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!
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.
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!
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.
I’m continuing to teach my class on creative writing through the lens of family stories. This week’s assignment was for the students to choose an old family photo and then tell a story from the perspective of one of the people in the photo.
I thought this would be a good method for my teens to explore a bit about their past, while at the same time practicing point of view. The purpose of the assignment is not to accurately convey the events that are captured by the photo, but to find a story in it. So, there is a bit of embellishment and historical fiction involved . . . but don’t all family stories involve those things?
I decided to do this assignment myself, choosing the photo below for my inspiration:
The photo came from my grandmother. It was taken in Valla, Austria, sometime near the beginning of the Great War—my family’s best guess is 1915. The man on the right is my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, Georg Thuringer, in his soldier’s uniform. The man on the left is a local cobbler and friend to my great-grandfather.
Here is the story I chose to tell, from the perspective and point of view of my great-great grandfather. Some things, such as the names of the cobbler and the photographer, and the circumstances of the photograph are inventions of my imagination. The facts of the story (such as my great-grandfather’s illness) are true.
* * *
I watch in sorrow and agony as my Maria, only seven years old, lifts the bucket by my bed and lugs it out of the room to empty it of the blood and mucus that I burdened it with throughout the night. The bucket is so heavy because of the gravel and sand Maria fills it with each day. It’s meant to help absorb the poison I retch out every few minutes. Now I think there is more of me in that bucket than there is sand.
But at least I was able to find the bucket in the darkness, able to control my bout enough to not soil the entire room. Not like two days ago, when I coughed so violently that I splattered the bloody contents of my lungs all over the sheets, the floor, and even the walls. Franzeika did not let Maria help with that clean up. My daughter has seen so much, but there are some things her mother still tries to keep from her.
Now Franzeika trudges into the room, her expression somber and unrevealing. My wife is ever the stoic one. She pulls the stool alongside my comfortable coffin, a bowl of steaming soup in her hands.
I struggle to sit up and greet her, which only increases the sharp whistling emanating from my chest. I sound like a machine. That is what I have come to, now, just a bag of slowly deteriorating parts, and a fleeing soul. I’m more mechanical than human.
As a soldier, I dug trenches twelve hours a day, ate slop, and slept on cold cement floors with no blankets to warm my body—and I still managed to plow forward like a horse. I withstood the bombardment of enemy armaments upon my unit’s fortifications and watched in horror as my comrades collapsed around me—and still I trudged on. But the one thing I could not overcome was the gas. That wretched vile fog besieged my lungs and now slowly gnaws away at them, bit by bit.
“Eat, you must eat,” Franzeika says, lifting a spoon to my lips.
It is what she always says and I find myself beginning to wonder why. There is no purpose to it. Even the hospital in Nagykaniza gave up on me and had the grace to send me home to die. Or perhaps they just needed the bed for some other poor soul. Whatever the case, my life is spent. Eating will not save me. It will only prolong my days of watching my wife and daughter mopping up bits of me.
Franzeika forces a spoonful of broth between my lips and, as much as I want to protest, I accept her nourishment. It’s the least I can do for her. As I let her feed me, like the invalid I am, my eyes wander the walls and I notice something new in my grim surroundings. A sepia photograph is pinned crookedly to the wall—certainly by a child’s hand, because Franzeika is far too fastidious to permit something so askew. But she notices my recognition of the photo and says, “Andris brought it to the house after you left. Maria thought it might cheer you up.”
I contemplate the photo. Standing there in the frame, rigid and unsure, is myself and my best friend, Petr, and I am reminded of the day I went to war . . .
The day I leave for the front is crystal clear in my mind. It is a cold spring day, 1915, but I do not mind the temperature—I have my sharp and comfortable uniform, with its long coat and double rows of buttons. The truth is that I do not want to go to war; it has taken conscription to get me there, but today, as I march through the streets of Valla, everyone seems to be looking at me in a new way, regarding me with a sense of pride. I tip my soldier’s cap in response, slightly embarrassed by the attention.
When I reach Petr’s shop, I pause and peer through the window to see him stooped over his bench, mallet in one hand, a shoe in the other, and his mouth full of hobnails. How I wish he was coming with me, my oldest friend. My best friend. But he has not yet been conscripted—and he is not about to enlist.
“You think too highly of the empire,” he is fond of berating me. “They demand your service. But will they look after you when this terrible affair is done?”
Yet Petr does not launch into sermon or lecture on this morning. When he realizes I’ve arrived, he simply stands and wanders into the street to greet me.
“So today has come, Georg,” he says simply.
“I take the train to Liberec in an hour,” I inform him. I offer him my hand, only to realize that his are full; he is still holding his mallet and shoe.
“Hey, there, George! Petr!” someone calls.
We turn to see Andris standing across the lane, in the doorway of his shop. “How about a photograph? It’s not every day you go to war.”
“And not often that you come back,” I hear Petr grumble under his breath.
“There is not enough time,” I tell Andris, thinking that he means for us to come inside and to pose in his studio. I say this partially because it is true—there is little time—but also because I know Petr will refuse to participate in making this occasion seem momentous.
“Come, come, let’s capture two friends together on this fine morning,” Andris persists. “We will do it here. On the street. Alida! Fetch me the camera.”
I stand there awkwardly as Andris and his deferent wife set up the apparatus. It is a complicated device and takes a moment—a moment in which I’m left to linger with Petr while passersby pause to stare at us. It’s an unusual event for someone to have his picture taken so informally.
At last, Andris is ready. “Stand still,” he tells us, though in truth Andris has the latest in camera equipment and we do not have to pose like statues, like my father might have had to do in the old days.
The photo is taken and Andris is disassembling his equipment when little Maria comes skipping down the lane.
“Papa,” she says, “Mama says time to come. We must go to the station.”
She leaps into my arms and I lift her up. Then, turning to Petr, I offer him a smile. His hands are still full and, now, so are mine.
“Farewell, Petr,” I tell him before turning to trek down the road, towards my fate.
I can’t imagine lifting Maria in my arms now. She is two years older, but that is not why. I simply don’t have the strength. She returns to the room with the bucket cleaned and refilled with fresh gravel. She sets it by my bed then lingers by her mother, watching the slow and agonizing enterprise of me being fed.
“Maria,” Franzeika chides, “go find your brother and help him with his chores.”
Maria nods, her large brown eyes staring at me, hopeful and frightened at the same time.
I return my attention to the photo on the wall, gazing upon the face of my old friend. That moment captured by the photo was the last time I ever saw him. He had not eluded conscription for very long. Shortly after I left he, too, went to war. Franzeika told me he was killed only after three months, shot through the chest. At least he died quickly. At least he does not suffer, like I do.
Juliet famously said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet . . .”
. . . But was she right?
Well, this was a question we pondered in my creative writing class on the theme of family stories. I was inspired to do this assignment after digging through my old university papers and finding a composition in which I explored my own identity by deconstructing and analyzing my name.
This subject has obviously been one that has long interested me. When I look back on the books I wrote a kid, I’m amused by the fact that each of them seems to have a different name assigned to it:
As you can see, there are a lot of variations . . . maybe I was having an identity crisis! And, as you can see in the illustrations above, even my last name was in play. That’s because I was born with “Fodey,” but learned at a young age that the true Hungarian spelling of the name should be “Födi.” The corruption of the name happened when my grandfather immigrated to Canada. Upon arriving here in 1926, his name was anglicized—common practice, I think, back in the day. So I often used that spelling on my books. I’ve always been a very visual person, and I think I just wanted to see how the different letters looked in comparison to each other.
Eventually, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took the legal steps to formally change the spelling, and to reclaim that Hungarian spelling. When I was first professionally published, I decided to go with “Lee Edward Födi.” It was a name that was decades in the making!
So, for me, there is a lot of power in names, and I think that’s true for all of us. Next to how we look, our names are perhaps one of the most significant aspects of our personal identities.
Any author knows this, of course—we tend to spend a lot of time on developing and choosing character names. As a fantasy writer, I often invent names, but I do so ever so carefully. When it comes to borrowing names from our world, I still pick them carefully.
The go-to factors for me when it comes to naming characters are, in this order:
Of course, that is the process I use for naming fictional characters. But what about how we ourselves are named? Are we named and then grow (or shrink!) to fit our names? Or do our names get mutated to fit us? Because so many of us have multiple names and types of names:
Given names (first and middle)
Nicknames (usually given to us by others)
Names that are chosen (many people give themselves an English or Anglicized name when coming to an English-speaking country)
As part of the process for this assignment, I had my students follow these steps:
Step 1: Identify all your names: first, middle, last, nicknames.
Explain why or how you were given your names.
Define the meaning and etymology of each name and explore the feelings you have about them.
Of course, I had the benefit of having already done this assignment in university, so was able to tell the students about my personal analysis . . .
STEP 1: My names
First name: Lee
Middle name: Edward (named after my father)
Confirmation name: James (picked because I just liked the sound of it)
Original last name: Fodey (anglicized from Hungarian Födi)
Current last name: Födi
Nickname: Mr. Wiz
STEP 2: How I was given my names
My parents didn’t know what to name me upon my birth because for some reason it never occurred to them that I wouldn’t be a girl. My name was supposed to be Jacqueline. I went unnamed until my father decided “I looked like a Lee.”
I was named “Edward” after my father (his first name).
When I was confirmed in the Catholic church I picked the name “James” because I liked the sound of it. It upset my grandfather severely, since he was my sponsor and wanted me to be named after him. But I didn’t want “Thomas” as my name because it was already my brother’s middle name and I wanted to be unique. I regretted this decision almost immediately. But I like to think I did the more important thing, which was to eventually change my last name to the Hungarian spelling.
As for my nickname, “Mr. Wiz”, well this developed organically, as many nicknames do. When I first was published, I had a friend who called me the “Wizard of Words” and there was a magazine article with that title, too. Many of my students called me by that title. Of course, it’s long and it eventually got shortened to “Mr. Wiz.” It became a very easy name to use when I started spending a lot of time in Asia, where the most common last name is “Lee.” From that sensibility, it is absolutely incomprehensible that I would have a last name as a first name. Plus, in Asia, you list your last name first, so it is extra confusing! So, Mr. Wiz became way easier.
Step 3: The meaning of my names—and my feelings about them.
“Lee” means “shelter from wind or weather provided by a neighboring object.” The feminine version, “Lea”, means “a meadow, pasture, or arable land.” My name, therefore, means both “nature” and “structure”!
This reminds me of a story from my childhood. When I was about ten, I found a mouse trapped in the grain bin of our feed shed. It scurried around and around the smooth, synthetic slopes of the plastic bucket where we stored the chicken grain. I knew my father would kill the mouse if he discovered it, but I did not have the heart to report the thief. Instead, I scooped the infiltrator from its plastic prison and set it free in the long grass behind the chicken run. So, if you think about it, I acted as a “lee” or “weard” to protect the mouse from the dangerous storm of my father and set it free in the lee (the meadow)! However, I did not guard the fortune of our grain, so failed the “Edward” part of my name (and also my father, Edward).
So I am a person in conflict: “nature” versus “cultivation.”
My father and grandfather were both good at sowing and reaping crops. But, as a kid, I reaped trouble—like the kind you get when you unleash hordes of gluttonous mice on the farm your father is trying to guard. The only thing I ever successfully planted was an idea.
So I have decided that I am a gardener, too—just of a different sort. It’s at this point that I think of the Apostle Paul, who famously said, “You reap what you sow.” (He underwent a name change, too—just like me!)
Another aspect to consider in my first name is the “Ly.” A completely different spelling, of course, but with the exact same sound as “Lee.” “Ly” is a suffix, meaning to have “the qualities of.” For example: Brotherly, angrily, happily, mostly . . . or, in other words, a name that causes other words to change! I feel like this really fits me; as a creative writing and art therapy teacher, my task is to inspire change.
“Edward” comes from two old English words. “Ead” means wealth or fortune. “Weard” means to guard. Together, the name means “to guard wealth or fortune.” I like to think you can morph the word “guard” into “gardener”—this really fits my father because he is a farmer.
As for my last name, Födi, The “i” at the end of Hungarian names means “to be from”, which means my family must have hailed from the area of “Fod.” I can’t find a place called “Fod” on any map of Hungary . . . but it could easily be a corruption of the village of “Fót” in Pest county.
* * *
So there you have it: the quick cheat sheet to the exploration of my name. I explained to my students who I was, then asked them: “Who are you?”
Even though many of them struggled with this activity, they also discovered new things about themselves.
Incidentally, that paper I wrote in university? I received an “A”!
I’m currently teaching a creative writing program through the lens of family stories. This week, the students are tasked with bringing in a family heirloom to inspire their weekly writing. Personally, I use a lot of objects to invigorate my own writing process. Of course, I normally write about dragons and other creatures of enchantment, so I have to build most of my objects. However, there are many objects in my family handed down from my paternal grandfather . . . and so I’ve written a short piece below about my memories of my grandfather’s “cabinet of curiosities”—otherwise known as his workshop.
* * *
I remember my grandfather’s workshop vividly. It was a tiny room sequestered in the basement of his and my grandmother’s house, down the stairs, around the corner, at the end of the hallway, as if the rest of the house might have been ashamed of it or at the very least wanted to keep it a secret.
The room itself was immaculately organized. My grandfather was a fastidious man and he did not tolerate clutter or disarray. Every tool and piece of equipment had its place, tucked away in a clearly labeled drawer or hanging on its rightful peg, sometimes with a forensic outline to mark its absence while in use. I’m pretty sure my grandfather knew every splice of leather, every knob of wood, every hinge of metal that occupied that workshop. The central piece of the workshop—the altar, if you will—was the Singer sewing machine, a beautiful relic from his time as a cobbler.
The dominate color in the shop was a peculiar turquoise green color. My grandfather used this color for everything: the handles of his tools, the trim of his workshop counters, the marvellous wooden barn he built for me when I was six or seven.
I never actually witnessed my grandfather at work in his shop. I think time spent there was a holy occupation for him, perhaps in evenings after dinner or on a Sunday morning before church. But I can imagine him tinkering away there—gracefully, methodically, magically.
Yes, that workshop was like an enchanted place to me. My grandfather was a creator of found-object art, long before that term was ever coined. He threw nothing away—or let others do so either. Each item he salvaged would be cannibalized and transformed into some new garden tool or household implement, or perhaps a strange trinket or toy. He’d cut an old cottage cheese container into pieces and use the plastic flaps to make a windmill to frighten away the birds from his vegetable rows. Or an old gourd from the garden would become a musical instrument for his grandchildren to play. The workshop was a place where broken things were mended, where abandoned objects received salvation.
For my grandfather the workshop might have been a sanctuary, but for me it was a place of stories. Each of the objects residing there had something to tell. You could walk in, pick up an item (if you dared to disturb that pious place) and see when it was made and what year. That was my grandfather for you. He was a recorder; he wrote or engraved names, dates, and places on everything. Some of the things in that workshop had come with him all the way from the old country.
Other items were like the Singer machine, remnants from his various careers: shaving brush from when he was a barber, awls from when he was a cobbler, notepads from when he ran his billiards hall and other businesses. The notebooks were written in Hungarian, English, or German—or sometimes a combination of all three!
Sometimes the stories in this place were not told by the objects, but by my grandfather himself. Every Sunday I would go to church with my grandparents and, afterwards, for a good old-fashioned European lunch. While my grandma prepared cabbage rolls, roast ham, or duck, my brother and I would gravitate down to the basement to listen in wonder as my grandfather regaled us with tales of his life.
The story I inevitably think of first is about the night the soldiers came to his hometown of Farkasgyepű, near the end of the Great War. My grandfather was just a kid—he would not have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time, though I must confess I don’t know exactly how old he was and, as a child myself, I never had the sense to ask for clarification.
So I don’t know the exact date or even time of year or day when the soldiers came. Just that they came, their intention to round up every man or boy who could hold a gun—or a pitchfork—and to enlist them for the war effort. When I imagine this scene now, it’s raining. Not a torrential rain, but drizzling down, slow and steady, methodically and machine like. Dull. Relentless. A harbinger for things to come.
The soldiers rounded up everyone in the village, assembling them for inspection and registration. If you were fit for service, you were pinned with some sort of ribbon or badge. My grandfather knew what was coming, the fate that was being presented to him and the other men. When the soldiers addressed my grandfather, he feigned deafness and affected a slight limp. He did not receive a ribbon. He was not loaded up on the trucks and carted away to be sacrificed to a doomed war effort.
As my grandfather tells it, everyone who was taken away that day did not come back. So he survived, the war came to an end, and my grandfather toiled away for another few years before finally deciding he needed to find a better life. At the age of twenty-six, he set off by himself to cross the Atlantic and immigrate to Canada. He had a suitcase of Hungarian money (which turned out to be mostly worthless) and a few keepsakes. He set up a humble life in Canada, started a family, and never returned to Europe.
Sometimes I ponder that story of the soldiers coming to Farkasgyepű and wonder if my grandfather was a coward or just extremely clever. I guess sometimes the line between the two is blurred. The hard fact of the matter is that he survived—while others did not.
The truth is, I can’t see my grandfather as a soldier. Sometimes I think the mere act of enlisting might have killed him. Reminiscing about his workshop reminds me that he was a maker and repairer of things—not a destroyer. On that miserable day in Farkasgyepű, at the end of the Great War, he might have fashioned the most important thing of all: his destiny.