Today, I received a package from Quilchena School in Vancouver where I did a (virtual) writer-in-residency on the theme of family and cultural stories.
Over the course of several weeks, the students, teacher Kelly Enns, and I explored family connections through personal memories, heirlooms, old photographs, and legends passed down through the generations. We spoke of different family situations, what makes a family, and the different cultures that have contributed to our lives. Kelly is Japanese Canadian and could speak a lot about her family’s experiences during the internment of World War II. I was able to speak about how my wife and I adopted our son internationally, and what it means to embrace and incorporate a new culture into our daily lives. And, of course, the students had many stories to share.
Along the way, we produced many different writing pieces. We wrote poems or descriptive paragraphs about an item or moment in our lives. We wrote short stories inspired by family legends, and even imagined our family homes telling a story about us.
I loved seeing all of the heirlooms and photographs that the children showed me; some of them very old and beautiful, coming from all corners of the world. Along the way, I showed some of my own family heirlooms and photos.
It’s not always easy to know what kind of impact you leave as a visiting author, but it’s even more difficult in this age when everything is online. So, I am extremely touched that the teacher prepared this book of writing and artwork! I will cherish it always.
The students drew many pictures of how they connected with me. There are a lot of drawings of the characters from my books: Kendra Kandlestar, Tug the skyger, Fidget, Ozzie . . . plus many pictures of brooms, since I talked to them a lot about my forthcoming book, Spell Sweeper, and how a large part of it was inspired by my grandfather handmaking his own brooms.
You will also notice many pictures of chickens. Students are always amused to hear the stories of me being attacked by the rooster when I was a kid! So, in short, it seems that when kids think of me it goes like this: flying tigers, chickens, and brooms. Seems about right!
Life sometimes works in strange ways. Here I am, prepping to teach a creative writing camp next week in Korea. The theme?
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
“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!”
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!”
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!
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.
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):
* * *
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.”
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.
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!
As I continue to teach my creative writing class through the lens of family stories, I’ve come to realize a certain characteristic about these types of tales: they often exist in a vacuum, completely separate from historical context.
This is the case with the stories my students are telling me from their families and, I realize, it was the same case with my family stories. When I was a kid and my grandparents regaled me with tales about growing up in Austria-Hungary, they never fit those stories into a larger historical perspective. Their tales weren’t connected to a timeline—they were singular, personal events.
Case in point: One story my grandmother liked to tell was about the time she and her brother both had the “bad sickness”. It was just after the War and, as she told it, everyone was sick. Of course, this was part of the great influenza pandemic that swept across the globe post World War I, but I didn’t realize that was what my grandmother was talking about until many years later when I was able to connect her personal narrative with historical fact. That pandemic killed more people than the War itself—and my grandmother could have been one of them.
Here’s my retelling of her story . . .
* * *
Franzeika trudged across the yard, navigating her way around the humble flock of geese, as she made her way back into the house from the chicken coop. The gander hissed at her as she passed—he was an ornery fellow and liked to make sure that everyone—including Franzeika—knew who was boss.
And maybe you are the boss, Franzeika thought begrudgingly.
Her world had been turned upside down. The Great War had come—and been lost. Her beloved Georg had been lost, too, his lungs poisoned in the trenches. Now, it was just her and the children, Petr and Maria, left to eke out a living on their scrap of land.
“And lorded over by a goose,” Franzeika grumbled as she set her basket of eggs down on the kitchen table.
There was her other son, John, of course—but he had left for Canada before the War. He kept writing, pressing her to leave behind war-torn Europe and start a new life in a new land. But it was the last thing Franzeika could consider now. Petr and Maria were at Death’s door. They couldn’t get out of bed, let alone cross an ocean.
As if to underscore this, a cough, sharp as a knife, came from the other room.
Franzeika hurried to attend to her. People were dying all through Valla from this sickness. The neighbors had lost their infant son just this past week.
“Not my children,” Franzeika promised herself. “I have to do something.”
“Mama,” Maria gasped. Her face was as pale as the walls, and her sheets soaked through with sweat.
Franzeika held her hand to the girl’s forehead, and felt her fever. “I’ll make your favorite for dinner tonight,” Franzeika promised her daughter. “Cabbage rolls.” The truth was that pork was scarce, and she’d have to go heavy on the cabbage.
Maria looked blankly at her mother for a moment, like she didn’t even recognize her. Then she promptly threw up.
The doctor from Vienna was a tall and imposing man, with a thick beard that hid most of his face. Add to that his round pair of glasses and you had a man that was more than just a little mysterious. When he sat down alongside Maria’s bed, she couldn’t be sure if it was an entirely real situation, or if she had finally succumbed to delusion and it was all some sort of strange dream.
Her mother roused her to reality. “Maria,” she said, “the doctor is talking to you.”
Maria tried to sit up, but erupted in another round of coughing.
“It’s fine, child,” the doctor soothed. “Relax, relax. Maria isn’t it?”
Maria sat still as stone as the doctor examined her. He touched her forehead, held her palms, and produced strange and unfamiliar instruments from a small leather bag to use in his examination. When he was done he moved on to Petr, and did the same.
“Well?” Franzeika asked, hovering about like a mother goose. “Is there something to be done, doctor?”
“You keep chickens, yes?” the doctor asked. “I can hear them in the yard.”
“Follow my instructions, and I shall pull your children through the sickness,” the doctor assured her. “The most important thing is nutrition to help your children ride out the infection. Butcher one of your hens and boil it to make a broth. Save the bones, and have your children suck on them, for the marrow is rich in protein and nutrients. When the bones are done, then butcher another hen. This is the best thing you can do for them. Do you understand?”
“Yes, doctor,” Franzeika replied. “I’ll do as you say.”
“I’ll come back this evening and check on their condition,” the doctor said. Then, just before leaving, he smiled at Maria and Petr and said, “Take heart, children. Get lots of rest and you will be running around again, good as new, soon enough.”
“He’s a Jew, you know,” Petr whispered to Maria after the doctor had departed. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford his bill.”
“That is not for you to worry about,” Franzeika scolded, overhearing his remark. “And I don’t care who he is—as long as he makes you better.”
The truth was that Franzeika was worried about how to pay the doctor. But she tried to put it out of her mind for now. She returned back to the yard, scuttled past the hissing gander, and fetched the plumpest hen she could find.
The doctor came twice a day for two weeks, checking on the progress of the two children. Franzeika was diligent, following the doctor’s instructions. Every meal, Maria and Petr drank their broth and sucked on the chicken bones.
“Is this is what life has come to?” Petr complained wearily from his bed. “I’m down to eating broth and bones. It’s like eating bone soup.”
Maria didn’t like the taste if the bone marrow either—it definitely wasn’t cabbage rolls—but she held her tongue. Partly, it was because she was too exhausted and sick to muster any complaint. But it was also because she could tell her mother was worried. That made her not want to say anything.
Slowly, the children showed signs of improvement. One day, after his evening examination, the doctor announced, “Well, I think it’s safe to say this will be my last visit. Petr and Maria are well on the road to recovery.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Franzeika said as she saw him to the door. “I am forever indebted to you. And I will pay your fee, no matter what it might be—though I may not be able to give it to you all at once.”
“There is no need to fret for the payment,” the doctor assured her. “I will take whatever you can offer. How about a hen?”
Franzeika looked at him blankly for a moment. “But surely, doctor . . . a hen?” The truth was that hens had become a rather scarce commodity in the backyard. And it seemed such a meagre payment. Then something occurred to her. “Doctor, a hen is too humble. But I would like to offer you something else.”
“Oh?” the doctor wondered, putting on his hat. “And what is that?”
“My largest and plumpest gander.”
The doctor tipped his hat and smiled. “Ah. That will be just the thing.”
* * *
Well, that is a fairly accurate retelling of my grandmother’s story. According to her, the only fee the doctor would accept was a goose!
I decided to make this week’s theme for the family stories class to be “food.” And I guess this story applies to that theme. The only thing I asked my students to do was to incorporate a family recipe as part of their story.
We’ll see if they’re all willing to do that—because, as many of us know, a family recipe can be a closely guarded secret.
My own family, like so many, has its share of cultural and family recipes. I spent many a Sunday at my grandmother’s house, and she always cooked a grand feast for our midday meal: cabbage rolls, ham and sauerkraut, or sometimes even a duck. Though, perhaps strangely, never a goose!
My grandmother was not one to share her recipes willingly. Part of this might have had to do with the fact that she wasn’t very literate and she did most things by memory. But here’s the recipe for cabbage rolls that I obtained from my grandma’s daughter-in-law (my mom) . . .
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
½ to 1 tsp salt (to taste)
½ tsp black pepper approximately
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 large head of cabbage
Freeze cabbage overnight as when thawed it makes it easy to remove the individual leaves.
Remove some of the thickness of the rib of each leaf with a sharp knife (for easier rolling).
Mix first six ingredients together very well.
Roll a small piece of meat into a sausage shape and place at the thick end of a cabbage leaf. Roll leaf folding in the edges as you go.
Place in crock pot with folded side down. Continue until all the meat and cabbage leafs have been rolled and placed in pot.
Add 1 liter of tomato juice and a half liter of sauerkraut to the crock pot.
Throw in a left over ham bone or some bacon and cook on low all day. They can also be boiled on the stove.
You may need to add additional tomato juice and sauerkraut as the rice absorbs the liquid.
To begin with, this is a true story. It’s about George Washington—but not the George Washington you’re thinking of. The only thing famous about this George is his name—that, and the fact that he once lived a whole week by eating nothing but tomatoes.
First, we have to stick with this business about George’s name. You see, his full name was George Washington Richard Spoonemore. The way folks tell it, it was his Pa who named him such. I guess you could say that George’s Pa was an eccentric old coot. He was happier than a skunk in a hen house whenever he thought about his son walking God’s green earth with such a famous name.
Well, there was a mess of kids in that Spoonemore brood. George was closest to Ben and Perry, one being married to George’s sister (that was Ben) and one being his younger brother (that was Perry). Those three boys were inseparable.
George and his kin lived on a small ranch in Nowaday County, Missouri. They worked hard and most everything they had came from the land, which they worked like mules.
George worked hardest of all, but he played hard too. This was especially true when it came to his fiddle, which George had learned to play by ear as a boy. The way folks tell it, he could play a jig that would give the devil a hotfoot.
Many a night George’s Pa would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Why George Washington, you oughta play a tune fer yer ol’ pappy.”
“You stop pesterin’ that boy,” George’s Ma would always say. “He’s worked himself to the bone all day and oughta be able to put his feet up for five minutes.”
George’s Ma came from fiery Irish stock. Her eyes flashed blue, like lightning skies in May, and she had a nest of red hair. She was a tiny woman, George’s Ma, but most people judged her by her heart, which folks used to say was as big as the Ozarks.
“Go on now, Ma,” George’s Pa would protest. “I’m but askin’ fer a song or two. Surely the boy has ‘nough strength fer that?”
“That boy has more strength in his baby finger than most have in their whole soul, and you know it!” George’s Ma would always say.
But George didn’t need much convincing when it came to performing. He loved to play his fiddle more than a possum likes to play dead. Many a night all the family would gather around the cooking stove in their small kitchen and listen to George’s bow dance across his fiddle.
George was just a boy when his mother passed away. These were sad times, but it wasn’t long before George’s Pa married again. It was a heap of work to look after all those “younguns” and George’s Pa couldn’t do it all himself.
George called his Pa’s new wife “the old Widder Woman.” Folks say this was because she had been married before. They also said she was as nasty as a raccoon being treed by a hound.
George and the Widder Woman didn’t get on at all. She’d yell and shake her fists and call his fiddle the “devil’s instrument.” She wouldn’t stand for music, save Sundays in church.
For George there wasn’t anything worse than not being able to play his beloved fiddle. He hid it out in a hollow log in the woods and every now and then he’d sneak out there and play a jig. The only difference now was that he didn’t have an audience—just the foxes and possums and raccoons that came to see what all the fuss was about underneath that canopy of yellow stars.
One night, wandering back home, George came caught a glint of red in the moonlight. Upon closer inspection he found it to be a ripe tomato, growing right there in an open spot in the woods. He plucked it, brought it home and set it on the table.
Ben was sitting by the kitchen stove, whittling. He turned around and said, “What ya got thar, George?”
But before George could reply, the Widder Woman came storming into the kitchen. “What y’all doin’, bringin’ the devil’s fruit in here?” she screeched.
“Now, what you talkin’ about?” George retorted. “I jist found this a-sittin’ thar in the wild. I thought maybe one of them younguns can eat it fer dessert.”
“That thar is a tomater!” the Widder Woman cried, eyes wide as two griddles. “Everyone knows they is deadly pizen.”
“Well, I’m not sure I believe in that thar nonsense,” George argued.
But before he could say another word, that old Widder Woman snatched the tomato and hurled it into the stove. “You’re a fool of a boy, that’s fer durn sure,” she scolded.
Well, those were dark times for George, dark as a well in winter. But they grew a whole lot darker when war broke out. It was 1861 and the North and South were itching for a big fight.
Pretty much everyone was going to sign up for the war, and that included George, Ben, and Perry. Now those three boys had been born in Indiana, so they figured on fighting for the North.
“My heart belongs up thar,” George said, “an’ I reckon a feller kin’t go against his heart.”
And so the three young men—not much more than boys, really—struck out for the north and enlisted in the Yankee army out of Indiana.
They saw a great deal of action, and the early days of the war were hard on those three. The sky roared with cannon fire. Bullets whistled. Horses whinnied. Men yelled, and gasped, and died.
“By gum, George,” Ben said one somber night after a terrible battle. “I shore got a hankerin’ fer sum of that fiddle music of yers.”
“Shore, George,” Perry added. “It’s a might intolerable with no music.”
George missed his fiddle too—sorely. So he said crossly, “Now, boys, y’all know I ain’t got my fiddle with me. Besides, I don’t see what’s musical ‘bout war. It jist ain’t proper.”
“Why. I don’t see why not,” Ben argued. “I reckon the way ya play that ol’ fiddle, ya could jist fiddle these dern Rebs into surrenderin’ and we could git on back home. I ain’t miss that old Widder Woman’s tongue, but she kin shore whip up a fine plate o’ grits.”
Well, the war brooded and fumed until, in 1864, it killed young Perry. As you can imagine, this was a great blow of sorrow to George and Ben.
“I shore don’t wanna tell Pa,” George confided in Ben. “But I reckon I oughta write him and lit him know how it happened.”
George never got to post that letter. He and Ben were captured just a few days later by the Confederate army. They were tossed into a prison camp, caged like a couple of hens waiting for the axe. It sure didn’t look like there was going to be fiddle music anytime soon.
George and Ben made a sorry pair. They spent the remaining days of the war in that camp, eating and living poorly.
When the war finally came to an end in 1865, the two young men, along with they rest of the prisoners, were set free. The problem was those two boys weren’t anywhere near home.
Now they had no money, George and Ben, and no food either. Their clothes were in rags and their boots were all but falling off their feet. Still, they were left to go home as best as they could.
They were many hundred miles from Missouri, a long way to go on foot, and barefoot at that. But George and Ben were determined to get back and see their Pa and the rest of the Spoonemore clan. So they set on their way.
It was tough going. The country was rough and the mountains were high. They lived on wild berries and the odd meal they were able to get from some friendly ranch houses. Mostly they slept on the ground, in fair weather or foul, but they kept on plugging along, day after weary day.
Those two had courage, but even courage won’t feed you after awhile. Those boys were plum tuckered out. Finally, after going several days without a lick of food in his belly, Ben just collapsed to the ground. He rolled up like a possum, and didn’t move a stitch.
“I shore wish ya had yer fiddle now, George,” Ben murmured. “I could use some o’ that music ta send me on up ta them pearly gates.”
“Ben, if I had my fiddle, I reckon I woulda ett it a week ago,” George told him. “Now git up, Ben. Y’all kin’t go dyin’ here whan thar might be an orchard right ‘round the bend.”
So Ben wearily picked himself up and the two men trudged off again, two tired mules trying to plow a field they thought might never end. But, sure enough, they were just struggling over the next hill when they came across a patch of glorious, ripe tomatoes. They were growing wild, right there along the trail, untouched by human hand. To George and Ben, these tomatoes seemed to stretch on for as far as the eye could see, round and red, glowing brighter than candles at Christmas.
“That’s a passel o’ tomaters,” George said, gazing upon them with a ravenous gleam in his eye. “I got me a dern notion ta eat some of them.”
“No, George, ya daresn’t eat them!” Ben cried, clutching the sleeve of George’s ragged shirt. “Don’t ya ‘member? Tomaters is deadly pizen!”
“Well, I ain’t ever met no folk that got sick from tomaters,” George said.
“That’s cause they all gone and died, them folks that ett the tomaters,” Ben said. “They’ll kill ya, shore as a bullet.”
“Heck, Ben, I don’t care,” George argued. “I got me a hankerin’ ta eat these tomaters. Fer all we know, the good lord put ‘em right here so we kin make it home agin.”
“Or it mighta been that ol’ devil,” Ben said. “Maybe he’s jist tryin’ to pizen us. He could be in with that ol’ Widder Woman.”
“Well, a man oughta die tryin’ and not jist a settin’ down ta take it,” George declared.
“Lemme see if I can rustle me up a shovel,” Ben announced. “I reckon I’m gonna need it ‘fore long.”
But George didn’t have an ear for anymore of Ben’s sass. The way folks tell it, that dirty, scraggly boy just squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and marched right into that field of wild tomatoes.
“I might jist as well die of pizen, as starve ta death,” George proclaimed. He said this loudly, like a preacher on Sunday.
Then, to Ben’s horror, George picked one of the tomatoes and gobbled it down. To George, nothing ever tasted so good! Why, that tomato tasted better than Aunt Mercy’s blackberry pie at the county fair. It tasted better than the sweets Joe Boot charged a whole penny for down at the general store. It tasted better than roasted hog at Christmas.
George just smacked his lips as he finished that tomato. He let the red juice and small yellow seeds trickle down his scraggly beard. Then he picked another tomato and ate that one too.
“Yer gonna keel over dead!” Ben warned.
But George kept on eating the tomatoes, and Ben kept on watching, expecting any moment that his brother-in-law would drop dead. But George didn’t drop dead. He just kept eating. Ben’s stomach now growled with hunger. His stomach told him to eat those tomatoes, but his brain told him no, that they were deadly poison.
After just a few minutes, George had eaten his fill. He sat back in the tomato field and stared up at the blue sky. He had never felt so full, so satisfied. Ben stared at him, expecting him to turn yellow, or green, or to just keel over. But George looked the same as before he had eaten the tomatoes. Just fuller.
“By gum, George, how ya feelin’ now?” Ben asked him anxiously.
“I feel good,” George replied. “I don’t reckon them tomaters wuz pizen! That’s jist an ol’ wives tale.”
Well, Ben couldn’t wait any longer. His stomach won out over his head. He dived into that field of tomatoes and just started wolfing them down. Afterwards, he lay down beside George, happy and engorged. They slept more soundly that night than they had in weeks.
The next day George and Ben got up and took off what was left of their shirts and filled them up with some more of the tomatoes. They set off for home again. They lived off the tomatoes for a whole week, eating them morning, noon, and night.
The landscape soon became more familiar. They were back in Nowaday County. Before long, the old ranch house came into sight.
“Thar she is, home,” George said, gazing wistfully upon their Pa’s farm from the hill above. “Ya know, Ben, I reckon them tomaters done saved our skins. It’s all we ett fer days. You imagine we never ett them tomaters? We’d be gonners fer sure!”
“All I know is I ain’t ever gonna be skeered ta eat tomaters agin,” Ben said.
The two men laughed and ran the whole last mile towards the ranch house. They never even stopped to consider how they looked. They were ragged and dirty and hadn’t shaved in weeks. They had no boots, no shirts, and their trousers were just rags. When George and Ben reached the yard, the old Widder Woman came out to the porch, a rifle raised.
“Y’all git, ya durn carpet baggers,” she warned, pointing the gun right at George’s head.
George and Ben looked at each other, exhausted. “Doncha see it’s us?” George asked. “It’s me an’ Ben!”
“Ya ain’t no sech thing!” the old Widder Woman hollered. “George an’ Ben never had no beards, and they never looked like you fellers, so git!”
Just then George and Ben’s Pa came riding around the house. He jumped off his horse and yelled, “George Washington! Ben! By gum, it’s good ta see ya!” He hugged the two boys, even though they were dirty and ragged. “Put that gun up!” he told his wife. “This here is George Washington an’ Ben, back from the war.”
The old Widder Woman glared hard at the two scraggly men. After a few moments, she finally lowered her gun.
“Wal, I’ll be,” she said. “Y’all don’t look like George and Ben. Ya jist ain’t the same as whan y’all left.”
“No, ma’am,” George said. “We shore ain’t.”
* * *
This is a true story, based on the oral account handed down by my Great-Great-Grandfather, George Washington Richard Spoonemore. My Great-Aunt, Hazel Agar, wrote it down some years ago, though I have expanded many of the details, such as George’s love for his fiddle. From what I can glean, it was a widely-held belief in the American South of the nineteenth century that tomatoes were poison. When George and Ben found the famous field of “pizen tomaters” it took a great leap of faith to eat their fill. For the rest of his days, my Great-Great-Grandfather swore up and down that the tomatoes saved his life.
I shared this story with my students this past week as part of my creative writing class on family stories. This week’s assignment is to retell a family legend.