Quiet moments as a writer-in-residence

Whew! It’s been quite a week, weather-wise. I’m not sure what that groundhog was doing, but I’m convinced Jadis the white witch had wormed her way into our world to spread winter strife. I can’t remember ever having to postpone or cancel a school visit due to weather, and this week I had to do it twice.

That’s turned what was supposed to be a busy week of hustle-bustle into one of hunkering down in the studio to catch up on some personal writing and blogging.

Even though I was supposed to spend today at the inner-city school for my third session as writer-in-residence, instead I’ll show some of the work that my kids did last week.

With my grades 6 and 7 groups, we continued working on our main project based on the idea of a character visiting a market in search of a specific object. I was pleased to see that they had worked on their brainstorming in earnest in the time between my visits.

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This one detail particularly amused me:

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Pesky trolls, always causing problems in the kitchen. Though, I guess the food still smells good, so maybe I’m doing trolls a disservice.

My meager brainstorming worksheet wasn’t enough for some students. They had to gleefully expand into their notebooks to develop their ideas. Whenever I see that, I’m greatly pleased.

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My next phase with the grade 6 and 7 group was to work on world-building. I delivered a workshop on some of the key aspects of creating a world from scratch and, specifically, had them design symbols for the world in which their markets appear.

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The overall goal is that the students will ultimately write a story based on this project, but, truthfully, my main desire is to see them trek carefully through the creative process so that they can understand how a story is developed. It’s not simply a lightning strike of inspiration and then you have a book. You have to take that lightning strike, find many more bolts, then develop, develop, develop.

Of course, I do want the students to do some writing as well, so I gave them the specific assignment of writing a scene in which their character finds their desired object in the market. This is also a new concept to many of them—writing out of order. By concentrating on this one scene, I hope they won’t be distracted by the overall plot and will just focus on good description of their objects, and how it makes their characters feel.

For the grade 4 and 5 group, we are working on a project about doorways. I’ve done this project several times with much success. It’s a fun way for young writers to feel invigorated by an idea. Here is some of the brainstorming that they produced last week . . .

One of my students knew we would be talking doors, so she brought in a key as an inspirational prop. (This girl gets my process!)

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This student leafed through my personal brainstorming book, with my blessing, to steal some ideas for character and place names.

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So, this week is an unexpected break from the school and I’ll head back next week.

I do really love having the opportunity to do repeated visits at the same school. It gives me time to really connect with the students and develop a rapport. I’ve been spending my lunches in the library instead of the staff room, which also gives some students the opportunity to come sit with me and work on whatever they please. This hasn’t been an official part of my residency, but I know there are always those kids who just want to be in a creative space and doodle, brainstorm, and write alongside someone else. In many ways, these times are my favorite part of a residency—those quiet moments working with one or two kids and not really doing anything other than creating.

To cap off, here’s a couple of snapshots of my own brainstorming from this week. I didn’t expect to have so much writing time this week! But when the opportunity arrived, I seized it.

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Telling our family stories: The House with the Secret Cellar

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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!”

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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!

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Telling our family stories: the blind chicken

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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

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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):

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* * *

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.”

 

 

Build the world you want to live in

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Today was a tough day. The day after the US election. The day after the climatic cap of so much negativity, hostility, and virulence.

Like so many people, it was another day of work for me. And that meant I was doing my previously-scheduled day at a school as part of my four-week writer-in-residence program.

Today’s topic? World building.

It seemed a strange thing to talk about today, of all days.

The workshop was meant to start with an icebreaker in which the kids take a fun and humorous quiz called “What type of ruler would you be?”

I didn’t have the emotional temerity to lead it today. So I cancelled the quiz and instead started by talking about how, as a kid, escaping into fantasy worlds was an important part of my life. Whenever I felt stuck or confused by the world, or events around me, reading and writing gave me certain succour.

So, I told my students, “Build the world you want to live in. It’s your world. You can do what you want in it.”

That was the serious part. I still tried to inject some fun by bringing them my museum of magical artifacts to show them how they can use prop-building as another way to work on their projects. I tasked them with finding or building artifacts from their worlds. I guess you could call it homework (though I prefer the term “dreamwork”).

Here’s some of the photos I took of their brainstorming: maps, symbols, names, creatures . . . you name it.

They are building. And that is a positive thing.

 

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Telling our family stories: Bone soup

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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.

Maria.

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.”

Franzeika nodded.

“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.”

* * *

grandma-fodey-austria-1919
My grandmother, born Maria Thuringer, as a child in Austria, 1919.

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) . . .

cabbagerolls.jpg

CABBAGE ROLLS

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  • 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.