The Cobbler and the Soldier

I’m continuing to teach my class on creative writing through the lens of family stories. This week’s assignment was for the students to choose an old family photo and then tell a story from the perspective of one of the people in the photo.

I thought this would be a good method for my teens to explore a bit about their past, while at the same time practicing point of view. The purpose of the assignment is not to accurately convey the events that are captured by the photo, but to find a story in it. So, there is a bit of embellishment and historical fiction involved . . . but don’t all family stories involve those things?

I decided to do this assignment myself, choosing the photo below for my inspiration:


The photo came from my grandmother. It was taken in Valla, Austria, sometime near the beginning of the Great War—my family’s best guess is 1915. The man on the right is my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, Georg Thuringer, in his soldier’s uniform. The man on the left is a local cobbler and friend to my great-grandfather.

Here is the story I chose to tell, from the perspective and point of view of my great-great grandfather. Some things, such as the names of the cobbler and the photographer, and the circumstances of the photograph are inventions of my imagination. The facts of the story (such as my great-grandfather’s illness) are true.

* * *

I watch in sorrow and agony as my Maria, only seven years old, lifts the bucket by my bed and lugs it out of the room to empty it of the blood and mucus that I burdened it with throughout the night. The bucket is so heavy because of the gravel and sand Maria fills it with each day. It’s meant to help absorb the poison I retch out every few minutes. Now I think there is more of me in that bucket than there is sand.

But at least I was able to find the bucket in the darkness, able to control my bout enough to not soil the entire room. Not like two days ago, when I coughed so violently that I splattered the bloody contents of my lungs all over the sheets, the floor, and even the walls. Franzeika did not let Maria help with that clean up. My daughter has seen so much, but there are some things her mother still tries to keep from her.

Maria, as a child in Austria.

Now Franzeika trudges into the room, her expression somber and unrevealing. My wife is ever the stoic one. She pulls the stool alongside my comfortable coffin, a bowl of steaming soup in her hands.

I struggle to sit up and greet her, which only increases the sharp whistling emanating from my chest. I sound like a machine. That is what I have come to, now, just a bag of slowly deteriorating parts, and a fleeing soul. I’m more mechanical than human.

As a soldier, I dug trenches twelve hours a day, ate slop, and slept on cold cement floors with no blankets to warm my body—and I still managed to plow forward like a horse. I withstood the bombardment of enemy armaments upon my unit’s fortifications and watched in horror as my comrades collapsed around me—and still I trudged on. But the one thing I could not overcome was the gas. That wretched vile fog besieged my lungs and now slowly gnaws away at them, bit by bit.

“Eat, you must eat,” Franzeika says, lifting a spoon to my lips.

It is what she always says and I find myself beginning to wonder why. There is no purpose to it. Even the hospital in Nagykaniza gave up on me and had the grace to send me home to die. Or perhaps they just needed the bed for some other poor soul. Whatever the case, my life is spent. Eating will not save me. It will only prolong my days of watching my wife and daughter mopping up bits of me.

Franzeika Thuringer, Austria.

Franzeika forces a spoonful of broth between my lips and, as much as I want to protest, I accept her nourishment. It’s the least I can do for her. As I let her feed me, like the invalid I am, my eyes wander the walls and I notice something new in my grim surroundings. A sepia photograph is pinned crookedly to the wall—certainly by a child’s hand, because Franzeika is far too fastidious to permit something so askew. But she notices my recognition of the photo and says, “Andris brought it to the house after you left. Maria thought it might cheer you up.”

I contemplate the photo. Standing there in the frame, rigid and unsure, is myself and my best friend, Petr, and I am reminded of the day I went to war . . .

The day I leave for the front is crystal clear in my mind. It is a cold spring day, 1915, but I do not mind the temperature—I have my sharp and comfortable uniform, with its long coat and double rows of buttons. The truth is that I do not want to go to war; it has taken conscription to get me there, but today, as I march through the streets of Valla, everyone seems to be looking at me in a new way, regarding me with a sense of pride. I tip my soldier’s cap in response, slightly embarrassed by the attention.

When I reach Petr’s shop, I pause and peer through the window to see him stooped over his bench, mallet in one hand, a shoe in the other, and his mouth full of hobnails. How I wish he was coming with me, my oldest friend. My best friend. But he has not yet been conscripted—and he is not about to enlist.

“You think too highly of the empire,” he is fond of berating me. “They demand your service. But will they look after you when this terrible affair is done?”

Yet Petr does not launch into sermon or lecture on this morning. When he realizes I’ve arrived, he simply stands and wanders into the street to greet me.

“So today has come, Georg,” he says simply.

“I take the train to Liberec in an hour,” I inform him. I offer him my hand, only to realize that his are full; he is still holding his mallet and shoe.

“Hey, there, George! Petr!” someone calls.

We turn to see Andris standing across the lane, in the doorway of his shop. “How about a photograph? It’s not every day you go to war.”

“And not often that you come back,” I hear Petr grumble under his breath.

“There is not enough time,” I tell Andris, thinking that he means for us to come inside and to pose in his studio. I say this partially because it is true—there is little time—but also because I know Petr will refuse to participate in making this occasion seem momentous.

“Come, come, let’s capture two friends together on this fine morning,” Andris persists. “We will do it here. On the street. Alida! Fetch me the camera.”

I stand there awkwardly as Andris and his deferent wife set up the apparatus. It is a complicated device and takes a moment—a moment in which I’m left to linger with Petr while passersby pause to stare at us. It’s an unusual event for someone to have his picture taken so informally.

At last, Andris is ready. “Stand still,” he tells us, though in truth Andris has the latest in camera equipment and we do not have to pose like statues, like my father might have had to do in the old days.

The photo is taken and Andris is disassembling his equipment when little Maria comes skipping down the lane.

“Papa,” she says, “Mama says time to come. We must go to the station.”

She leaps into my arms and I lift her up. Then, turning to Petr, I offer him a smile. His hands are still full and, now, so are mine.

“Farewell, Petr,” I tell him before turning to trek down the road, towards my fate.


I can’t imagine lifting Maria in my arms now. She is two years older, but that is not why. I simply don’t have the strength. She returns to the room with the bucket cleaned and refilled with fresh gravel. She sets it by my bed then lingers by her mother, watching the slow and agonizing enterprise of me being fed.

“Maria,” Franzeika chides, “go find your brother and help him with his chores.”

Maria nods, her large brown eyes staring at me, hopeful and frightened at the same time.

I return my attention to the photo on the wall, gazing upon the face of my old friend. That moment captured by the photo was the last time I ever saw him. He had not eluded conscription for very long. Shortly after I left he, too, went to war. Franzeika told me he was killed only after three months, shot through the chest. At least he died quickly. At least he does not suffer, like I do.

For that, I am thankful.

What’s in a name?

Juliet famously said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet . . .”

. . . But was she right?

Well, this was a question we pondered in my creative writing class on the theme of family stories. I was inspired to do this assignment after digging through my old university papers and finding a composition in which I explored my own identity by deconstructing and analyzing my name.

The first page of my composition paper in university.

This subject has obviously been one that has long interested me. When I look back on the books I wrote a kid, I’m amused by the fact that each of them seems to have a different name assigned to it:







As you can see, there are a lot of variations . . . maybe I was having an identity crisis! And, as you can see in the illustrations above, even my last name was in play. That’s because I was born with “Fodey,” but learned at a young age that the true Hungarian spelling of the name should be “Födi.” The corruption of the name happened when my grandfather immigrated to Canada. Upon arriving here in 1926, his name was anglicized—common practice, I think, back in the day. So I often used that spelling on my books. I’ve always been a very visual person, and I think I just wanted to see how the different letters looked in comparison to each other.

Eventually, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took the legal steps to formally change the spelling, and to reclaim that Hungarian spelling. When I was first professionally published, I decided to go with “Lee Edward Födi.” It was a name that was decades in the making!


So, for me, there is a lot of power in names, and I think that’s true for all of us. Next to how we look, our names are perhaps one of the most significant aspects of our personal identities.

Any author knows this, of course—we tend to spend a lot of time on developing and choosing character names. As a fantasy writer, I often invent names, but I do so ever so carefully. When it comes to borrowing names from our world, I still pick them carefully.

The go-to factors for me when it comes to naming characters are, in this order:

1) Etymology
2) Sound
3) Connotation


Names for Whispers
A list of candidate names for my character, Kendra Kandlestar. You can see the final, chosen name on this list—but it wasn’t my first choice.


Brainstorming in my notebook for character names, including their meanings.

Of course, that is the process I use for naming fictional characters. But what about how we ourselves are named? Are we named and then grow (or shrink!) to fit our names? Or do our names get mutated to fit us? Because so many of us have multiple names and types of names:

  • Given names (first and middle)
  • Last names
  • Nicknames (usually given to us by others)
  • Names that are chosen (many people give themselves an English or Anglicized name when coming to an English-speaking country)
My grandfather’s first passport. In Hungary, he was Tamas Födi; in Canada, Thomas Fodey.

As part of the process for this assignment, I had my students follow these steps:

Step 1:
Identify all your names: first, middle, last, nicknames.

Step 2:
Explain why or how you were given your names.

Step 3:
Define the meaning and etymology of each name and explore the feelings you have about them.

Of course, I had the benefit of having already done this assignment in university, so was able to tell the students about my personal analysis . . .

STEP 1: My names

First name: Lee
Middle name: Edward (named after my father)
Confirmation name: James (picked because I just liked the sound of it)
Original last name: Fodey (anglicized from Hungarian Födi)
Current last name: Födi
Nickname: Mr. Wiz

STEP 2: How I was given my names

My parents didn’t know what to name me upon my birth because for some reason it never occurred to them that I wouldn’t be a girl. My name was supposed to be Jacqueline. I went unnamed until my father decided “I looked like a Lee.”

I was named “Edward” after my father (his first name).

When I was confirmed in the Catholic church I picked the name “James” because I liked the sound of it. It upset my grandfather severely, since he was my sponsor and wanted me to be named after him. But I didn’t want “Thomas” as my name because it was already my brother’s middle name and I wanted to be unique. I regretted this decision almost immediately. But I like to think I did the more important thing, which was to eventually change my last name to the Hungarian spelling.

As for my nickname, “Mr. Wiz”, well this developed organically, as many nicknames do. When I first was published, I had a friend who called me the “Wizard of Words” and there was a magazine article with that title, too. Many of my students called me by that title. Of course, it’s long and it eventually got shortened to “Mr. Wiz.” It became a very easy name to use when I started spending a lot of time in Asia, where the most common last name is “Lee.” From that sensibility, it is absolutely incomprehensible that I would have a last name as a first name. Plus, in Asia, you list your last name first, so it is extra confusing! So, Mr. Wiz became way easier.

Step 3: The meaning of my names—and my feelings about them.

“Lee” means “shelter from wind or weather provided by a neighboring object.” The feminine version, “Lea”, means “a meadow, pasture, or arable land.” My name, therefore, means both “nature” and “structure”!

This reminds me of a story from my childhood. When I was about ten, I found a mouse trapped in the grain bin of our feed shed. It scurried around and around the smooth, synthetic slopes of the plastic bucket where we stored the chicken grain. I knew my father would kill the mouse if he discovered it, but I did not have the heart to report the thief. Instead, I scooped the infiltrator from its plastic prison and set it free in the long grass behind the chicken run. So, if you think about it, I acted as a “lee” or “weard” to protect the mouse from the dangerous storm of my father and set it free in the lee (the meadow)! However, I did not guard the fortune of our grain, so failed the “Edward” part of my name (and also my father, Edward).

So I am a person in conflict: “nature” versus “cultivation.”

My father and grandfather were both good at sowing and reaping crops. But, as a kid, I reaped trouble—like the kind you get when you unleash hordes of gluttonous mice on the farm your father is trying to guard. The only thing I ever successfully planted was an idea.

This is a newspaper clipping from when I was a kid. My grandfather made the local (small) newspaper because he grew a “very long vegetable.” I’m not sure why this didn’t make the front page.

So I have decided that I am a gardener, too—just of a different sort. It’s at this point that I think of the Apostle Paul, who famously said, “You reap what you sow.” (He underwent a name change, too—just like me!)

Another aspect to consider in my first name is the “Ly.” A completely different spelling, of course, but with the exact same sound as “Lee.” “Ly” is a suffix, meaning to have “the qualities of.” For example: Brotherly, angrily, happily, mostly . . . or, in other words, a name that causes other words to change!  I feel like this really fits me; as a creative writing and art therapy teacher, my task is to inspire change.

“Edward” comes from two old English words. “Ead” means wealth or fortune. “Weard” means to guard. Together, the name means “to guard wealth or fortune.” I like to think you can morph the word “guard” into “gardener”—this really fits my father because he is a farmer.

The farm I grew up on.* 


As for my last name, Födi, The “i” at the end of Hungarian names means “to be from”, which means my family must have hailed from the area of “Fod.” I can’t find a place called “Fod” on any map of Hungary . . . but it could easily be a corruption of the village of “Fót” in Pest county.

* * *

So there you have it: the quick cheat sheet to the exploration of my name. I explained to my students who I was, then asked them: “Who are you?”

Even though many of them struggled with this activity, they also discovered new things about themselves.

Incidentally, that paper I wrote in university? I received an “A”!












Doodling my way through edits

I’ve spent the last week restructuring a manuscript for a book after receiving some notes from my agent, Rachel Letofsky at The Cooke Agency.

Truth be told, this book—or at least the germ of it—has been percolating in one corner of my dusty mind for over a decade. It’s only been the last couple years or so, however, that I’ve been working on it intensively.

One of the things that I have enjoyed about working with Rachel is her editorial advice. She has demonstrated a key eye for finding weak or soft areas in a book and helping me improve them.

For this latest round, I took my usual approach to a round of editorial notes on a manuscript. I read through all the comments and suggestions—then produced pages of chicken-scratch response.


To be clear, these aren’t notes for my agent—I don’t expect anyone to possess the patience to read the above musings. They are simply meant to clarify things for me. And my brain works well with chicken-scratch notes in various notebooks or on scraps of paper. Oh, and with lots of doodles.

The end result of all these notes is that I realized I had to add at least one new important scene into the book, which meant taking my reader into a new room within the overall setting (a sort of station house). If you’re a writer, you know what that’s like. It’s like putting an addition on to your house. You have to figure out how big the room is, how to furnish it, and—especially important in a fantasy book—how to make it unique and interesting. Then, after making all those decisions, you have to then choose what to tell the reader and what not to, just to keep the plot moving along without bogging everything down in detail.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to invent new characters for this additional scene; I just had to plug in the ones already wandering around in my world. I know my characters so well at this point that I can just stick them in a location together and listen to them interact. It’s particularly helpful when the characters don’t exactly get along, and that is the case with this new chapter. But, just to keep things a bit more interesting, I stuck a fire-breathing bat in the corner.

Oh, and I also doodled him.


Further along the process, I realized one chapter had ballooned so much that I had to break it into two to further expand a scene in which my characters escape from an army of little beasties. I’m not sure if these two chapters will stay separate . . . but we shall see!


Alas, all of this work did not come without casualty. Sunday morning, before I was preparing to roll up my sleeves and cook for an army of people for Thanksgiving Dinner, I decided to work a bit more on my manuscript and ended up introducing my keyboard to my coffee. I cleaned up the spill quickly and avoided damage. At least, I thought I had, until this started happening as I typed:


I like unexpected turns in my writing . . . just not like this! Well, it was probably the universe telling me to take a break. I replaced the keyboard the next day and kept on going. Eventually, the new scenes were shuffled in and it was time to review the overall manuscript to see how it flowed. Along the way, there was a lot more pontificating—and doodling—in my notebook.


It’s funny how simple changes can have such a ripple effect on a manuscript. I noticed many tiny things that suddenly didn’t make sense. For example, the simple addition of a location in my setting, meant in a future scene my character was suddenly walking the wrong direction when I was trying to get him from one place to another. Those sorts of continuity errors are probably what stress me out the most.

Thankfully, this book isn’t near publication stage, so there is still plenty of time to catch those sorts of things. What I do hope I’ve accomplished with this most recent round of writing and editing is the big stuff—which is improving the plot and the emotional resonance of the characters.

Telling our family stories: The night the soldiers came


I’m currently teaching a creative writing program through the lens of family stories. This week, the students are tasked with bringing in a family heirloom to inspire their weekly writing. Personally, I use a lot of objects to invigorate my own writing process. Of course, I normally write about dragons and other creatures of enchantment, so I have to build most of my objects. However, there are many objects in my family handed down from my paternal grandfather . . . and so I’ve written a short piece below about my memories of my grandfather’s “cabinet of curiosities”—otherwise known as his workshop.

* * *

I remember my grandfather’s workshop vividly. It was a tiny room sequestered in the basement of his and my grandmother’s house, down the stairs, around the corner, at the end of the hallway, as if the rest of the house might have been ashamed of it or at the very least wanted to keep it a secret.

The room itself was immaculately organized. My grandfather was a fastidious man and he did not tolerate clutter or disarray. Every tool and piece of equipment had its place, tucked away in a clearly labeled drawer or hanging on its rightful peg, sometimes with a forensic outline to mark its absence while in use. I’m pretty sure my grandfather knew every splice of leather, every knob of wood, every hinge of metal that occupied that workshop. The central piece of the workshop—the altar, if you will—was the Singer sewing machine, a beautiful relic from his time as a cobbler.

My grandfather’s Singer machine is in good hands—and in good use, by my industrious brother. He inherited not only the machine, but many of my grandfather’s talents. 
My brother keeps a cabinet of tools (some of them also inherited from my grandfather) above the Singer machine. 

The dominate color in the shop was a peculiar turquoise green color. My grandfather used this color for everything: the handles of his tools, the trim of his workshop counters, the marvellous wooden barn he built for me when I was six or seven.

My grandfather’s signature color on full display in this homemade broom. He grew the broom grass in his back garden.

I never actually witnessed my grandfather at work in his shop. I think time spent there was a holy occupation for him, perhaps in evenings after dinner or on a Sunday morning before church. But I can imagine him tinkering away there—gracefully, methodically, magically.

Yes, that workshop was like an enchanted place to me. My grandfather was a creator of found-object art, long before that term was ever coined. He threw nothing away—or let others do so either. Each item he salvaged would be cannibalized and transformed into some new garden tool or household implement, or perhaps a strange trinket or toy. He’d cut an old cottage cheese container into pieces and use the plastic flaps to make a windmill to frighten away the birds from his vegetable rows. Or an old gourd from the garden would become a musical instrument for his grandchildren to play. The workshop was a place where broken things were mended, where abandoned objects received salvation.

For my grandfather the workshop might have been a sanctuary, but for me it was a place of stories. Each of the objects residing there had something to tell. You could walk in, pick up an item (if you dared to disturb that pious place) and see when it was made and what year. That was my grandfather for you. He was a recorder; he wrote or engraved names, dates, and places on everything. Some of the things in that workshop had come with him all the way from the old country.

A brush that made it all the way from the old country to Canada.

Other items were like the Singer machine, remnants from his various careers: shaving brush from when he was a barber, awls from when he was a cobbler, notepads from when he ran his billiards hall and other businesses. The notebooks were written in Hungarian, English, or German—or sometimes a combination of all three!

A notebook with my grandfather’s writing, recording his purchases for his shoe repair business.
A small tool from my grandfather’s days as a cobbler.


Another cobbling tool.


From my grandfather’s days as a barber.
My grandfather with my grandmother and their first three children, standing outside of the barbershop and pool hall he ran in McLean, Saskatchewan (circa 1939).

Sometimes the stories in this place were not told by the objects, but by my grandfather himself. Every Sunday I would go to church with my grandparents and, afterwards, for a good old-fashioned European lunch. While my grandma prepared cabbage rolls, roast ham, or duck, my brother and I would gravitate down to the basement to listen in wonder as my grandfather regaled us with tales of his life.

The story I inevitably think of first is about the night the soldiers came to his hometown of Farkasgyepű, near the end of the Great War. My grandfather was just a kid—he would not have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time, though I must confess I don’t know exactly how old he was and, as a child myself, I never had the sense to ask for clarification.

So I don’t know the exact date or even time of year or day when the soldiers came. Just that they came, their intention to round up every man or boy who could hold a gun—or a pitchfork—and to enlist them for the war effort. When I imagine this scene now, it’s raining. Not a torrential rain, but drizzling down, slow and steady, methodically and machine like. Dull. Relentless. A harbinger for things to come.

The soldiers rounded up everyone in the village, assembling them for inspection and registration. If you were fit for service, you were pinned with some sort of ribbon or badge. My grandfather knew what was coming, the fate that was being presented to him and the other men. When the soldiers addressed my grandfather, he feigned deafness and affected a slight limp. He did not receive a ribbon. He was not loaded up on the trucks and carted away to be sacrificed to a doomed war effort.

As my grandfather tells it, everyone who was taken away that day did not come back. So he survived, the war came to an end, and my grandfather toiled away for another few years before finally deciding he needed to find a better life. At the age of twenty-six, he set off by himself to cross the Atlantic and immigrate to Canada. He had a suitcase of Hungarian money (which turned out to be mostly worthless) and a few keepsakes. He set up a humble life in Canada, started a family, and never returned to Europe.

Sometimes I ponder that story of the soldiers coming to Farkasgyepű and wonder if my grandfather was a coward or just extremely clever. I guess sometimes the line between the two is blurred. The hard fact of the matter is that he survived—while others did not.

The truth is, I can’t see my grandfather as a soldier. Sometimes I think the mere act of enlisting might have killed him. Reminiscing about his workshop reminds me that he was a maker and repairer of things—not a destroyer. On that miserable day in Farkasgyepű, at the end of the Great War, he might have fashioned the most important thing of all: his destiny.

The book my grandfather was given for immigrating to Canada from Hungary. The title translates as “Canada in a Nutshell.”
Interior pages of my grandfather’s “Canada in a Nutshell” book, showing details of my his immigration.
Interior pages of my grandfather’s “Canada in a Nutshell” book.



Telling our family stories: The Forgotten Voice

I’m currently teaching a creative writing class that takes inspiration from our individual family stories. As part of the curriculum, I decided that I would have my students start memory boxes. I’ve bought each of the students a craft box made out of wood, so that they can paint and decorate it to suit their personality. What they put in it is up to them, but I hope it’s something that they will keep.

Of course, opening a memory box is the type of thing that can really prompt recollection… and stories. So, in order to help connect with—and inspire—the students, I decided to dig through my crawl space to discover my own memory box.

Because I knew I had one somewhere. I also knew I hadn’t opened it in eons; I had dutifully shifted it from apartment to apartment, home to home, throughout my life, mostly just cramming it away in the corner of some dark storage area. In my imagination, it was just an old and battered shoebox, its corners held together with tape.

I found the box in the utmost furthest depths of my crawlspace. It wasn’t a shoebox. It was much larger and a quick peak under the lid in the flashlight-illuminated darkness revealed a treasure trove of mementos.  So I tugged it out, navigated back through the obstacle course that is our crawl space, and brought the box into the light.


Inside was a journal chronicling my trip to Central America in my early twenties, a skunk trophy I won when I was in Elementary School (for being on the worst curling team—yes, this is LONG before the culture of everyone earns a participation ribbon), old photos, an unpaid cable bill, and countless letters.

Most of the relics in the box were over twenty years old, though some (like the skunk trophy) even more ancient. As I rummaged through the contents, I found one particular object that piqued my curiosity: a cassette tape attached to a stack of letters with an elastic band. I had no idea why this tape was in this box; I had no recollection of it whatsoever. I yanked the tape free of its parcel then promptly forgot which stack of letters it had belonged to. The only way to really figure out what the tape was about was to listen to it.

Luckily, my wife still has an old tape player stuffed away in our storage (she refuses to throw it out, despite my nagging). So I procured the player, stuffed in the cassette, and began listening.

It was a girl’s voice, but I had no idea whose it belonged to. I thought maybe it was my sister. Or maybe my cousin. I even wondered if this tape had belonged to someone else and just ended up in my box of memories by mistake. But then I heard the girl say my name; she was speaking to me directly.

And then, suddenly, I knew who she was.

I remembered.

* * *

I grew up in a very small town. I think my graduating class had all of 50 people. I always laugh when my students ask me how I chose my high school because the truth is that I had no choice—there was only one option available to me, the only school in town. It was the type of town where the school body didn’t change much. Oh sure, a few people came and went, but it was the type of town where 80 per cent of the people you started Grade 1 with were then when you graduated from Grade 12.

For me, Yvonne was one of those people.

I met her in Grade 1, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that she and I became fast friends. That’s when my family moved to the other end of town, her side of town, which meant we took the bus everyday together—or, once I had my license, the car.

Our relationship was not always a simple one. As is so often case in such a situation, the line between friendship and romance was often blurred. We went to movies together, starred opposite each other in school plays, did projects together. I remember many weekend nights when we would drive up to the desert in my old ’66 Ford Custom. It was a behemoth of a car; the trunk was so long and wide that we could sit on it, backs against the rear window, and our feet wouldn’t even dangle off the end. We’d sit there, contemplating the stars, and do what all young people do: share our hopes and ambitions. The town was small, but I feel like on those night, with the desert sky beaming above us, that the world seemed vast and endless . . . and possible.

In those days, Yvonne and I knew everything about each other that there was to tell. We talked almost every day. I knew every nuance of her expression, the cadence of her voice, the ups and downs of her demeanor. I guess that’s the way it is with best friends.

When high school came to an end, Yvonne and I went our separate ways, chasing dreams. For those first couple of years, we were still very close. We wrote each other often, sharing correspondence and the luster of our exciting experiences in new places with new people. We even attempted a formal relationship at some point, but it was mostly long distance…and by that time—well, we had more distance between us than physical space. We had simply grown apart. This time, when we went our separate ways, it was for good.

Through the next few years, I lost touch with Yvonne. We didn’t write, didn’t talk on the phone. From time to time, I heard about her through mutual friends, things such as she had fallen in love, she had gotten married, she had given birth to a daughter. Whenever I received these tidbits, I was genuinely happy for her . . . though, I must also confess that it was sort of like hearing about someone I didn’t know, like a character in a story I used to read as a child. Yvonne really wasn’t a factor in my present life—so I simply didn’t dwell on her.

More years passed. I was twenty-five and living in the city with another childhood friend, Mike. We were doing well, two young men with professional jobs, a nice apartment, and steady girlfriends. Mike was good friends with Yvonne’s stepbrother, so he was the main conduit for news about her.

One winter’s evening, the phone rang for Mike. He ducked into his room, talked for a few minutes, and came out looking like someone had run him over with a truck.

“I have to tell you something,” he said, leaning heavily on our kitchen table. The hesitation was heavy in his voice.

“What is it?” I asked impatiently.

“Yvonne shot herself.”

I remember feeling confused and bewildered. I remember Mike continuing to talk, but it was suddenly like we were under water; I couldn’t hear anything. But, eventually, I came to the surface. I remember asking, “So. Is she okay?”

Mike looked at me with discomfort, almost frustration. “No, she’s not okay, Lee. I’m trying to tell you. She shot herself.”

It was February 14th, 1996. Valentine’s Day.

It’s hard to express the turbulent emotions that I experienced after receiving this news. I remember a gamut of feelings—confusion, anger, guilt. But mostly anger. I became determined to not dwell on the matter. I didn’t even go to Yvonne’s funeral. I refused to reflect on my relationship with her or to play the games that everyone else wanted to play—exploring the whys and hows of her death. I didn’t go back and look at old photos, examine old memories, or get in touch with anyone about it. I didn’t want to know.

Simply stated, I put it all away. My mementos from Yvonne were stuffed away in that box, and that’s where they stayed. I never opened that box, except to put other stuff on top of it.

I thought of her no more.

The years continued to pass—an entire decade, then another. Life carried on. Every now and then, Yvonne popped into one of my dreams or crossed my mind. She was still a girl to me—frozen in time, locked at the age of twenty-five or in some cases younger, sitting on the back of my car, talking about her hopes and ambitions. Sometimes, I would catch myself perusing facebook, looking at the posts of other old friends, and wonder what had become of Yvonne and what she was doing these days—only to suddenly remember with a sharp pang of guilt that she was gone, and had been for a long time.

Maybe this is because I had refused to really deal with her death. I don’t know.

Yvonne on her 19th birthday, which is on June 30th. This photo is taken in my parents’ old house, so Yvonne and I must have both been back from college for the summer.

But then there was the discovery of the tape. Listening to the full cassette revealed that Yvonne and I not only wrote each other letters, but we taped them. She mentions as much in her recording, telling me that she can’t find the tape I had most recently sent her so, instead of recording over it and sending it back to me, that she’s starting a new one. So there’s that mystery solved.

Still, finding—and listening—to the tape was so very strange. It wasn’t quite like finding an old forgotten photograph or a video clip of us. It was a message from her, directly to me, same old same old—her talking about her plans for her future, her desire for happiness and love.

That part to me is heartbreaking. But mainly I feel gratitude for hearing the sound of my friend’s voice again, the one that had evaporated from my memory. It certainly wasn’t the healthiest of decision to pack away my emotions . . . but I am at least thankful that I packed away the relics, because they allowed me access to something all these years later.
And that is why I’ll have my students make their own memory boxes, too.


Just add water . . . ?


This week, I rolled out one of my favorite classes as part of my CWC creative writing workshops: A Monster in a Bottle.

In this class, the students each assemble a prop that consists of a miniature glass bottle stuffed with monster parts: claws, fangs, eyes, fur, feathers and that sort of thing. I actually only let students pick from three different supply piles, as I feel this makes them a bit more creative and considerate.

The idea is that this bottle is something they can buy at a pet store. It then has to be “hatched” through a series of special instructions . . . which, of course, the students have to write.

Here’s some of the photos from the day’s activity. As always, I’m continually amazed at the ingenuity of the students! Some of them definitely thought outside the bottle . . .














Telling our family stories: The Farmer, The Giant, and the Milk Thief

Long ago in a place not seen by anyone now living, there dwelled a humble farmer with a large family. His land was poor and barely arable, growing only onions, but he tried to scrape out an existence to support his extensive brood. The farmer did not even have a stable to keep his cow. He had to tie the creature to a tree in his yard, so that it would not wander away. However, the cow was his one boon, for it granted the farmer two large pails of milk each and every morning.

milkpail.jpgOne day, as the farmer was carrying his two pails of milk to the farmhouse, a giant was passing by. He was a terrifying fellow, with a head the size of a bathtub. When the giant saw the frothy milk slopping in the pails, a terrible thirst came over him.

“You, farmer!” the giant boomed. “Give me some of your milk.”

“It is for my family,” the farmer protested. “It’s all we have for our breakfast.”

Now, the giant was a crafty fellow. It would be easy for him to take both pails of milk by force, but he thought if he did so than the farmer might rouse his neighbors and drive him from the country. So he said to the farmer, “If you do not give me one of your pails of milk, I will take both. Do not be so greedy.”

If he had any courage at all, it abandoned the farmer while he stood in the dark shadow cast by the giant. So he gave one of his pails of milk to the giant. The enormous man drank down the milk in one gulp, cast the empty bucket upon the ground, and plodded away.

Every day afterwards, the giant returned and demanded that the farmer give him a pail of milk. Knowing not what else to do, the humble farmer obliged.

milkcow.jpgHowever, one day the farmer went to milk his cow, only to discover that it had gone dry, and would give no milk. Not two pails, not one, not even a single drop.

Soon, the giant arrived and demanded his daily drink.

“My cow is dry,” the farmer said. “I have nothing for you this day, and nothing for my family.”

“I suspect you are trying to trick me,” the giant growled. “But I am in a hurry today. So I will make you a deal. Tomorrow, you will give me two buckets of milk. And if you do not have them, the I will eat your oldest child.”

Then the giant stomped away, causing the ground to quake.

The farmer was at a loss for what to do, and began to fret. But his wife said, “Tell a story to the cow, and it will soothe her.”

And so the farmer did as his wife suggested, and spent the afternoon telling tales to the cow.

However, the next morning, when the farmer returned to the cow, it was to discover that she was still dry. Soon enough, the giant arrived in the yard. He leaned down and glared at the farmer with an angry eye.

“I’m ready for my two buckets of milk!” the giant thundered.

“The cow is still dry,” the farmer moaned. “I have no milk to give.”

“I do not like these tricks,” the giant grumbled. “But I am in a hurry today, so I will give you another day’s grace. When I come tomorrow, there better be FIVE buckets of milk waiting for me. Otherwise, I will eat your oldest child AND your youngest, too!”

Then the giant clomped away, causing the trees to tremble and topple.

The farmer was now truly terrified. But his wife said, “Sing a song to the cow and coax the milk from her udder.”

It seemed like a silly idea, but having no better plan, the farmer went into the yard and began singing loudly to the cow. He sang all afternoon and into the evening. At last, exhausted, he went back to his house and fell sound asleep.

However, the next morning, when the farmer returned to the cow, it was to discover that she was still dry. Soon enough, the giant came rumbling into the yard and demanded to have his five buckets of milk.

“The cow is still dry,” the farmer told him. “I have no milk to give.”

“You have tested my patience to the thin,” the giant snarled. “But I am in a hurry today, so I will give you one last chance to please me. When I come tomorrow, there better be TEN buckets of milk waiting for me. Otherwise, I will eat all of your children, and your wife, too.”

Then the giant galumphed away, causing the rocks to tumble down from the nearby mountains.

The farmer was at his wit’s end and felt that everything was lost. But his wife said, “Go and perform a dance for the cow. That will surely start the milk running.”

The farmer felt this was a hopeless suggestion, but not knowing what else to do, he went into the yard and began dancing for the cow. She stared at him with blank eyes, chewing her cud as he pranced before her. He performed well into the night until at last he collapsed from exhaustion and began to slumber in the long, dead grass.

It was not long after he had fallen asleep that the farmer awoke to a sinister hiss. He rubbed his eyes and poked his head from the grass to see the most unbelievable sight. A prodigious snake was slithering out of a hole in the very tree that he used to tie up the cow. At its widest part, the serpent was as thick as a barrel, and it was as long as the tree trunk from where it had come. The snake’s scales glinted in the moonlight—and so did its eyes as it began to suckle the cow, drawing all the precious milk from its udder.

milksnake.jpg“Ah ha!” thought the farmer. “This is the scoundrel who has been causing me all my grief.”

He quickly fetched an axe and while the giant serpent satiated itself, chopped it in half. As he watched the snake writhing on the ground, dying, the farmer hatched a plan. He had solved one problem, and now he could solve another. So he proceeded to skin and dress the snake and afterwards began roasting its meat over a fire he built in the yard.

As the sun came up, the farmer’s wife peered out of the doorway of the house and said, “What is that smell? Are we to have meat for breakfast for once?”

“No,” the farmer told her. “This is for another purpose. Now fetch me some lye and bring it to me quickly. Then take all of the children and hide in the house. Make not a peep until I tell you it’s safe to come out. Oh, and one more thing. Bring me an onion!”

The wife did as the farmer asked, bringing him the lye and the onion. The farmer sprinkled the lye over the snake meat roasting on the fire. As for the onion, he cut it in half and held it to his eyes, causing the tears to stream down his cheeks. Soon enough, as his family scrambled into their hiding places inside the house, the giant came romping over the hill and into the yard.

“What is that delicious smell?” the giant asked. “I can see you didn’t butcher the cow.”

“These are my children and my wife,” the farmer sobbed. “For the cow is still dry. I could not bare you to devour them whole, so I did the horrible deed myself and am now cooking them on this fire.”

“This farmer is a strange fellow,” the giant thought. “But it makes no difference to me.”

Then, chortling, he snatched the meat from the spit and began gulping down the thick strips of flesh. It wasn’t long before he began to gasp and groan. Next, he began clutching his belly.

“What trick is this?” the giant wailed. He waved a threatening fist at the farmer, but before he could do anything else, he crashed to the ground, dead as a stone. His collapse was so violent that it caused the water to rush over the banks of the nearby river and flood the farmer’s field, covering it with fresh loam.

The tremendous sound roused the farmer’s wife and children from the house. They rushed into the yard to see the farmer standing before the fallen body of the giant. The farmer quickly related the entire story.

“What shall we do to celebrate?” the farmer’s wife wondered when the tale was done.

“Why, I think we should dance!” the farmer proclaimed.

And, as stories go, the farmer and his family lived many years in peace and happiness. Perhaps they are still living so, if they have not died in the meantime.

* * *

That’s a short folktale I wrote based on the stories told to me by my paternal grandfather. I remember listening to him as a boy and being fascinated by the many characters and creatures that populated his tales from Hungary or, as he called it, the “Old Country.” In particular, I remember him describing a snake that would sneak out of a tree hollow and steal the milk from the family cow.

Apparently, this is a common myth: the idea that snakes can steal milk. Of course, it’s scientifically impossible, but it does make for a great story. So, taking inspiration from my grandfather’s words, I decided to write my own tale, drawing on some of the traditions of Hungarian folktales. In particular, Hungarian folktales have their own particular endings and beginnings.

This is also the assignment I’m giving my creative writing students over the next two weeks. Phase 1 is to research myths, legends, and folktales from an ancestral culture. They have to pick three tales and provide a short summary of them. We’ll evaluate the stories and they’ll choose one in particular to focus on. Then, they will either retell that story or use it as inspiration to write a more original tale (as I did).

By the way, here’s a picture of my young grandfather (he’s the boy in the front row, wearing what looks like a gown) and his family in Hungary.