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WHY I WRITE

People often ask me why I write … hmm. That’s a story in itself. Early on I think I longed for adventure, and if I wasn’t satisfied with what was around me, I’d create my own adventurous stories and, of course, I’d be the main character. Let me back up the clock a bit – quite a bit.  When I was a toddler I scaled a chain link fence to get to the German shepherd on the other side. I was a tomboy growing up and I looked for the tallest trees to climb. As a teen, I’d climb out of my second floor bedroom window in the middle of the night and sneak back into my house before dawn.

I kept a 500 page journal about my escapades hidden in the attic behind a trapdoor, which I could only reach on tiptoes while balancing on a tall stool. One day I discovered it was gone … my mother must have read it, disapproved, and conveniently lost it, without confronting me. Perhaps she didn’t know enough about my mischievous ways until she read about the person I really was – not a bad kid, just a bit curious and daring.

Because I was painfully shy in high school, I didn’t participate in afterschool activities; I went straight home to my fantasy world where I needed to express my innermost feelings on paper.  I dreamed of seeing the world. And eventually I did. As a stewardess back in the glamorous days of flying, I travelled to many exotic destinations. There was a whole world out there I knew nothing about. Unwittingly, when I met strangers on the road, many who couldn’t speak a word of English, they became bits and pieces of future characters in my writing.

I’ll never forget visiting the Anne Frank house in Holland, and how it influenced me. Of course, like every young impressionable girl coming of age, I had read her diary. I got through the narrow hallways and secret places the family hid in, without tears, but it was at the end of the tour where I choked up when I read a letter her father Otto Frank had written. He explained how we do not truly know each other in our families – mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. I thought that was terribly sad. Is it because we’re so close, we can’t bear to see their pain?

After raising my own two children, I became restless within my empty nest. Boring domestic distractions at home forced me to leave my comfortable computer screen and drive aimlessly to a writer-friendly location. Oddly, I’d find myself sitting in my car on a winter’s day with the heat on, parked next to a horse farm, writing feverishly, while my two golden retrievers breathed down my neck, keeping me company. Ah, the loyalty and patience of dogs.  There’s something so comforting and spiritual about the beauty of animals that I am drawn to, and that makes me feel “right” inside. Hours would pass. Once in a while, a horse would whinny and come to the fence, and I fantasized about riding him bareback. I’d say that a majority of my debut novel came to fruition in that very spot.

I felt great relief to fill so many blank pages and fill the empty pages of my heart.  It took me thirteen years to write my first book, Rembrandt’s Shadow and the sequel, Restitution. When I look back at those days, I realize I was hardly aware that I was writing two works of romantic historical fiction, or why, but it was too late to stop. It was as if the characters were controlling my thoughts, guiding my pen, and driving me to finish the story about those dark days they knew, before I was even born. The irony is that the ghosts were real characters in my husband’s family, who went to their graves with secrets they kept, which I wasn’t even aware of until years after I started writing.

If I had known beforehand that I would turn into this isolated writer for that long, I wonder if I would have made such a commitment. In the end, I am truly grateful I endured the grueling process, because every day, I meet people who are unaware of what took place during those horrific times of the Holocaust. Every time I meet a reader who tells me he or she was moved or enlightened by what I wrote I feel rewarded.

Sadly, history does repeat itself. Recently, I was touched by nine elderly women, all Holocaust survivors, who felt an obligation to remind ALL of us to remember the six million Jews who were scapegoats … because of fear, because of power. These women who looked into the faces of pure evil in Auschwitz had promised almost 75 years ago this would “never happen again,” yet it did happen again and again: the Killing Fields, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur … Syria.

The least we can do is read about it and write about it until we run out of paper.  Finally, for me, I believe I have the answer to the question I am often asked – why I write.

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WHEN DUTY CALLS

Nine months ago, while packing to move 40 years worth of “stuff” from New York to South Carolina, I hesitated while holding the dog’s pooper scooper. Should I pack it or shouldn’t I? After all, the truck was filled to capacity, and the doggie excavator was of the super-size variety for my rather large golden retriever. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary where we were going; maybe the Poop Fairy would show up in the dark every night to remove the golden eggs.

Weeks before, I attempted training my rebellious husband how to pick up the dog’s waste when out in public – a chore we’d be obligated to do, once we resettled down south in Pleasant-Ville. Our new home is in a very pleasant area! If you bump into anyone, they say, “That’s fi-i-ine!” instead of giving you the northern scowl or the finger. In our new neighborhood, they pump jasmine scent into the air; the children (even teenagers) are well-mannered, and their parents drive down the tree-lined streets in shiny golf carts, mothers wearing Laura Ashley dresses and fathers in pink shorts. We’ve recently invested in the Happy Pills they take, and are learning how to mark off the calendar where every day is Saturday.

“I will Not be picking up the dog’s poop!” my husband had protested.

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” I told him. “We’ll take turns.”

“Take turns? How many times does a dog poop in a day?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered, honestly, since she had always done her business, privately, in the woods on Long Island.

“I wonder if there’s such a thing as dog poop services.” He went online. “Well, look at that!” he said. “They come to your house on a regular basis in marked vehicles. It says dogs poop approximately 23 pounds per month. The more poop, the higher the price. It looks like it will cost us $20 per service. Kind of pricey.”

Not bad, I thought. Bruce is retired now – Hmm… maybe? But it is an art to find it and remove the __it. These people are experts…

He continued reading: “The service people move in a grid-like pattern, their eyes meticulously scanning the path before them.”

“What about behind bushes? I asked.

He ignored me because we were moving to property without a lawn, without bushes, without any maintenance at all; well, except for the removal of dog doodie in a large brick courtyard.. And once collected, whatever do you do with it, I wondered.

He interrupted my thought. “It also states their service is insured.”

“Insured? For what? If someone steps in it? If there’s unwanted poop contact?” I thought of a Seinfeld skit I once saw describing those little poop bags dog owners use, following behind their mutts and purebreds on the streets. It is the lowest activity in human life,” Seinfeld said. “If aliens are watching this through telescopes, they’re going to think the dogs are the leaders of the planet.

Flash-forward: I am proud to say my husband has now mastered the pick-up. He is a Pro at inserting his hand in the bag, scooping it up in one swift motion and disposing. Flashback: I will never forget the first time I had handed him the little black plastic bag to do his duty. His finicky back went out a little as he squatted, and then it turned ugly! Well, you don’t need to know the details. Not entirely his fault – my husband’s not handy!

But I must say, good things have come out of this. The relationship between man and his dog is different now. The way my dog looks at him all schmoopy, as she watches him do the poopy-scoopy, as if she has a whole new respect.

Speaking of Respect – R-E-S-P-C-E-C-T, aside from Aretha Franklin coming to mind, I will not forget the irony of what happened next: While my husband was trying to be discreet when walking the dog in the open field near our house where neighbors sometimes gather, the poor guy ran into a sticky situation. As it turns out, one of those neighbors was the banker he had recently met with about a loan.

“Mr. Berg?” he called. “Glad I ran into you. I just started going over your application. So, here’s the scoop…”

My husband dressed in his favorite Bob Dylan t-shirt, quickly tried to hide the little black bag behind his back. “Oh! Umm, hello!”

The gentleman, dressed in a navy blue 2-button pinstripe Brook Brother’s business suit, extended his hand in greeting and my husband nervously extended the wrong hand and flung the little black plastic bag straight at him. He tried to wipe the banker’s jacket off, but that apparently rubbed the man the wrong way.

“Err…sorry. I guess we’ll finish the application process on Monday?” my husband asked in a weak voice.

“I don’t think so!”

Hey, stuff happens.

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OUT OF STATE, OUT OF MIND

I’ve been a frustrated writer for many months now, not having written a word because our computer crashed right before our move out of state. It’s finally back. But I’m not sure I am. Just touching the keyboard now feels alien to me, like everything else. Have we landed on Mars? Have we lost contact with Planet Earth? Here we are my husband Bruce and I, in Charleston, South Carolina – voted the #1 most desirable city in the United States, and #2 in the world. Our daughter Janelle and son-in-law Mike and two toddlers moved in with us, temporarily.  To say it’s been chaotic is an understatement. (Our son, Jeffrey, always the logical one of the family, remained in New York, but we’re working on him to join our Nonsectarian cult).

Carolinians speak a different language than us; they’re low-talkers here in low-country, unlike us loud Yankees. The second we open our mouths, everyone knows where we’re from. Dead giveaways: cawfee, dawg, dawta, wawta . . . we were immediately given the test how to pronounce y’all correctly. It took a few tries ‘til we got it right.

They say moving is one of the most stressful things in life. For me it was also an out of body experience. We found the transition challenging, from our home with a big yard to a New Orleans style home on a lake, replicating the historic homes downtown with balconies, shuttered windows, brick courtyards, flower gardens, and Spanish moss. We sit on one of the three levels of piazzas, chasing our dog running back and forth barking at all the passersby with their own dogs.  There are 750 homes in our neighborhood and most families own two to three dogs. Do the math and you’ll know why we’re frazzled.

Before our move there was a ton of preparation. We had four yard sales back home on Long Island to purge all the stuff we accumulated over the past 40 years. The last sale was the toughest, parting with certain sentimental things. They’re just things, I know, but still. I remember handing over my mother’s sewing basket filled with her buttons, embroidery, ric rac, needles and thimbles to a woman, and bursting into tears. She handed me back the basket and said, “It’s okay, you keep it.”

My biggest regret was not being able to part with the thousands of photos – frozen, fragile memories encased in glass frames, separated in bubble wrap from the hundreds of other boxes. How could I possibly part with the time our golden retriever fell asleep with three tennis balls in her mouth? Or when we donned our infant son in a long blonde wig in his baby carriage? Or when our teenage daughter was balancing at the edge of the Grand Canyon in her sparkly platform heels?  I couldn’t!  It was a strange feeling when we pulled away from our house in the driveway, looking back, teary-eyed,  wishing we could take it with us, dismantle it brick by brick, and put it back together again when we reached our new destination. It wasn’t just a house, it was part of our family, and we were abandoning it forever. Goodbye house. Hope your next family fills you with happiness.    

We pulled up to our New Orleans style house with its three levels and helped the movers carry everything up the many flights of stairs. OY! What were we thinking at this age? We were emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. The heat index reached 115 degrees. Bruce and I were on edge, and either were going to head for divorce court before we unlocked the front door, or else drive off the Ravenel Bridge together.

The next morning a water hose under the kitchen sink got loose like a wild snake, and Janelle and I, who morphed into Lucy and Ethel, tried to hold the beast down, but it had a mind of its own. I grabbed the nearest thing to catch the water shooting out – a potted plant – which quickly turned into a muddy river on our white kitchen floor. We both panicked until her level-headed husband Mike came to the rescue. After the leak, we had to withstand two weeks of lightning storms, and then the infamous 1000-year-Flood. Our bottom floor had water gushing in, and we couldn’t save the rugs, but were grateful no one was hurt. Well, that’s not exactly true. Bruce slipped in the new lake inside our house and fell hard. In fact, it started a whole series of him falling, and we had to keep buying larger and larger bandages. We stayed up overnight with a giant, noisy Wet-Vac machine, and kept fans running. There was an awful loud commotion coming out of our house for three full days.  Everything was going wrong!  From no internet or phone service, emergency visits to the doctor with our grandchildren contracting impetigo, to freaking out when we discovered palmetto bugs (southern roaches the size of flying mice) trying to move in with us.

As I stood on the sidewalk, wringing out wet towels, with my drenched hair lacquered across my forehead in my muddy and torn Capris, a well-groomed southern belle drove by in a shiny red golf cart wearing her pearls and Burberry raincoat, and gave me the Queen’s wave. I stood there with my Carol Burnett mop and pail, and my daughter noticed my bulging eyes, ready to lunge. “Hold me back!” I said.

When the storms passed, and the sun came out once again, neighbors knocked on our door bearing welcoming bread. We were invited to morning coffees, afternoon teas, tennis tournaments, movie groups, book clubs, and on and on. We went on a horse and carriage ride along surrounding quaint streets with porches beautifully decorated for the Christmas season, and it didn’t take long to fall madly in love with the neighborhood.  Again, we can say it’s good to be back in our home sweet home.