Bidding farewell to our magical creature

Bidding farewell to our magical creature

Life sometimes works in strange ways. Here I am, prepping to teach a creative writing camp next week in Korea. The theme?

Magical creatures.

And this was the week that we had to finally let go of the most magical of creatures, our cat Griffin.

Anyone who has ever lost a pet knows how hard it is. They are constants in our lives and in our homes, loyal and unwavering. For me, Griffin was not just a pet, though—he was my work buddy. Being a writer can be lonely, but not when you have a cat purring and gently pawing your elbow throughout the day.

Inspiration

In fact, as I look back on photos of Griffin, it’s almost a chronicle of all the writing, illustration, and prop-building projects I’ve worked on in my career.

griffin-bcsrc-sketchbook

griffin-brainstomringbooknap

griffin-dragonegg

griffin-draw

griffin-kendramanuscript

griffin-paintbrush

In particular, my current book series, Zoone, owes a lot to Griffin. I truly believe that I wouldn’t have been able to write it without Griffin’s inspiration.

There are so many children’s books about cats, and I find most of them depict cats as standoffish, persnickety, or mischievously clever.

But I never felt that was Griffin. He was concerned with three matters: food, sleep, and affection. Not only receiving affection, but giving it.

The neighborhood character

We constantly found out about his escapades in the neighborhood. Like the time a kid came to our door on Halloween, saw Griffin, and exclaimed, “Oh, this is where Griffin lives?” (We found out that Griffin would wander up to the sidewalk each day when school got out, sprawl on the pavement, and greet all the kids coming home. They all knew his name from his collar tag.)

griffin-child.jpg

Another time, we saw a guy eating his lunch out in the adjoining courtyard and he told us that Griffin came and spent every noon hour with him so that he wouldn’t be lonely.

Then there was the time I received a call from someone who asked if I had just moved. The answer was yes, and the caller went on to explain that she was my old neighbor and that her kitten was depressed because Griffin used to visit every day. (She had my number from Griffin’s tag. She even asked if we could do a playdate, but we realized the mechanics were just too difficult.)

griffin-twist.jpg

When it came to our son, Griffin showed extreme patience. He let Hiro tug his tail or snatch his fur and if he ever really got upset, he batted with his paw (and not his long outdoor cat claws). Eventually, Hiro would crawl up to Griffin and greet him the same way Griffin greeted him, by bunting his head along his body.

hiro&griffin.jpg

Griffin featured in all of my school presentations—talking about pets is such an easy and immediate way to connect with kids. And when I reviewed stories by my creative writing students, Griffin often left pawmarks on their pages. A seal of approval, maybe?

When I wrote the character of Tug the skyger (a winged blue tiger) for The Secret of Zoone, I automatically gave him Griffin’s personality. There is no cynicism or sarcasm in Tug’s personality. He’s just an earnest and loyal sidekick. When my editor at HarperCollins bought Zoone, she told me it had a lot to do with Tug—that he was, in fact, one of her all-time favorite animal characters.

tugsketch&griffin

A magical creature

Griffin was with us a long time. I adopted him as a kitten, seventeen years ago. My sister was visiting me and when we brought him back to my flat, he immediately began bounding around the place like a little monster. I knew then that he should be named after some mythical creature. Then he began to fly—almost literally, bounding up the wall as far up as the light switch. (I think that’s the other reason why he inspired my character of a flying tiger.) Then I knew he needed to be named after a flying mythical creature.

No matter what we were doing around our house—making Yoda Yulefest cookies, carving pumpkins, or just watching a movie—Griffin was there.

griffin-halloween

marcie_griffin_halloween

griffin-napping

Letting him go

We know that Griffin had a rich and full life, but it’s still hard to let him go. He showed no signs of age really at all until last fall, when he had to get some teeth pulled and we were told we should start giving him water infusion once a week to help keep his kidneys going. But in May he stopped eating. Obviously concerned, we took him to the vet. Bloodwork came back negative, then he seemed to pick up again. But when he stopped eating again, we carted him back in and discovered that he had multiple tumors.

His time had come. He wasn’t in any acute pain, so we took a few days so that we could try to adjust to the fact that we had to let him go. So that we could say goodbye. I was down to feeding Griffin high-calorie gel from my fingertips. He stopped grooming, so I had to brush out his fur on a regular basis. I gave him steroid cream, just to perk him up and try to stimulate any sort of appetite. After a lifetime of sleeping on our bed, he mostly slept curled up in the corner of our bathroom.

Griffin-readingbuddy.jpg

Griffin-hidinghisface

When we took him in for his final vet visit, he was light in my arms, having lost almost three pounds in his final weeks. He never complained during that final appointment—he just purred and put his paw on my wrist. I thanked him for everything that he had given us then cradled him in my arms. And that is how he went.

Now our home feels empty. I feel like a goldfish—every three seconds, I’m wondering where his food dish is or why the cat flap is closed. Then I remember.

I’ll have to finish my Zoone series without my writing buddy at my side. But I’m thankful he was there at the start. Writing Zoone is truly something that I feel is helping me cope with losing Griffin, that a small part of him resides in Tug and will continue to live on.

studio_griffin

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Telling our family stories: the box of memories

This week, I held the final workshop in my series on creative writing told through the lens of family stories.

As part of this workshop, we created “memory boxes,” a project we started way back in Class 3. Below are photos of the beautiful boxes created by the students. They are also filled with personal items, but I chose not to photograph the insides—they are personal!

 

They are theirs to keep, but we also used them as a prompt for our last assignment.

In an earlier blog post, I described my own experience of opening my own memory box for the first time in twenty years. So, taking inspiration from that, I had the students imagine a distant descendent stumbling across their own memory boxes and wondering about their original owners.

They then read these stories out loud to their parents and classmates as part of our end-of-term celebrations.

Wow! The stories, like the boxes, were incredible.

 

Telling our family stories: The House with the Secret Cellar

pickers-cabin-on-farm-at-lakeshore-drive-built-early-1900s

I’m nearing the end of my series of creative writing workshops told through the lens of family stories. In one way, it’s been challenging to come up with a different subject for each class because there’s so many pathways to explore. So many topics to cover in only twelve classes!

This most recent week, we decided to explore family homes. Most of us, of course, have a sentimental attachment to the place(s) we grew up. I find it especially amusing how annoyed we get when a child draws on a wall, or causes a dent, bump, or scratch somewhere in the house—only to look upon those same “wounds” with a sentimental eye years later. Those scars eventually serve as a visual record of our family life.

Then there’s the marks that we purposely put in our homes, like the lines etched into the doorframe to measure the heights of children, or the paintings and murals that we might paint purposely on the walls.

Our home is no different. We have a dent in the wooden floor upstairs; I’m pretty sure that happened when Marcie put on her tap shoes at our annual Yoda Yulefest party and decided to perform for our friends. There’s a gash in the wall from when we were heaving our entertainment stand up the stairs and it slipped from our hands. Then there’s the hidden cubby hole, hidden at the back of the bedroom closet; the walls are covered top to bottom with children’s drawings. Most of these came from our goddaughter, Charlotte. When she discovered that the children from the previous tenant had drawn in there, she asked for permission to do the same. And so I granted it to her and off she went. This year, when she came to visit as a fifteen-year-old, she crawled inside the cubby hole and reminisced. She’s pretty insistent that we never paint over those walls.

closet-charlottes-drawings-01closet-charlottes-drawings-02

So, for this week’s assignment, I decided to ask my students to write a poem about a family home from the first-person perspective of the home. I asked them to think about the age of their home; would it talk as an old person or a new person? How would the home feel about the life burbling inside of it?

As with all the work I’ve assigned for this course, I did the assignment as well. I decided to choose a home from my childhood—sort of. Below, is a page from my mom’s photo album showing the first orchard my parents owned, and the house we lived in. It’s the first home I remember living in.

photo_album_house.JPG

 

It was quite old and humble and, eventually, my parents knocked it down and built a new one in its place. As you can see by the photo in the bottom right, there was another house on the same piece of property, just a stone’s throw away.

It was even older and in more disrepair. It had no plumbing and I remember it always had a certain pungent odor. Many people lived there: sometimes people who came to work on our farm for the summer, and one time my aunt and uncle for a season. Otherwise, the house stood empty and my brother and I would play inside of it.

When we knocked down our old white house, we knocked this one down, too. That’s when we found the secret cellar. Hidden underneath the linoleum was an old trap door. We pried it open to find a set of stairs disappearing down into the murk.

So, with a bit of trepidation, down we went.

No one had clearly been there in a very long time. It wasn’t very big, but it was stuffed with long-forgotten items. Newspapers. Bottles. A pair of woman’s shoes. Or, you might say, junk—though, not me. I love old treasures, for they are tellers of stories.

Now, when I look back on the photo of the old house, and remember the hidden cellar, I imagine that there were all kinds of secret and enchanted things squirreled away down there. Most likely there were canisters of magical ingredients waiting to be consumed by a witch’s cauldron. Or perhaps the skeleton of a fairy. The coffin of a vampire. Hmm . . . I probably just wasn’t looking properly at the time. That’s what I tell myself now, anyway.

However, for the purposes of my assignment, I decided to keep magical whimsy to a minimum and focus on fact.

Here is my poem about the house with the secret cellar . . .

I am so very old.
Some would say ancient.
The skin is hanging
from my bones,
peeling, sliding away.
I creak and bend towards the ground.

My eyes are weary
and bleary;
I can barely gaze through them
to see the chickens pecking
at my doorstep
where the weeds are overgrown.

My insides are deteriorating;
you can whiff the pungent odour,
for my ribs are dripping
rancid ooze and poison spores;
The walls of my stomach are
curling, peeling, rotting.

I bear many scars,
earned from all my years.
Here’s a dent—
a dog once crashed into my frame;
there’s a scratch—
a child poked me with a fork;
this is a burn—
A candle held against my joint;
and this tattoo,
I tell you, is permanent—
Auntie painted me with flowers.

But all those things
happened long ago.
Now I brood in somber silence,
alone and abandoned.           

But while, on the surface,
I am frail and falling to pieces,
there is one thing that remains strong;
the secret place that dwells deep within,
one long forgotten
by everyone . . .
everyone except for me.

No one knows about the hatch,
the hidden handle that leads below
to a realm of damp and darkness,
where I harbor a trove of treasure,
curios and charms,
relics and remnants,
memories from distant times.

The place is dusty now,
sagging, draped with cobwebs,
creatures scurrying and scuttling
between the artifacts of time.
Soon I shall collapse,
and they will haul me away.
Only then,
you might discover
my secrets.

And then I know what will happen;
I will be dwelled upon no more,
except, perhaps,
when someone
chances upon my brooding countenance
in a photograph,
old, discoloured, and faint.

 

Telling our family stories: My Cat is More Famous Than Me

Griffin.

In a previous post, I told the story about my very first pet: a blind chicken. But I would be somewhat remiss if I didn’t tell a story about my current pet, and that is my cat, Griffin.

Kids often ask me if I’m famous. Which I think is kind of funny question, because if you have to ask me if I’m famous, then isn’t that your answer? Usually, I just reply by telling them that my cat is more famous than me.

It’s true.

griffin-on-newly-painted-table

We live in a townhouse with a courtyard. (Incidentally, as the senior cat in the complex, Griffin sort of rules the courtyard; he’s the King of Cats, if you will.) Griffin likes to wander  through the courtyard and lounge on the sidewalk out on the upper street. He especially likes to go out there just as the local elementary school gets out. If we’re out tinkering in our front garden, we can hear all the comments emanating from the street:

“Oh, look. It’s Griffin!”

“Hi, Griffin!”

“There’s a good cat.”

Everyone in our neighborhood, it seems, knows Griffin. They pet him, read his name tag, and give him boundless love. One time, we met a neighbor eating his lunch out front who told us that every day Griffin comes out and sits with him while he eats. And, last year, when a kid came to our door on Halloween, he saw Griffin weaving through our legs and exclaimed, “Oh! This is where Griffin lives? Hi, Griffin!”

griffin_stretches

Well, to be fair to Griffin, he seems to return love. I’ll never forget what happened when I first moved with Griffin from our old apartment to the townhouse. Griffin had only ever known the old place, so the move was quite stressful for him. For the first couple of weeks, I never let him venture outside, being too afraid that he would scamper off and get lost.

That first week, the phone rang and I picked it up to hear a woman’s voice asking, “Um . . . hello? Is this where Griffin lives?”

My initial instinct, like any normal cat parent, was to wonder, What did he do?

But then I realized he hadn’t even left the house and, at that exact moment, he was sitting on the floor right in front of me. So I simply replied, “Yes. Er . . . I’m Griffin’s owner.”

“Did you happen to move?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I said tentatively. “We just moved. And Griffin’s sitting here, right in front of me.”

“Well, I live where you live. Or where you used to live, I guess. And it’s just that Griffin’s, well, he’s my cat, Sam’s, best friend.”

Now, I had never met my former neighbor. I had no idea who she was, let alone her cat. So I said, somewhat befuddled, “Griffin has a best friend?”

“I live in the back of the building,” the woman explained. “Every night at 6pm Griffin leaps through our window and plays with Sam.”

“I lived at the front of the building,” I told her. “I had no idea that he was . . . er, doing that.”

“Sam is completely depressed,” the woman continued. “He misses Griffin.”

At this point, I was really speechless. I had no idea what to say.

“I suppose,” the woman hazarded, “you wouldn’t be willing to let Griffin have a sleep-over?”

“Um . . . I . . . ” I fumbled for a response.

“I guess that was a little strange, wasn’t it?” the woman interjected.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I’m sorry about Sam. I’m just not sure I’m entirely . . . comfortable with a . . . er, sleep-over.”

Thankfully, the woman laughed. “I know. I just thought I’d ask. Sam really does miss Griffin!”

griffin_relaxing_manuscript.jpg

Another question kids ask me is how I came up with the name of Uncle Griffinskitch in my Kendra Kandlestar books. Griffin is responsible for that, too. It happened because of his hair. When Griffin was a kitten, his tiny fuzzy body promised a blissful, short-haired future. But then, a few months later, POOF! He exploded into this long-haired creature. It was about the same time I was designing the character of an old bearded wizard for my book (because wizards have to have long white beards; it’s mandatory). So I decided to name the wizard after Griffin. The “Griffin” part of “Griffinskitch” is obvious. The “skitch” part comes from a nickname we used around the house for him. So I just ended up putting the two names together and, voilà, there was Uncle Griffinskitch.

Alas, as you can see from the photo below, Griffin doesn’t really respect his fictional counterpart. Mostly, he uses my sketchbooks to scratch his back!

studio_griffin

Telling our family stories: the blind chicken

blind_chicken_banner.jpg

I’m nearing the end of my workshop series on creative writing through the lens of family stories. This week, we focused on a subject that is dear to the heart of my young students: PETS.

Many people, of course, consider their pets to be an integral part of their families. And, like any other member of the family, those furry, feathered, or finned members come with a lot of stories.

For this week, I’ve encouraged my students to write about an important event related to a family pet. For example:

  • The day they got the pet
  • The day they named the pet
  • The day they lost and found the pet
  • The day they ate the pet.

Well, you can’t entirely blame me for that last suggestion. After all, I did grow up on a farm and the line between pet and farm animal often got blurred. There is one famous story in my family about the time my dad served our two rabbits for dinner and, halfway through, pondered aloud as to whether he was eating Thumper or Bumper. Needless to say, all other appetites at the table were lost.

Which leads us to an important rule about farm animals. You shouldn’t name them. Especially if you plan to eat them.

Well, I’ve been trying to write the same pieces that I assign to my students. The obvious candidate for a pet story would be our cat, Griffin. I do have stories about him, and perhaps I’ll share one of the best ones in a future post. But I wanted to write something that would help inspire my students more specifically. I challenged my students to write their assignment in the first person point of view of their pet, and so I did the same. Here is my short and sweet poem about my very first childhood pet . . .

Scratch. Scratch.
I love to eat fat and juicy wrigglers,
The way they slide and squirm down my gullet!
Scratch! Scratch!
Unfortunately, I can’t see my juicy prey,
But I know when they are there; 
One quick stab—that’s all it takes
For me to catch my scrumptious treats.
Oh!
Here comes my owner, pulling his little red wagon.
I know what he’ll do;
He’ll lift me up in his tiny arms
And then tug me all around in his cart.
I don’t mind it at all;
It’s easier than waddling and bumping into everything.
But there is one problem:
I don’t find any juicy snacks that way.
If only my owner would toss me a caterpillar now and then; 
My life would be perfect.
But I’m so thankful to my owner;
Perhaps I’ll give him a golden present.
I could leave it right in the wagon for him!

Yes, my first pet, according to family legend, was a blind chicken. Remember, I did grow up on a farm! I don’t remember her particularly, but I’m told that she was so docile that she allowed me to pick her up and tug her around in my wagon.

Full disclosure: the photo at the top of this post is not of the actual chicken. We don’t have any photos of mine, much to my dismay. But, after all, I do come from a generation when photos were not as plentiful.

Telling our family stories: The Raven and the Ring

raven_ring_buda_castle.jpg

In my most recent workshop in my series on family stories, I asked my students to imagine an ancestor who met a famous historical figure. In most cases, this meant the ancestor was completely invented—however, the students needed to make decisions that were plausible. For example, if their heritage was Celtic, it would be very unlikely for them to have met Genghis Khan.

I’ve endeavored to write these assignments myself. So, for this week, I decided to imagine that I had an ancestor who met King Matthias 1, who was the king of Hungary and Croatia in the middle ages.

There are many legends about King Matthias involving a raven and a ring.

One legend says that, one day, King Matthias removed a ring from his finger and a raven grabbed it and flew off. Matthias chased down the raven, slew it to get his ring back, then took the raven as his heraldic emblem.

Another version says that, upon the death of the current king, Matthias’s mother beckoned young Matthias from Prague, where he was at court, by sending a raven with a golden ring from Transylvania. Thus Matthias was crowned and became known as the boy king of ravens. (By the way, “Corvinus” is Latin for raven.)

The ring became his signet seal and, to this day, you can find imagery of a raven with a ring in its beak throughout Budapest. My own photograph from the gates to Budapest Castle is at the top of this post.

My story is below. I chose the name of Jakob for the main character, since that was the name of my paternal great-grandfather, pictured with his family here (my grandfather is the little child in the smock):

grandpa_fodey_twoyears_hungary

* * *

Jakob stuck his grimy face over the sill of the window and gazed down at the street below. It was a typically busy day in the streets of Buda. Vendors were calling out to ply their wares, horse carts laden with goods rattled over the cobblestones, and citizens from every walk of life crisscrossed as they went about their daily affairs.

Jakob ducked back behind the window and leaned against the wall of the storeroom above the tavern. It was a good place to get out of the cold, or the heat, and to snatch a few winks. The tavern keeper let Jakob and his brother Lukas stay there in exchange for sweeping the floors and cleaning the stables out back.

“Well?” Lukas asked Jackob. “Any sign of her?”

“Not yet,” Jakob replied. “You have to be patient.”

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re hungry.”

Jakob snorted. Like he didn’t know. The smell of fresh-baked bread was wafting up from the streets below, taunting his stomach.

Suddenly, the two boys heard the flutter of wings and a giant black bird alit on the window sill. Jakob and Lukas looked up eagerly. The raven cocked her head in their direction. She was clenching a glinting silver coin in her beak.

Jakob sprang to his feet, held out his hand, and the raven dropped the prize into his waiting palm. Then she hopped onto shoulder, cawing raucously in his ear.

“Yes, Corvina,” Jakob soothed her. “You did well. Who did you prise this treasure from, I wonder? Some careless nobleman? A distracted merchant?”

“Who cares?” Lukas interjected. “Let’s go spend it. My stomach’s growling like a dragon.”

Jakob smiled. Corvina hopped down to his scrawny forearm. She was so heavy, it took considerable strength to keep his arm held up. With his free hand, he stroked her pretty black feathers.

He had found the raven when she was just a fledgling. She had been fluttering along the cobblestone streets of Buda, one wing hanging awkwardly at her side. Jakob had known that it would only be a matter of time before a dog or cat snatched her, so he had scooped her up and taken her back to his hidey-hole. Some of the other street urchins had wanted to snap her neck, pluck her feathers, and eat her for a quick supper. But Jakob had known she wouldn’t offer much succor for the stomachs. She had been so small. So he had decided to train her and keep her as a pet.

It had turned out to be a brilliant idea, because Corvina had turned out to be muchmore than a pet. She was a master thief, filching every glittering bauble, charm, or curio she could get between her beak. Thanks to Corvina, Jakob and Lukas ate better than most orphans.

Jakob went down to the street, purchased a loaf of bread, and met Lukas and Corvina on a grassy knoll overlooking Buda Castle.

“Hey, share with Corvina,” Jakob reprimanded Lukas. The boy was gnawing on his bread like a savage animal. Jakob offered some of his own loaf to the raven, but she immediately squawked for more.

“You give her yours,” Lukas said between mouthfuls. “She’s your bird.”

“And it’s her bread,” Jakob retorted.

Once the meal was finished, the two boys sat back and gazed at the magnificent spires of the castle, reaching into the sky like ornamented fingers.

“Imagine the sorts of treasure Corvina could pluck from there,” Lukas mused.

“I won’t send her in there,” Jakob said. “There’s plenty of soldiers patrolling the walls. They have spears and pikes and arrows. Too dangerous for her.”

But Lukas couldn’t stop thinking about the riches that Corvina could pluck from the wealthy lords and ladies that dwelled within Buda Castle. He hatched a plan.

The next day, while Jakob was working in the stables, Lukas snuck out into the yard, held out his hand, and clucked his tongue, just as he had seen his brother do. It wasn’t long before Corvina fluttered down to a nearby branch and looked at the boy inquisitively. She usually only went to Jakob. But Lukas had kept a few crumbs in his pocket, and now he held them out to coax the raven to his arm.

“Good girl,” Lukas cooed once the raven had hopped down to his shoulder. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that Jakob hadn’t wondered what he was up to, then snuck out of the yard and made his way towards the castle.

As it happened that day, King Matthias was headed into the town to deliver a speech. So Lukas had not gone very far when he encountered a grand procession leading out of the castle gates consisting of a great retinue of knights, guards, and nobility. And, of course, as part of this great fanfare was King Matthias himself. He was riding a magnificent steed and holding his chin high.

But Lukas did not notice King Matthias’ face so much as he noticed the giant, opulent ring that was on his finger. It featured an enormous gemstone that glimmered enticingly in the sun. There was quite a crowd now, but Lukas carefully worked his way through the throng with Corvina still perched on his shoulder. He eventually reached a tree and scurried up to a low-hanging branch, with Corvina sticking close to his side. From here the boy and the raven had an enviable vantage point of the procession.

Soon enough the king came marching below the branch. There was no ignoring the king’s glamorous ring—not by Lukas or the raven. Indeed, as soon as Corvina spotted the glinting jewel, she plunged down from the branch, landed on the king’s knuckles, and begin tugging fiercely at his jewel.

“What is this? The devil himself!” King Matthias roared. He waved his hand in the air, trying to shake the bird loose, but Corvina would not be denied.

She finally wriggled the ring from the king’s finger and, with the prize secured, fluttered into the sky.

But King Matthias was not to be so easily defeated. He snatched a spear from the nearest guard and with careful aim, hurled the weapon at the escaping bird. It pierced her straight through the torso. With a screech of agony, the raven plummeted downwards, smashing into the street in an explosion of black feathers.

It was at that very moment that Jakob, having just noticed his brother’s absence, came rushing onto the scene. He scooped up the dead raven and watched the glorious ring roll out of her gaping beak.

Suddenly, a shadow loomed over him. Jakob looked up to see none other than King Matthias himself, glaring at him with his steely countenance. His chin was square and strong, and his eyes were the color of burnished armor.

“Is this your bird, boy?” King Matthias demanded.

“Y-yes, sir,” Jakob stammered in response. At first he thought of telling the king that he had not sent the raven to snatch his ring—which was the truth. But another truth was that he had taught the bird to steal. So what was the difference?

King Matthias reached down and picked his ring from the cobblestones and considered it a moment before returning it to his finger. “She was a fierce fighter,” the king said. “And certainly very clever.”

Jakob slowly nodded, cradling the dead bird in his arms. He didn’t care about the treasures anymore; he was in despair over poor Corvina. Then he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. King Matthias had knelt alongside the boy and looked him directly in the eye.

“Such spirit should be recognized and admired,” the king informed Jakob. “So I tell you this, boy: As you mourn your pet, know that it will be remembered forever more. For I will make it a symbol of my house.”

This was little comfort to Jakob, but he had already learned that life could be tough and unfair. The king rose to his feet and Jakob watched the royal retinue continued its march through the city.

Jakob returned to his life, now without the help of his beloved bird. Eventually he grew up, became a cobbler, and had a family of his own.

True to his word, King Matthias took the symbol of the raven and the ring for his own. One could see depictions of the symbol throughout the entire city. Whenever Jakob’s children and grandchildren asked him about the curious bird, Jakob would simply smile and say, “Did you know she has a name? It is Corvina. And she is the most fierce and clever of all birds.”

 

 

A poker game with Jesse James

jessejames

I’m now past the halfway point of my workshop series which has student produce creative writing pieces through the lens of family stories.

Some weeks have been difficult. My teen and tween students have found it particularly challenging to ferret out stories from their families’ pasts and then retell them in a voice that is fresh and creative.

This week I decided to throw them a lifeline; their assignment is to imagine an ancestor who met or interacted with a famous person from history.

Of course, some of my students have ancestors who did interact with famous people. One of my student’s father’s had a chance encounter and personal exchange with Pope John Paul II. Another student had a relative who met Wolfman Jack. Those students are allowed to write about those events—though I also gave them the option to take the initial option of imagining an unknown ancestor who met a famous historical figure, which would allow them a greater flight of fancy.

So, this becomes a “what if?” exercise. What if your ancestor was Joan of Arc’s jailor? Or was apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci? Or acted in William Shakespeare’s company of players? Or worked in the court of Genghis Khan? Or . . . well, you get the idea!

I have a moment in my own family history in which an ancestor met a famous person. My great-great-grandfather, George Washington Richard (Dick) Spoonemore, is said to have played poker with Jesse James. In a previous post, I told the story of how George survived the aftermath of the American Civil War by eating “pizen” tomatoes, but did not cover the episode of him meeting Jesse James because it didn’t really fit into that narrative.

george-washington-spoonemore-and-wife-nancy

Apparently, the meeting between George and Jesse took place after my great-great-grandfather was captured by the Confederate army and placed in a prison camp. As the story was related by my Great-Aunt Hazel (George’s granddaughter), George met a young fellow who was slim, tall, and good-looking, with black hair and flashing black eyes. It was the man who was to become the famous outlaw, Jesse James. According to my great-great-grandfather, the future folk hero was good-natured and fun-loving and, at that time, about eighteen years old. “Just a kid,” he said. He also said that Jesse James was one of the “nicest young fellers” he had ever met. As far as my great-great-grandfather was concerned, Jesse James was driven to outlawry by the railroad officials, and their cruelty, and land grabbing.

Now, by this information, I have to assume that Jesse James was one of my great-great-grandfather’s guards while he was in prison, because historical fact is that Jesse James fought for the south and our family account is that George fought for the North. Of course, the entire story of the meeting between the two could be fabricated. I’m not sure how the story of them playing poker fits into the overall tale. Maybe that’s just an embellishment!

Well, I’ve been trying to write the assignments that I give to my students, but I feel I’ve already given George his due, so I’m going to work on something a bit more whimsical. Time to roll up me sleeves and get to work!