I grew up in a family that was reluctant to tell stories.
Like about Elizabeth, my grandmother who left Russia and immigrated to Brooklyn. Did she really participate in the Menshevik revolution of 1905 as a young woman, as my mother claimed? Was she really exiled to Siberia and her husband (or brother or uncle) helped her escape to the United States? I have heard fragments of this story, but the snippets were incoherent and few. That probably didn’t happen, my dad said. My grandmother, who spent the last years of her life with us, refused to talk about Russia.
And what about the family dispute between Elizabeth and her brother? There was something about a family business and Elizabeth was not allowed to take over after her husband died because she was a woman. I never heard this story until I wrote a blog post about my roots in Brooklyn, and my cousin Patricia contacted me on the other side of this fault. Before that, I didn’t know there was a Patricia, or a feud, or an “other side.” My parents never talked about it, although the separation lasted three generations.
And did my mother really throw her baby brother out the second story window in a fit of brotherly jealousy? She told me the story when I was a child, but when I asked for details as an adult she denied it. “I never said that,” she insisted.
The loose threads of family stories fascinate me, and I want more.
As a child in search of family stories, I created my own. I spent hours sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom, arranging the blank backs of abandoned chemistry papers from my mother’s work in the streets and cul-de-sacs. These 8 ½ x 11 inch pages were the houses; the inhabitants were characters cut from the abandoned catalogs of Montgomery Ward and JC Penney. Imagination had to be shown because sometimes babies were bigger than grandmothers and often an arm or a leg was amputated by the edge of the catalog page.
My sister often joined me in the neighborhood game. She preferred store-bought paper dolls with their irritating tabbed outfits, but I was older and more bossy and insisted on our homemade families. I conjured up stories of school trips and sleepovers, of immigrant grandmothers and broken families and reconciliations, of dramatic domestic calamities for our mismatched and delightfully flawed characters.
Maybe that’s why I’m a fiction writer: the loose threads of family stories fascinate me, and I want more. When more isn’t there, or the story is hidden, my imagination fills in the blanks left by little snippets of family history. My grandmother’s activism – real or not – and her exile and flight from Siberia became the backstory of a novel. My mom throwing her brother out the window was the hook for a try.
Fiction writing is my adult version of the neighborhood game. I replaced my childhood cutouts with a large piece of butcher paper. It hangs on the wall above my computer and shows the interconnected family trees of five generations of my characters. The older members escaped from Eastern European shtetls in the early years of the 20th century and immigrated to Maine, where they settled in a group of houses and farms on a rocky peninsula on a island in Penobscot Bay.
Imaginary characters as close as neighbors can connect us to each other through proximity and geography, through empathy and kindness, through imagination and absolute necessity.
Some of the descendants of the first immigrants left to find work and adventure, but my novels and my stories are always populated by these inhabitants and their island. Like the paper dolls from my childhood catalog, these characters are more interesting because of their imperfections. One lacks humour, another’s compassion is atrophied, and a third has never forgiven his sister for what she said at Aunt Sophie’s seder in 1956. There is something fascinating and dear to me both in their faults and their relationships.
My fifth novel The Lost Women of the Court of Azalée, is a tribute to the neighborhood. The characters, damaged and lonely, live in six bungalows on a small cul-de-sac on the grounds of a demolished state mental hospital. When an elderly woman goes missing, the childhood trauma and unethical behavior of her psychiatrist husband are exposed. Her secret about her past reminds me of my grandmother’s, and I wonder if her silence was shameful or guilty. The missing woman’s daughter, the detective in charge of the case, a homeless woman, and Azalea Court’s neighbors, each reluctant to share their own difficult pasts, come together to search for her. Like a Greek choir, they tell their story and theirs, as their common goal connects their stories and their differences to build something new.
Despite the fun of having a chorus of characters to tell the story, following the movement of fifteen narrators over the three days of the novel was a challenge. So I went back to my childhood method, laying out six blank pieces of paper in a circle on the floor to represent the six bungalows. As I revised, I moved cardboard cutouts of the characters from house to house. Building hands-on scenes both grounded me physically on Azalea Court and sparked new movement and character interactions before the narrative returned to my computer.
I weave stories from the reluctance of my family. I imagine generations of characters as abundant as oceans, as familiar as relatives. In our separate writing and reading rooms, imaginary characters as close as neighbors can connect us to each other through proximity and geography, through empathy and kindness, through imagination and absolute necessity.
The Lost Women of the Court of Azalée by Ellen Meeropol is available from Red Hen Press.