Southern storyteller syndrome

Elmwood, May 2013

Here’s what I know about writing fiction: it’s harder than you might think.

Last summer when I hit a dry spell working on the memoir/essay/cookbook project I started, I decided maybe I’d take the hint offered by a writer friend and try my hand at fiction. What she’d actually said over lunch, journalist speaking to PR hack, was, “I bet there’s fiction in you.”  Yep, 25 years of coaching people to play journalist-dodgeball, to take questions at an angle instead of head-on, might be the very best training for a fiction writer, I suppose.

Part of my PR skill-sharpening came under the tutelage of a wine-drinking, gourmet-cooking Texan named Bill who was masterful at using stories for teaching. One day, early in our acquaintance, he started telling a tale about a boss he’d had, long ago, back in a small, dusty Southwestern town. A minute or so into it Bill’s wife, who also worked with us, rolled her eyes, looked at me and said, “You need to get used to this. He’s got terrible Southern storyteller syndrome; if you don’t stop him, he’ll go on forever.”

But I didn’t stop him, because I’ve always had a case of the same disease I just hadn’t learned how to put it to good use. Over the next several years of working together, Bill told more tales, and I listened. I drafted crappy speeches, and he helped shape them into more compelling narratives. It was one thing to build a PowerPoint about the technical details of stretching thin strands of glass across the state of Iowa, but quite another to tell the story of a doctor in Des Moines treating a grandmother on a farm miles and miles away thanks to telemedicine.

With Bill’s help, and that of a few others along the way, I became a professional storyteller of sorts. That’s how I got to know my journalist friend, the one who’d hinted, over food and wine while talking about what to do with my blog, that maybe I had fiction in me.

So back to last summer and the dry spell and the dip into full-fledged fabrication: I wrote a short story about a man, 30-ish, who lives alone with his mother in a small bungalow because his father was killed in a railroad crossing accident, and who spends his days building tiny toothpick models of famous buildings, trying to make the perfect geodesic dome. The man falls in love with the skittish young woman who moves in next door. It’s sweet and charming and funny and weird. Now, the reason you’re reading about the story and not actually reading the story is because it’s still, almost a year later, languishing in the stage Anne Lamott calls shitty first drafts (we’ll just call them SFDs, for short), which means absolutely no one is going to read it until I work it into a second, hopefully less shitty, draft.

Which might be never, because instead of working on the second draft of that one story, I started thinking about my mother’s family and how parts of their history are stranger than any fiction and certainly ripe for harvest. I plotted characters and timelines on index cards and drafted a story line – four generations of Southern women, blah, blah, blah. And I spent just enough time working on it to grow very weary of it and stopped.

You might think that the freedom to make up anything you damn well please would make it easy-peasy to invent characters and plot and drama. And some of it is, in fact, effortlessly easy. Stories spin around in my head all day long, whether I’m actually writing or not, and I can see scenes and imagine conversations and never, ever run out of ideas, especially when I have a fragment of a real person attached. But then there’s the whole putting it into words and sentences and paragraphs part, the part that requires sitting in a chair at the computer (or paper) and actually writing, which is just as hard whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or a speech or a press release, at least in my experience.

Then one day, with a nudge from another friend, I started writing about Jackie. Not actually about Jackie in the biographical sense but a story inspired by the few fragments of information I had about her.

It started as a short story, Veronica’s House of Crazy, about my made-up version of Jackie and a completely fictitious neighbor across the street. But that story didn’t even make it to full SFD status because it was predictable and shallow and didn’t really do anything to make the only person in the story who’d actually been a person in life seem genuine.

But a parallel tale started taking shape in my head while I was writing the first Jackie story, a tale that was similar but different, less dramatic but more real. Scenes play out in my mind all day long, not in sequence but like a patchwork quilt. And every time I sit down to work on it, I simply do not want to stop. I do not want to vacuum or tidy up or go shopping or paint my nails. I do not want to do anything but write this shitty first draft of a story, which is now 11,000 words and counting.

So there you have it, this week’s update on what I #amwriting.


BONUS! A dinner plan!!

dandelion greens

So, really, there’s no point re-hashing the past, all the “hey, here’s a weekly menu!” then “nope, not doing that anymore,” et cetera et cetera.

The weekly dinner plans are back, sort of, partly as a way of finishing What’s for Dinner, Dammit? You helped shape that workbook (one I hope you’ll get to see in real life in a few months), so you ought to get some benefit, methinks. Also there’s the fact that having a full week’s plan with specific ideas and recipes makes it easy for Bernard to cook dinner so I can shirk all of my home responsibilities and keep writing.

So here’s this week’s list. Follow along at Dinner Prompt on weekdays if you want specific recipe links and other ideas for getting from idea to table. Happy week.

Dinner Ideas | Week of May 25, 2015

Grilled Pork & Pineapple Kabobs | Brown Rice | Green Cabbage Slaw
Oven-Roasted Vegetables | Parsley Salad | Multi-grain Boule
Beef Satay | Jasmine Rice | Coconut Fruit Salad
Orecchiette with Swiss Chard | Marinated Cucumber Salad | Salted Caramel Gelato
Oven-baked Parmesan Chicken Tenders | Spicy Fries | Bibb Lettuce & Berry Salad

Ghost threads.

dark house on the hill

Jackie looked, by all accounts, like a female Johnny Cash. Dark-haired, dressed always in  black, face etched by nicotine and whiskey, she apparently made quite an impression. She was unconventional and wild in her youth, mellowing with age and kinder on the inside than many would have guessed from her appearance. At least this is what I’ve been told.

For 20-ish years before we first walked through the four-foot-wide door of the Money Pit, Jackie lived here with her longtime partner and all their cats. Before that it was just Jackie’s mother, and before that, I suppose, varying combinations of their little family: mother, father, daughter, tracing back to 1911 when Jackie’s father bought this then-five-year-old three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom, 4300 square-foot sprawler with the enormous front porch and, at the time, double lot.

I stumbled on the house one clear fall morning almost 12 years ago, driving slowly on my way to work and wondering how we were going to cram a fourth family member into our two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,000 square-foot house. I was surveying my favorite neighborhood, built around the turn of the 20th century, streets lined with grand homes in varying states of preservation, renovation or disrepair. The real estate market was hot, and even the fixer-uppers were out of our price range. But I weaved my way through, block by block, for the beauty of the view, if nothing else. As I drove the quiet streets I spotted a friend working in his garden, enjoying the cool of early fall.

“You playing hooky?” I hollered to him through the window.

“Ha! No, I’m off today; just working my other job,” he called back. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”

“Trolling for a house before this baby comes.”

“Well, you ought to buy that one across the street. It’s been on the market forever. Bet you could get it for a song, though it probably needs as much put in it as you’d pay to buy it; but it’s one hell of a house.”

I looked over to where he was pointing, to the lot covered with ivy and monkey grass and weeds, a dark house made even darker by the shade of three imposing oak trees planted in the median between the sidewalk and street. The porch was fully screened, the screens black with age, rimmed with trim that was also painted black.

Never one to walk away from the idea of a bargain, I said, “Ok; I’ll call the agent,” dialing the number on my cell phone as I drove on to my office,

Two days later, the agent returned my call. The house had been under contract,  a long, tense negotiation that had, ironically, fallen through the morning I’d left the message. She was heading out of town, the agent, to tend to some family business of her own, but if I really wanted to see the house she thought she could probably arrange it.

It was humid and rainy that afternoon, the sky an even, dull gray. I drove up the alley to the rear entrance of the house to meet Mary, Jackie’s caretaker who had also once been Jackie’s mother’s caretaker and who knew the house as well as anyone. This is what the realtor had told me. The front door had a series of complicated locks, she explained, one of which had no key, so the back door was the best way in. Also, it was raining, and the carport would provide covered parking and keep us dry.

Mary had a warm, gentle personality. She was an old-school Southern housekeeper, neatly dressed and wearing orthotic shoes, her silver hair beauty shop fresh. She drove a Cadillac sedan that had a church sticker on the back window and, I noticed walking by it, an immaculate interior with a tidy black umbrella on the front passenger seat.

“Jackie was born in this house; lots of memories in here,” Mary said as she unlocked the door.

An overwhelming smell of mildew, dust, cats, cigarettes and age greeted me. The small, disjointed rear rooms that led to the small, awful kitchen were clearly products of 1970s remodeling. The appliances were all the color of Perkins coffee pots and looked extra dingy thanks to the dropped acoustic tile ceiling and peeling linoleum floor. I had made a mistake, I realized, and needed a quick excuse to get out.

Then we walked through the swinging door into the breakfast room and back 100 years in time. Light and airy, this room was covered in a delicate wallpaper and framed with built-in cabinets that once, it was easy to imagine, glittered with silver and crystal and china.

On the other side of the breakfast room was the dining room, fireplace on one side and pocket doors on the other, open to the front hall, living room, massive front door and grand staircase covered in red velvet carpet. Even with the horrific smell and the pile of leftover clothes (so dirty and worn that even Goodwill wouldn’t take them), standing in that hallway was like opening a storybook.

I don’t know if it was the look on my face or something I said, some sound that escaped, but I remember Mary smiling at me and starting to talk about Jackie.

“They had a farm out in Somerville, though it was mostly Mr. Jones who went there,” Mary began, “and when Jackie turned six her daddy brought her a pony all the way from the farm, through that big front door and up these stairs to her bedroom to surprise her.”

That was the first of many Jackie tales, some from Mary, some from neighbors, some that we would discover while renovating the house:

Jackie’s mother, imperious in her silk Dior dressing gowns, retrieving the morning paper. The Steinway grand in which they stashed money and, rumor had it, a pistol or two. The art studio in the attic, the darkroom in the basement. A secret liquor pass-through for parties during Prohibition. The wild lesbian Christmas parties on the front porch, in the years after Jackie’s mother died. The Doberman Pinschers.  Goldcrest cans. A christening gown, packed next to handwritten letters from New York. The legend of a Confederate flag, given to Jackie’s mother by her mother’s father, Captain Edmondson, for safekeeping.

I never got to meet Jackie in person, but Bernard did, once. We had completed the kitchen re-model and were just about to move in. Bernard was out back sanding or painting, when Mary and Jackie drove up.

It was Mary, I think, who convinced Jackie to sell the house to us. We made an offer shortly after that day I first walked in, and on that same day another family did the same, even though they had never seen the house. Their offer was higher, we learned; but Jackie, it seemed, had picked us. We negotiated the final contract from my hospital delivery room, and the house was ours. We expected a mostly spit-and-polish renovation to begin; we would remodel the kitchen and then do the rest room-by-room while we lived there. This was never a realistic plan, but we believed we could do it anyway, right up to the minute we discovered that the structure between the first and second floors had to be re-built in its entirety.

By the time Jackie met Bernard that day, almost two years later, we had fully excavated her history. She did look, he told me later, just like a female Johnny Cash, although smaller, frail and jittery.

“She’s been like this all day,” Mary said to Bernard, “she won’t sit down or rest – keeps saying she wants to go home. I thought maybe bringing her here would help her calm down.”

Alzheimer’s had a full hold on Jackie, Mary explained. It was mostly manageable, but not always. Not today. Jackie wanted to go inside, to go to her room, but Bernard and Mary agreed that seeing an unrecognizable kitchen might do more harm than good. They walked around front instead, past the camillias and gardenias and up to the front porch for a minute. After a short visit, Jackie calm, Mary walked her back to the car.

“I’m glad it’s you, glad your family is in this house,” Mary said to Bernard before she left, “and Jackie is, too. She knows you all will take care of it.”

A month or so after we closed on the house, before we began construction but well after we started feeling all the ghosts, we invited a priest friend and handful of neighbors to a house blessing. It was a feeling, more than anything, that in the rich history of our home not all the stories had been happy. Before we moved in we wanted a fresh start. We painted Kilz on all the walls, stripped the brocade draperies and red stair carpet, Shop Vac’d from corner to corner, even in the fireplaces, and decided a bit of holy water wouldn’t hurt. We wanted it to be our house, our story, starting on a clean new page.

But we didn’t actually erase what’s still here, latent but here, despite the cleaning and painting, despite the prayers and blessing and candles. They have faded and blurred, the old people and their stories, but you can feel them in the walls, waiting to be extracted and, perhaps, reshaped just a little, mostly for their own comfort. You can start to see them, too, can’t you? The pony on the stairs, the parties, the madness and creativity. It’s all still here, waiting.

And that’s the answer to your question, the one a few of you have asked, about what I #amwriting.

Happy week.

Mother daughter dinner dance.

Christmas 1988For a handful of years in my early 20s my mother was my favorite date. She was divorced; I was yet to be either tethered or anchored. I had no boyfriend, no apartment, no career track, and no plans. Memphis was a temporary stop – a train station transfer, perhaps, if only I could figure out what line I needed to board. I had no college friends living in Memphis and no Memphis friends who remained connected through college. Since we shared many interests, my mother and I, she was a natural companion. Also, I was temporarily her roommate. Sometimes we ventured out; sometimes we spent quiet evenings at home. It was easy to find things we enjoyed doing together.

One of the things we enjoyed was cooking, a joint venture that started when I was three-ish and we made sugar cookies at Christmas time to take to the runaway shelter. By 10 I’d picked up enough skills to make pancakes and eggs, mostly without supervision, for Mother’s Day breakfast in bed, albeit with an avalanche of flour in my wake. While high school pals went to Forty Carrots for classes, I studied at the elbow of my mother, who never once measured milk for the béchamel that magically became cheese soufflé. It was not a forced education. The notion that I would require cooking skills for later married life never crossed her lips, or her mind. She enjoyed cooking, and I enjoyed being with her in the kitchen. It was that simple.

My college friend Sara had this same sort of training, and together, away from our mothers, the two of us often found our way into the nearest kitchen to cook for friends. Along that particular road I met a boy, a handsome and dangerous one who also loved to cook and who introduced me to The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and The Moosewood Cookbook. At Christmas break that year I told my mother I was going to be vegetarian, and though she suggested that a petite filet was both tastier and less fattening than a potato kugel, she did not discourage my experiment, my flexing of my own kitchen muscle.

When I was teaching art and photography in Boston I needed to earn some extra money and decided to put my cooking skills to work with a catering business, cooking in other people’s homes for small dinner parties. I had a set menu from which my clients could choose, and every item listed first had to pass my mother’s approval. “Don’t cook anything weird,” she counseled. “People like food that tastes good.” Years later I would learn that this was exactly the same advice that Julia Reed’s mother dispensed. If nothing else, Southern mothers know their food.

The teaching stint was a two-year gig, and when it ended I came home to regroup. The only boxes I unpacked were my summer clothes and my kitchen things, fancy matching wine glasses and gadgets I acquired on shopping trips to the Crate & Barrel in the Chestnut Hill mall. “A dish towel works just fine, you know,” my mother said. “Yes, Mama, but a salad spinner is faster,” I replied. This was one of our many minor disagreements about the tools and tricks of the dinner trade. I rolled my eyes at her stained aluminum baking sheets; my mother rolled hers at my white Circo kettle.

In the sliver of time she’d had alone, without my sister or me around, my mother had developed her own independent kitchen routine, and it took a minute to accommodate my intrusion. Our only experience was history, in which she clearly led the way and I followed along. Now we were doing a delicate two-step, each wanting to respect the other’s wishes and autonomy. Taking turns, we decided, would be a good way to start. We would alternate cooking on week-nights, and on weekends we would each be free to go out with friends or whatever. More often than not, the friends we chose were each other. Looking back I realize that I chose her because I had, at the time, very limited other choices; she chose me knowing our window was small and closing.

Dining at trendy new restaurants, we found a few ideas that we wanted to try at home. The routine of taking turns evolved into co-cooking, testing ways to prepare linguine con gamberetti and molten chocolate cakes. We debated the merits of olive oil, butter and eggs (she was staunch defender of all three) and the hazards of Lean Cuisine. We tried pink zinfandel and Zima, confirming our preference for French Chablis. In the high heat of August we often had Bibb lettuce salad, chased with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

The rhythm we developed was seamless. Somehow we were never on top of one another, never in conflict for the oven or the counter. For years afterward, long after I moved out and on my own, we would fall right into step any time we were both in the kitchen for holidays or birthdays or whatever occasion brought us back together.

This, of course, is how good dancing works, leader and follower keen to each other’s cues, giving the impression of weightlessness. In this particular dance, we went from being a dancing couple to a dancing duet, from Fred and Ginger to Fred and Bing. She led; I followed, until I could dance on my own.

It is supposed to be a secret, I know, but my daughter will be making pancakes for me tomorrow for Mother’s Day. I know this is true because on Monday at dinner she asked if she could cook on Tuesday and if we could please make pancakes and if I would please remind her where the recipe was and help her get started. And then when Tuesday came and we were making pancakes, she asked if I liked pancakes and how long did I think it would take to make them and what time, by the way, was I planning to wake up on Sunday morning. Also, please, did I like syrup on the pancakes or just on the side the way I serve it for her.

I anticipate an avalanche of flour in her wake, a step in our shared choreography. I suspect we’ll have less waltzing and more samba, perhaps with some crazy disco thrown in. I hope I can lead as gently as I was led, and that we can be as joyful.

cooking lesson july 2014

Happy week.


Betty’s Cheese Soufflé

Once again, it just wouldn’t be right to write about my growing-up kitchen and not include my mother’s cheese soufflé recipe (again).  There are plenty of recipes online if you want more specifics; but I make it the way my mother did, and it works every time: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish and coat with grated cheese (Parmesan works well). Make a white sauce: butter, flour, milk (give or take, it’s 3 Tablespoons butter, 3 Tablespoons of flour (melt butter; stir in flour to make a roux), 1 1/2 cups hot milk (whisk hot milk into roux to make sauce)). Remove sauce from heat and stir in cheese, grated or cubed (Gruyere is the standard; I use whatever we have, which is often just cheddar, let’s call it 6-8 ounces). Separate 5 eggs, preferably ones that have come to room temperature. Stir a couple of spoonfuls of the cheese sauce into the yolks to warm them up, then add warmed yolks into saucepan and mix well. Season with salt, and a bit of cayenne pepper. Beat eggs whites until stiff. Add half of the whites to the cheese base and mix well. Fold in the other half of the whites (you’ll see egg white showing), then transfer to souffle dish. Put it in the oven and reduce heat to 375/380 degrees. Cook for about 30 minutes, depending on your oven. It (the soufflé , not the oven) will fall before you have time to serve, but it will be delicious.