Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Love Letter: Going Back Home

I grew up on a street that was part of the Massachusetts Audobon Society, but since my parents were from deepest Brooklyn in New York, they didn't know the first thing about living in the woods. They weren't into identifying birds. Yes, it was actually a bird sanctuary. This Christmas, as usual, we stayed at my brother's house one town away from where I grew up in Sharon. Filled with gorgeous furnishings, too many to describe, it's a Victorian house on an old New England street--a house was built in 1835 for Foxboro's tailor. It's a few miles from the house where I grew up--also once cozy and beautiful, especially the living room, with its fireplace, framed paintings, and myriad oak furniture and wool rugs.

In years past, we've come back here, and communed with my parents and my brother's family, my two teen-age nieces and my brother's very stylish wife--the whole package is a perfect dose of femininity and familiarity for me and fun for my boys and husband. This year is the same, but of course, very different without my Dad. This sense of drastic change and loss must have settled in the part of my brain that makes dreams--that part that accesses my intentions early in the morning, because when I woke up on my first morning here, I'd constructed a plan to go visiting all my special places from growing up. In a sudden flash,  I understood that for the last decade, I hadn't been paying any attention to my own hometown and my history there. My parents had sold our house and moved into Boston. They'd moved on. So I'd been coming back to my brother's world in the next town, and doing all of the "new" things there are to do here. Big movies theaters, great shopping centers, and that type of stuff. The outlet mall! But I awoke that morning with a fully formed list of things I'd not been doing--places I wanted to show my family, places I wanted to see again.

It was 7:04, and I awoke in front of a giant flat screen in the family room. Excited, I went to tell the boys about my plans. But they'd be asleep for a good while, and soon I was dressed, outside, and in the car by myself on a cold New England morning.

Oh. Sitting in the driveway I knew. I didn't want to show them everything. I wanted to visit all these places--by myself. So off I drove, and I guess I traveled back in time in my own mind. First past the town lake (swimming lessons), next came a peek in at my old High school (everything happened there), I drove past my childhood playground (champion jump-roper), passed the temple where me and fifty of my closest friends were bar/bat mitzvahed. I'd passed by my best friend, Janet's house. She died when we were thirty. Without her around these past years, I wonder if many of my childhood memories were buried. I guess I  hadn't understood that before today. I envisioned myself dropping in on her folks, but at 7:10 AM, it seemed unlikely. Now, driving through the town square, I remembered the penny candy shop, Bendinelli's, made out the Unitarian Church where I first heard the sound of folk music, and I left Sharon.

As in writing, the mind often sees where it's heading before it arrives. I felt my dad's presence because now I was enroute to the next town over. Stoughton was his refuge for forty years. That town was much more vast than Sharon, filled with a wide array of interesting locals--Portuguese, Irish, and just regular New Englanders with those New Hampsha accents, like Mark Wahlburg and Adam Sandler. For the years I was in High School, my dad dropped me at 7 am on his way to work every day. This early time of day in winter was one of our times. We'd sit in the freezing car as it warmed up, and he'd drop me off at school. I'd kiss his cheek and off I'd go. And off he'd go.

Now I'm in Stoughton, and getting closer to his former life. Callahan's was his donut shop, just a block away form Stoughton High School. Driving toward the general area, I wondered if I'd find it easily, or if I'd gotten confused--possibly driving the wrong way on one of the forks. But soon I saw the place. It wasn't Callahan's, it was a little cafe, a tiny diner. Was I really going to look for a parking spot and walk in there? A sign said OPEN, and I swerved into a sort-of parking lot, looking for a spot in this odd little industrial corner of Stoughton.

Walking in, I found the place small and empty, except for a man--about fifty, behind a counter. I looked for crullers. First things first. Muffins. Instead I saw muffins, and I saw the owner's face. He had the distinct look of a Stoughtonian--a bit gruff, very kind, maybe a little worse for the wear, working class. Plus the unmistakable accent. I never "acquired" the accent, though my folks did pick up a few examples of the regional dialect in all their years there (here). I knew that if I talked about my dad with this man, he wouldn't be my dad--he'd be my fah-tha.

I said: Hi. My dad used to come in here. He came here for about forty years.
He said: Well, I've been here about ten years.
Me: His name was Dan Davis. He worked at the high school forever. He died about a year ago, so I'm just here on a little pilgrimage.
Him: I know how ya feel, I lost my fah-tha not even a year ago.

Wow. So here we were. This guy was in much worse shape than me. His wound more recent.

Me: How's your mom?
Him: My mom's a mess. He's buried over in Canton and she visits him like every other day and brings flowers.
Me: I'm so sorry. Was he sick?

He was sick, but we talked and realized it didn't really matter. Losing your dad too soon is losing your dad too soon. His was only 68. So his was younger than mine. Poor guy. If my dad was here, he'd have given the guy a hug and called him a sweetheart to his face. So we hugged, teared up, and talked a bit more. I loved hearing that the old timers had just left. He told me those would have been some of my dad's friends. But I couldn't think of any old-timers that lived so close by, so instead I just pretended that if I'd come a half hour earlier, I'd have seen them all: Leon Kahn, Frank Coen, Gary Hilander, Nuno Viera, Frank Santoro. Boy. Now I think about it a week later, and I can't imagine too many things he'd have liked better.

I asked him what he'd be doing for Christmas, as we Sharon Jews were always conditioned to do--and he said Christmas would be at his house. That his son, an actor from LA, was coming home. I turned around to see a poster from the remake of Footloose--and that's him--lying there on the car in the film poster, the man's son. His name is Kenny Wormald. I kept forgetting the dad's name because I'm so bad with names--but I must have asked him three times. I felt like I was in a movie.

I finally left and drove myself to Stoughton High, took a drive in the parking lot where I'd been with my dad so many times over so many years. I wished my kids could have gone there with him. I'm pretty sure they went as babies, and I can see the look on his face, the sparkle in his eyes--how excited he would have been to show them to his Stoughton family--especially the women. I'm sure he brought my oldest niece, Sophie in a lot. I know he did lots of things with her when she was little--just like things he'd done with me. Why else would she have had occasion to say: Oompa gave me soda and lost me. (After a trip to his favorite place, Marshalls.)

I called my mom on the phone as I drove back through Sharon on my way back to Foxboro. The sun was shining--and driving that route felt like the most natural thing in the world.  My mom told me that the Callahan's--who'd owned the Cruller store for so long--had sent a beautiful letter when my dad died. I still haven't seen it. I'm saving it.

The last thing I did was drove up my old street to look at the house where I'd grown up. The family who lives there now had holiday lights on the two big evergreens in front of the screened-in-porch where my mom loved drinking her coffee in summer. Peering into the porch I made out  a big Santa cut-out. Fun. Moose Hill is still wild and beautiful. I felt this great yearning to get my family and bring them back so we could tromp around in the woods, among the pine needles, and the trees, and the New England smells. They've probably never had that nasty pine sap on their hands, and they've definitely never raked pine needles. I don't miss that part. But I miss the woods. I miss the small towns near where I grew up. I miss seeing people I know in those places. I miss my dad.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Frances Foster

Where do I begin? Two weeks ago tonight, Barbara O'Connor sent a Facebook message asking for the name of Frances's website. Frances's website? It took a second and I knew. If someone like Frances (in her 80s and probably not blogging) has a website, it's because she's sick with cancer or worse. It wasn't cancer. Frances had a stroke the evening before Thanksgiving, and was taken to St. Luke's.

Readers, I am lucky in that I've always sought and found refuge with wonderful people in my jobs. At Family Circle, if things were boring reading complaints from readers or if I needed a break for a creative burst, I'd either go to the craft room where Ellie Shrumm was, and sew up a pillow or I'd go to the kitchen to hang with my tiny Czechoslovakian friend Frances Sliwa. At Crown BFYR, my first job in children's books, we had two huge floors of editors. They were fantastic. At this time I worked for Simon Boughton. Nearby were Tracy Gates, Jane Gerver, Anne Schwartz, Janet Schulman, Stephanie Spinner, Kate Klimo, Anne Bobco, Denise Cronin, Isabel Warren-Lynch, Jim Thomas, Mallory Loehr, Melanie Cecka, Karen Hirsch, Becky Terhune, Joan Slattery, Maureen Sullivan, Ruth Catcher, and so many others. 

And there was Frances. 

If I was 23, she must have been around 60-something. Gray hair, blue eyes, long skirts and loose knit sweaters, she was the young, WASPY grandmother-type down the hall who always had time and space and most of all interest--to listen. I could complain, ask questions, or anything I needed. And she shared her stories, too. 

So who was she in the grand scheme of things? Oh, just Phillip Pullman's, Louis Sachar's, Peter Sis's, Suzanne Fisher Staples', and Leo Lionni's editor. You know! Just your average editor. But I tell you something, it wasn't who she edited at all. I mean, yes, those were outrageously fantastic people. But it wasn't about any of them. It was Frances. It was just her calmness, her gaze, her safety. Her love. How could one person have that much to give to some youngster like myself? She did! Who knows if she showed this affection to others. Tell me, everyone! It wasn't just me, was it? Wouldn't it be nice if it was? But I know everyone loved Frances.

When I think of years later when I had my own assistants and interns, I like to think I modeled my own sense of how positive it was for affection to be felt between senior and junior editors--on what I felt from Frances. Anne Schwartz, too, was such an important mentor--fun, feisty, brilliant, always annoyed with something! I truly believe that the two of them were the Yin and Yang of Knopf. (You can't forget how much fun it was to visit Janet Schulman's office, but I grew closer with her later once Frances and Anne had moved on.) Oh, what I'd give to go back for one day to those offices on 201 East 50th Street. Just for the day!

Sorry to ramble. Seeing Frances today brought up so many memories for me. What's more important than my little trip down memory lane is telling friends and loved ones of Frances who have not yet heard much about her, that though she is suffering from the effects of a devastating stroke, she is still completely Frances. She is able to move her left side, including her leg, her arm, and the left side of her face. The heartbreak for her and for us is that right now she cannot speak. She does say a lot with her left hand though. Yes--she held it out to me several times, and allowed me to massage it and put on lotion. When Kate arrived, the hand went right up, and the two of them constantly held on to one another as Kate did her magic--sharing stories with me, being utterly positive, and making her mom feel the love that is so evident between them.

I had been warned on the Lotsa Helping Hands website that Frances cries a lot, and it's true. And thank goodness she does. Crying is a magnificent, expressive way to show feelings of love, frustration, and sadness--all at once. When she recognized me, her beautiful blue eyes crumpled, and her face said everything. It felt like she was saying, "Jill, you came! I'm in here and there's just about nothing I can do to tell you what I want to tell you. So this is it! It's not fair! But I'm glad you came."

Not surprisingly, it was very poignant for me, because I lost my dad suddenly last year, and never had the chance to see him after his fatal episode. I told Frances, "You are alive! You are alive! You made it." We both cried.

But here's the truth: It is very, very hard for her. She's so strong. She has so much she wants to say, and her brain and body aren't ready to let it happen. As I sat in front of her, I realized she hadn't eaten breakfast yet, so I helped her with oatmeal, egg, and apple sauce. She was so feisty. She took each container in her hand, and brought it to her mouth. After a while, I'd ask: Can I use the spoon and help? She would nod yes. There are lots and lots of nods. And she was hungry. Morning, if you're wondering, is a lovely time to visit. I kept wondering if sign language would be useful for stroke victims. Well, of course it would, but  . . . .. (People, learn it now!)

When Frances's beautiful daughter, Kate came about an hour into my visit, I was just starting to feel concerned. I had so many questions and Frances couldn't answer them. I felt I needed help. Was Frances tired? Was my endless chatter going to drive her nuts? Was she uncomfortable in any way?
Had it been inappropriate to read her the first two paragraphs of my novel? I realized that writers can really come in and torture Frances if there's no guard there! I said this to her--I said, "Gosh, maybe it's awful!" The I realized I wasn't pitching Frances my novel. I was just trying to share something of myself with her, something else to think about, besides feeling sad and frustrated. I made her laugh a lot. And at those times, I heard her strong voice in there. I told her: "I hear your voice."

I brought in some tea (she liked a taste) French macaroons (she liked the colors) and tiny madeleines (she agreed they were adorable). She looks intently into the eyes of her friends and loved ones, almost like a baby does. I told her she was definitely the prettiest gal in the place. And the truth is that if you go see her, yes, she's thin, and yes, she's very challenged. But she is improving, and she still looks absolutely as beautiful as always. She doesn't look away in sadness or want pity. She stares right at you, as if any moment she will open her mouth and just say: "I'd love a cup of tea. Would you?"

I hope this happens very, very soon, because no one deserves another chance more than Frances.