. For those of you who are accomplished poets, I hope you’ll forgive me for attempting what you do so skillfully! And feel free to share your sonnets and sestinas in the comments or with a link. I’d love to read them!

“It wasn’t the first time…”

Complete the following story in 33 words:

‘It wasn’t the first time.’

(The five words are not to be included in your 33 words)

It wasn’t the first time she’d fired a gun, but she’d never killed anyone before. She clenched her hands to stop the shaking. She wasn’t sorry. Young girls weren’t meant for buying and selling. She wasn’t anyone’s property.

You can find more information about this Trifecta writing challenge here.

Camp NaNoWriMo

Remember going to camp as a kid? Leaving your parents and siblings, heading off to a place filled with new people and new experiences? The campfire songs, the friendships formed, the homesickness, the potential exposure to poison ivy,…I must admit, I preferred the camps not geared towards exploring nature. My ideal camps were the ones considered by many I’m sure as geeky, the camps where I got to spend my days not canoeing or hiking or basket-weaving, but writing. Poetry or prose, back then it didn’t matter. I just loved the time allowed to study the turn of a phrase, the poetic cadence of a line, the descriptive power of a paragraph. And so I’m [mentally] packing my bags now for Camp NaNoWriMo!

But what you ask is Camp NaNoWriMo and is NaNoWriMo even a word? First, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is held annually in November. This is a description taken from their website for those of you uninitiated into this challenge:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000 word, (approximately 175 page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

I participated in NaNoWriMo several years ago, before I had children, but on my own terms. I’m not sure why they chose November as the month to perform this challenge, but with Thanksgiving and travelling to see family or having family come to us, November was not a good choice for me. Plus, why not pick a month with 31 days? Seems smarter to take advantage of that extra day, don’t you think? So I chose to do it in March. And it worked out perfectly.

And now they have two summer “camp” sessions: one in June and one in August.

I love signing up for crazy challenges like this. I mean, who writes a book in a month? Technically, 50,000 words is a bit short for a novel, but with a good rewrite it can certainly have potential.

Breaking it down, 50,000 words in 30 days comes out to about 6 pages a day. And when the muse is willing, six pages can be cake. Rich, velvety, calorie-laden chocolate cake. With lots of smooth, decadent icing. And ice cream because I just adore ice cream and know of no reason to have cake without also having ice cream. But when the muse is stubborn and hiding in the deepest, darkest, most obscure places, well, six pages can be sheer torture!

This time I have no idea what I’m going to work on, which could prove troublesome for my word count. And we’ve got guests coming for a visit so that could mess me up a bit. Plus this new blog needs careful nurturing. You, my dear, kind readers, could forget all about me in that time and I’m just getting to know you! But no matter these obstacles. I’m going to shoot for 50,000 words and hope to reach…75,000! Might as well make it challenging!

Anyone want to join me on this crazy journey? Camp starts June 1st!

The Courage to be Fearless

Recently my mother said something that caused me to stop and reflect on who I’ve become. We were talking about when I was young (before marriage and children) and she commented on how I was fearless. I wasn’t the one to dip my toe into the water and think about what I was jumping into. Instead, I got a running start and just jumped, learning how deep the pool was only after I was in it.

When you are young, you think you are invincible. Nothing can happen to you. You’ll live forever. When I was young I had the courage to be fearless.

When had that changed?

I suppose it was after grad school that the fear slowly started to creep in. I was living in southern California, surrounded by people with dreams. Not that Californians have cornered the market on dreams, by any means. But these were big crazy dreams, dreams of fame and fortune, of becoming movie stars, rock stars, overnight sensations. Dreams harder to fulfill, some would say they were long shots, which is what I imagine some of the people from my childhood thought of my aspirations to be a writer. And I began to wonder what if? I didn’t graduate with a book deal in hand. What if I never got a book deal? What if I spent my whole life pursuing something that I wasn’t any good at? What if I would always be a failure at the one thing I loved to do?

Cheryl, my best friend since practically birth, had gotten married and every time I saw her husband Vince, he would ask about my writing. I know he was being kind, trying to show interest in his wife’s friend, and maybe he was even a little curious about my writing dreams, him being an accountant and all. But I began to dread seeing him. And when he would ask, I would feel the blush forming on my cheeks and mumble something before quickly changing the subject. Eventually he stopped asking and I was relieved.

Some years later I got married. My husband, as he climbed the corporate ladder, would tell those that asked about me that I was a writer. “Don’t tell them that!” I would say, flinching at the very idea that even more people would be aware of my failure.

The funny thing is I don’t really have anything to base this idea of failure on. I don’t have thousands of rejection slips because I don’t send anything out. I don’t try because the fear of failure has stitched itself into my skin like an invisible tattoo, taken over my shadow to ensure we are never separated, whispered secretly, seductively in my ear.

But today I am digging my dusty Doc Maartens out of the back of my closet and crushing that fear into dust with my boot heel. And I’m starting to feel more like my old self again. My vivid, complicated, detailed dreams are back. The running dialogue in my head as I live my life has returned, the writer me is writing and rewriting the everyday me as if I am a character in a book. And it feels really good.

I have the courage to be fearless.

Will you follow along? When my confidence wavers, when I start to mumble, will you remind me fear is a four-letter word?