blog

TALKIN’ TURKEY

Holiday Dinner with the FamilyI

I wonder if it would be socially acceptable to dump my family and invite myself to eat the holiday feast with the Johnsons, total strangers who live around the bend  … ‘cause I don’t think I can take another year with my over-zealous politically-inclined relatives. And I predict this year will be a doozy!

Besides, I hear the Johnsons are politically-apathetic. So what if the cooking is bland? I can picture my surrogate relations now – they’ll have mellow yellow candles glowing in each window. Zen music will be coming from every orifice of their walls. Maybe all they’ll argue about over dinner is the wishbone.

In our family, we have an Chef a ‘la Attitude, who hands out meticulously printed menus to each of the twenty dinner guests seated at the long table. His recipes are so confidential, even the Secret Service can’t break the code. Except for the caucus … I mean, carcass. That’s a given! “Kill bird – cook bird – eat bird,” says our gun-toting Uncle Samuel ready to stab the poor unpardoned thing with his fork.

Don’t get me wrong, we were very grateful for the food we were about to receive: corn bisque with red bell pepper and rosemary soup, brussel sprouts with pecans, baked spiced butternut squash drizzled with pure maple syrup, en salada miste verde, and of course, the main course, crispy roasted applejack tarragon turkey with mushroom bacon leek stuffing.

But at the last gathering, I knew trouble was a brewing when I saw renderings of elephants and donkeys on the backs of the carte du jour. And the alcohol and appetizers was the precursor for the mix of high strung personalities and a melding of different generations

Ahh, a family with diverse political appetites, I write about in my run-on-sentence, including:  the “I’m-gonna-save-the-world” United Nations human rights attorney nephew; his brother, the liberal elitist New York Times journalist; the pompous English professor; the protesting, but creative nieces and nephews in the music business; the high school sophomore  who thought he could apply for his higher education at the Electoral College; the “what-am-I-gonna-do-now?” recent Ivy League college grad student;  and the peace-making surfer dude, who says, “You know, it doesn’t matter who’s in office, the cycle of political eras just go up and down … you gotta ride ‘em out like a wave, man … you just gotta ride ‘em out.”

There’s the identical twin sisters, Aunt Franny from Philly, who always wears those crazy hats, and her sister Flo, from LA, who only eats organic foods like African plant roots. I think last year she brought her own tree to the table. And, of course, I can’t forget the spinster, Cousin Zoey, the vegan, who lives on beans and garlic. There’s usually an empty chair next to hers. She goes into great detail about how she “cleanses the toxins from her body” the day after big holiday meals.

So, who planned Thanksgiving and Christmas time so close together, anyway? We JUST saw these people! We start out very polite; everyone attempts to skirt around the political issues at hand. I recall in the year 2000 (which seemed like such a futuristic date at the time), we turned into the Hatfields and the McCoys. A good old-fashioned food fight would have been more civilized between the staunch Republicans versus the resilient Democrats. I had wished there were no utensils within anyone’s reach. Looking back, the chit chat seems so harmless now, arguing over the dimpled and absentee ballots at the time rather than the Russians and nuclear weapons we now face. Someone had suggested if the ballots were printed like Bingo cards, they never would have counted wrong!

But everyone was eating in between the discussion, except for the vegan who started to cry.  “I can’t eat this poor turkey! Isn’t it bad enough they had to walk around their entire lives with those stupid red things hanging from their necks?” There was silence between gulping. “And what about animal rights?”

“Animal rights? What’s that?” Great Aunt Millie from Brooklyn asked, innocently. She reminisced. “I remember the old days on Mulberry Street. We were sooo poor back then. There were stables across the street from where we lived, and whenever a horse died, they would just put it out by the curb until someone would come and take it away. I once sat on a dead horse when I was little, eating my sandwich.”

“I think I’m gonna be sick!” The vegan bolted from the table. Brussel sprouts rolled everywhere. Again … silence.

“Did I ever tell you about the time Uncle Tooty bit the ear off a dog?”

‘Shut up!” someone blurted.

“At least we got off the subject of politics,” the host said pleasantly.

Then, the leftover hippie from the 60s spoke up. “The last time I voted was in 1976 for Jimmy Carter.” Uh-oh. I knew that wouldn’t sit right with the rich bastard Cuban-cigar smokin’ Uncle from the gold coast. The food was passed around abruptly. To say there was a lot of clattering is an understatement.

The wide-eyed “Why-is-the-sky-blue?” little ones watched the adults as if it was a tennis match. One of the youngest asked, “What is a gravy boat, anyway?”

“I don’t know, but it sure is starting to thicken!” someone said.

“Why are you all fighting?”  Little Bobby asked.

“We’re not fighting, Bobby. We’re having a discussion. A debate, if you will.”

This year, I can only imagine when the main platter, the “head honcho” will take center stage on the dining room table – The Big Orange Bird.

Good Luck, America. Gotta love it!

blog, featured

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.

blog, featured

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.