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Jean's Blog (Check out links to Guest Blogs in lefthand Column)

Always a Mother

When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on

Some months ago, I was engaged in clearing out my mother's apartment. Sitting gloomily in a semi-empty apartment on the best chair I could find, my back to the bookcases, where the sight of the empty shelves was like a knife to the soul, I had a thick pile of papers on my lap and a large garbage bag open at my feet. I had been working for a few hours and was feeling exhausted.
My brother and sister-in-law came by, and began sifting through some piles of their own. I rubbed my temples to clear out the incipient headache that was taking up residence there, and I muttered with a huge sigh, "I'm so exhausted. I'm at the end of my rope." My brother and sister-in-law made sympathetic noises and continued their work, and I glanced down again at the papers on my lap. Another for the garbage. I slid the sheet of paper expertly into the bag yawning at my feet and went to lift the next one, a small sheet of yellowing paper, torn at the top, with my mother's handwriting on it and what looked like a squiggle below. I read it, gasped, jumped to my feet, waving it in the air, unable to speak. When I got their attention, I showed it to my brother and sister-in-law, who both exclaimed in disbelief. In my mother's distinctive hand the paper read:

When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on!"

The squiggle below was a quick sketch of a piece of knotted rope.
My sister-in-law whispered in awe, "She answered you. She's here with us."
My mother had died a month earlier.
In my mind, I heard her voice clearly, as I stared at the piece of paper shaking in my shaking hand, and I knew these were the words she would have said. She had little patience for the faint of heart. I stretched, straightened my back, and went on with the sorting, glad that I had witnesses to such an unfathomable moment.
The piece of paper with her message sits on my desk and urges me forward with my life.
She is gone, but I know she will always manage somehow to tell me what I need to hear.


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The BLOG HOP

the book addict

My good friend, the writer, Alison Gardiner, tagged me for a Blog Hop, which sounded like a fun way for writers to reach out to each other's blog-worlds, so I urge my own visitors to be sure to visit her at her blog, Alison Gardiner
She's a terrific writer with a wonderful sense of humor. You won't want to miss this.
So here goes, plunging into the Blog Hop!
This May blog post will answer the four questions that make up the Blog Hop and recommend other blogs for you to check out:
What am I working on?
For the past two years I have been struggling to produce the novel I always thought I would write. By the age of nine, I knew that words were my passion. I read voraciously and wanted to grow up to become one of the writers whose books I so admired - the rock stars of my youth!
In the past two years, I actually produced 90,000 words and some characters and scenes I was really proud to have written, but somewhere in all the writing and revising and the long pauses in between, I lost the thread and tension of my story. The 90,000 words read like short episodes that failed dismally to build to a climax.
Perhaps this flawed creation is that first novel that every writer writes – the one that gets hidden away and never gets published?
My first published book, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt [Encore, 2012] is a memoir of my unusual childhood growing up in an Egypt that vanished after the Suez crisis of 1956. It was written in fits and starts in hours stolen from my busy life as a wife, daughter, mother, grandmother and literary agent. It is, of course, nonfiction (although I had wanted its subtitle to be “an impressionistic memoir”) My many years of advising writers reminds me that nonfiction writers are often unable to cross the Great Divide from nonfiction into fiction. Then I remind myself that many reviewers remarked that my memoir “reads like fiction,” so I vacillate between mourning the death of my dream of writing a novel, to hope that all is perhaps not lost.
After months of focusing on my guest blogs and monthly blog posts as well as various other articles and nonfiction pieces with some poems and essays thrown in, I plan soon to attack my fiction block, head on. I plan to take those 90,000 words apart and rework some of those characters and scenes into short stories, hoping they will keep my “fans” interested enough to hang around waiting for the novel that may indeed be hovering somewhere in the middle distance, refusing for the moment to come into clear focus.
And I do intend to write it.
Lately, vivid inspirations have laced my insomnia with insight, but each time, a heavy lassitude and the sloth of sleep deprivation made me delay writing anything down, planning to commit my deathless prose to paper or computer "in the morning.". Sadly, when I really woke up and reached for a pen, no words had survived the surprise of the sudden sweet early morning sleep that snatched me from my musings and plunged me into oblivion.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Such a difficult question, since I do not usually write to genre. My hope is that the novel I write will defy pigeon-holing and take its place somewhere as an absorbing read, with memorable characters and a story that enthralls: a very tall order I know, particularly since we know that my earlier effort is flawed beyond redemption, but I live in hope. At least I have no ambitions to write The Great American Novel. I suppose that somewhere in the soul of this dreamer, lives a realist.
Why do I write what I write?
I wrote my memoir because I wanted to preserve my memories of childhood in a vanished world for my grandchildren to discover. I now know that the book has traveled far beyond my family. It has reached over 30,000 readers, and I have been amazed and delighted to hear from so many strangers who found, in my life story, echoes of their own feelings and experiences in very different life-contexts, seeing it as a universal tale of reversals and survival. That is a true thrill.
As for the novel-in-progress, I love words and the ways in which words can free my consciousness to explore lives and stories other than my own. I write, because defining thoughts and defining the life I observe in words is my love and my craft, my hope, and my dream.
How does my writing process work?
I don't actually have a regular writing process. Whenever I can find a few hours, I sit in front of my computer and immerse myself in writing. Like reading a good book, I can work for hours if left to it, without feeling the need to interrupt, which is why it is so hard to find the right block of time. I write, read it aloud to myself, re-read next day or a few days later, edit, re-write, and go through the whole process again and again. I like to write everything down as it comes to me, and then sculpt and weed until I feel really pleased with the result. I am a firm believer that self-editing is the hidden key to success, and I try to follow my own advice to others.
Now for the tagging. Let us spread our wings outward into the ether and help each other.
I strongly urge you to visit these authors and enjoy their blogs and websites. I have so much enjoyed their writing. I hope that you will find the same pleasure in discovering them for yourselves. I also hope you will scroll down my own earlier posts and click on some of the links on the left:
Alison Gardner
Alison's writing is vibrant with energy and humor. As well as the shorter pieces, she is working on fantasy and mystery novels for middle grade readers and her delight in the craft and the limitless world of writing makes her work a real pleasure and fun to read. Her quirky sense of humor is addictive and her blogs make me laugh out loud. Take a look at the Haggis!
Helen Shankman
Helen is both a fine artist and a superb writer. She has written a rich multi-faceted novel, THE COLOR OF LIGHT, recently published, that takes place within the vivid background of the art world she knows so well. It is a vampire novel, a love story, elegantly written, that surprises and delights. Her short stories are deeply moving and have their roots in the Holocaust, where her parents lost most of their extended families. She designed her own beautiful book jacket.
Iza Trapani
Iza writes and illustrates the most delightful picture books for young children and their attached adults, as well as any adult who has not lost their inner child. Take a look at her website (you can click to it from her blog), as it displays her many wonderful published books. I also strongly recommend scrolling down her blog to last Valentine's Day love-poem. It's a charmer!



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PATRICIA'S PAINTING

spring

On my wall is a painting,
Patricia's painting.
She is gone, but on my wall
Is with me still
And we are young
And spilling laughter
Floating like blossom in the breeze
Of Hyde Park in spring.
A path unfolds its way,
Destination unknown.
Figures faint and indistinct
Perambulate the gravel,
And my spirit, caught by the painting
On my wall
Leaps to the past,
A bird soaring from a cage,
Feeling the breeze
Lifting my hair
Dancing through trees
Heavy with leaves and history,
Fluttering a heart
Tricked by the weight of years
Into old age.


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HONORING FRIENDSHIP

Friendship


Almost 47 years ago on a crisp fall day, I stood in the lobby of my apartment building with my firstborn son, awaiting the arrival of the small school bus that was to take him to school - without me - for the first time.
I was fighting off tears, but he was happily oblivious to my distress, effervescent with excitement, his dark eyes sparkling in anticipation of this grownup moment.
The bus drew up in front of our building, and he pulled frantically at my hand to run to meet it. I wanted to grab him and take him back upstairs. I knew what he did not, that he was leaving me to move into a world which would now be more and more of his own making. I would not be able to intervene or protect. The world of the school bus would be his to navigate alone, and I knew that some of my privilege of motherhood would shrivel and die the moment he stepped alone into the bus.
The bus pulled away, and my tears came. I stepped blearily back into the lobby where a friendly white-haired woman named Rose, sat behind the desk. She peered at me from behind glasses with sparkling crystals embedded in the frames.
"Mrs. Naggar," she said softly, calling me over to where she sat, "Don't cry. He'll be fine. It's a very nice school. Look!" pointing behind me, "Here's Mrs. Barasch. Why don't you ask her? Her girls go to the same school."
I turned, rubbing at my eyes, and saw a friendly woman smiling at me. We started to talk, and friendship began. We have been talking ever since. We shared good and bad life moments, laughed with each other, celebrated with each other, wept with each other. Over the years we met each other's families, shared dinner parties, recipes, and knitting patterns, books we loved and movies we hated, life-changing moments and times of celebration.
Friendship continued long after Lynne and her family moved out of our building, eventually also encompassing a professional side-bar: Lynne went to art school and began to illustrate and write gorgeous picture books. Our lives connected again in a different place, and I became her literary agent.
So today, as she moves toward her March birthday, I honor a friendship that began long ago, and flourishes more than ever as we both age. Our conversation over lunch has changed and shifted over the decades, but we are still the same, swept by the same tides of time, validating each other and supporting each other as we confront the challenges and triumphs of our lives.
Friendship is a unique gift. Thank you, Lynne, for yours.



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WHEN THE WORLD TILTS

I have always disliked February. There is something about the way the name looks, the way the letters are arranged on the page that inspires negative vibes in me. Of course, the predictably miserable February weather may have something to do with it. Perched uneasily somewhere between glamorous December and the promise of spring in April, February drags its dreary way from day to day, its only cheer carried in the fact that it is fractionally shorter than its neighbors. It hardly begins before I long for it to end.
I write this as I try to adjust the tilt of my world. It has left me sadly off balance, but with every day that passes I feel an adjustment taking place. It will never go back to what it was before, but once February and this year's relentless snows leave us in peace, I think I will see a wider horizon. So while I wait for that, here is a poem I wrote in 1957, when the world I knew tilted for the first time, and I tried to capture it with words as it cast me into my future:

THE NILE RIVER

Somewhere a dog flings his shaggy voice at the moon
And stars fight to prick his eyes with light.
Full-bodied, the river writhes past banks
Thick with memories of famine and quenching flood.
Neon lights switch off...on...off...on... in neat sterility,
And light falls, scattering confusion
Into the dark grumbling of the waters.
Mosques wave graceful fingers at the air
Side by side with the blunt bull-necks
Of the chimneys of factories.
Mud villages crouch in the mother-mud of the river
Greedily sucking of its vitality,
For beyond it heaves the cold breathing of the dead dust.

Dawn rapidly laps night from the saucer of the sky
While the river surges on, roiling and grey.
Towns sprawl beside it in ungainly puddles,
Parasites clinging to its generous limbs.
Strips of sudden green straggle between
The tumbled humps of native villages.
Sun glares over the desert as morning comes
And men gush out of the river banks from a million sprawling wounds
And in the fat importance of the day
Spit in the river,
Crawling about their lives, each his own small world,
While the river, drugged with fertility
Forgives them all.




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SNOW AND ICE

Sarah and the snow maiden

Winter barely sneaked onto the calendar and suddenly we vied with Antarctica for whose cold was more intense. Before the barometer started its plunge into unimaginable freeze, fat white flakes fell silently, sprinkling trees with glittering white blooms, and Sarah built a snow-woman outside the kitchen window in the country.
Because I have been confronting endings lately, I found myself wondering, as I watched her, about the ephemeral nature of her snow sculpture, and it led me to reflecting on last times. There is no warning label to alert us that we are entering a last-time zone, exhorting us to pay particular attention, to experience the full impact of every second, to be aware, to realize that whatever we are experiencing will never happen again. Never.
Only later, looking back, do we fervently wish we had been aware that we were in a last time then. The poignancy of every moment slips us by, because we so confidently anticipate a next time. Because, as the last time quietly slides into the past, it seems perhaps no different from the time before, except that now, there will be no next time.
As we move more deeply into the future, we gradually become aware that the world has changed around us and that this particular moment will never repeat itself, this wonderful experience will never return.
Sarah's snow woman will gradually melt into different shapes and disappear altogether. Life does that, too, and with a sinking heart we understand that we should have appreciated the last time more, recorded it differently, been more profoundly in the experience itself. If only we had somehow known that it would never come again.
So what I am moving towards here is that I have entered a sharper awareness. I am realizing that I need to appreciate every experience as if it might be the last time. That is how, without defining it, I addressed every moment of the last two years of my mother's life. I balanced on the edge of time. Every visit might be the last. I never knew if she would have a tomorrow.
I am saddened that in earlier years, as she faded before our eyes, I had not understood about the need to capture each moment forever. I never believed that it would never come again. And now, I cannot remember the last time she walked on her own, she showed me a glorious new painting she had just finished, or played her Chopin piece on the piano, or sang, or laughed, or remembered my name.
But for the last two years I did give every visit the respect of a last time. And when it truly was the last time, I knew it was the right time for her and I knew that I had saved and stored every possible good moment that preceded it.


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GIVING THANKS

Team Work to Snare a Sneaker

Suddenly the pleasures of Thanksgiving and Hanouka collided, the only time this will happen in our lifetime, bringing lights and song, children and grandchildren, rituals, gifts and food, adventure and misadventure. The old stone house in upstate New York awoke from its solitude, and breathed again, warmth and flickering firelight greeting our arrival the day before we expected two carloads of our favorite people to drive in from New York City and JFK. The weather outside was misty and gloomy as we walked in, but I sank into a chair and gave myself over to the house and its welcome. I plunged into a very deep sleep, and by the time I was able to move my limbs again, the house had worked its healing. Some of the pain and stress of the preceding weeks had given way to happy anticipation.
What we had not anticipated was that by Wednesday evening as people and laughter, bags and cases and armloads of food and produce tumbled into the house, the water pressure had completely failed. Fifteen people of varying ages found themselves without water for showers, cooking, hand-washing and other obvious needs. Repeated phone calls to the installers of the most recent pump replacement brought no answers - it was, of course, the eve of Thanksgiving - until my eldest grandson turned to social media and produced an emergency plumber, plucked from his other engagements as if by magic, and as if by magic the man replaced a switch, and instantly the noise level rose, festivities resumed in full swing with all hands on deck, enticing aroma began to fill the air as the turkey roasted, and we milled about the kitchen, the snap and crackle of a roaring fire in the living room fireplace completing the sensory symphony.
Two days later, a football hurled over the high barn beams landed inside the beam by mistake. We had not realized that they were hollow. A large sneaker followed with the intention of dislodging the ball, but it disappeared into the hollow of the beam, leaving a large male foot unshod and a projected family hike in disarray. Tall sons and grandsons wielding the apple-picker and branch-cutting scythe from the top of a ladder met with no success, until my eldest son removed the scythe from the end of its extended arm, bent it down, rigged it like a fishhook, and the sneaker, snared by its laces, appeared and tumbled to the floor, amid cheers and applause from the crowd.
What more can be said? It was a short, beautiful time out of time, restorative, bonding, fun, and delicious. I give thanks with all my being, and step carefully back into my life to pick up and ravel frayed ends, as my family heads back into theirs, leaving us warmed by the scintillating joyful memories jostling with other times of happiness, family, and reunion, casting the recent past into a sepia haze in the background.
We parted, lingering over hugs, fighting tears, eager for the next time.


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AFTERMATH

Monogram of Esther and Nessim Mosseri


One month since my mother left us.
It has been an intense month of accelerating pressure to examine and accommodate the minutiae of almost one hundred years of multi-faceted living on three continents. We must vacate the rental where she lived for the past 30 years by the end of November.
Sharing out the memorabilia saved from the Egyptian exodus is the least of it. Anything bearing the distinctive monogram of Nessim and Esther Mosseri, my great-grandparents, is tumbling down the generations to our children. How did so much survive unchipped, intact, through so many years, so many departures, so many displacements, following my mother and father on three continents, smoothing my mother's way with their familiar elegance through each new chapter of her life? Certainly, Nessim and Esther could not have dreamed that the beautiful dishes, crystal stemware and silverware that graced their palatial residence in Cairo would be divided up and scattered to small apartments in Paris, Budapest, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where their great-great-grandchildren will wonder where they could possibly find the room to store them.
Many arms open to welcome these treasured remnants of family history, but the hands that pick and pack are scattered, and the hands on the spot - my hands - ache from the task, just as my heart aches as I sift through bundle after bundle of my mother's papers written in her distinctive, pretty hand. I can hear her voice in the quick notes and information she has been careful to include in as many places as possible. I have her neatly kept notebook of household hints. Who knew she cared about such things? She kept the bill addressed to my father from their honeymoon at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. They were married in February, and I was born in early December of the same year. I caught my breath as I skimmed mysteries of my own beginnings. She kept all our letters, all the past of her three children who are now in their sixties and seventies. We all three lingered in awe over a small sweet bundle of love letters written to my father when they were engaged; our futures concealed in the happy reflections of a twenty-one-year-old in love, in 1937.
So much that she treasured has had to be cast aside, and I realize that each of us keeps signposts of our lives written in a code that no-one else understands. We each have claimed objects that remind us of her, but the true gifts she left us are gifts of laughter, of love, of memories, of good and bad times shared.
I miss her smile, her energy, the sound of her voice, the penetrating gaze of warm brown eyes that instantly caught any unsaid unease in me and coaxed it into the light. As the days pass and the piles of books and furniture, paintings and photos, letters and papers dwindle, I miss her more. This aftermath of death is a cresting wave, an ordeal beyond imagining. Soon, it will be past, and only debris will remain, faintly shadowing the living image of my mother in my heart.



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Love you, Mum

Joyce Smouha

My vibrant lovely mother, Joyce Smouha Mosseri, has been the light at the center of my life for almost 76 years. She was my role model, my loving critic, and my truest friend, and I have no words to say how deeply I already miss her presence in my life. Her 99+ years almost spanned a century. She died last week.
The last two years of her life were characterized by a slow, relentless slide into a lost world where she wandered without a guide, without her children, without so much of her self, and where her fiesty independent spirit was trapped in increasing dependance on others. I would not have wished to see her suffer longer, but as the days go by, I miss everything she was and everything I shall never see or hear again. I am orphaned in my old age. With each passing day since she left us, I feel I am slowly re-entering my life, returning bereft, returning from a long sojourn in strange and distant lands, lands where I was helpless to help, to understand, to find emotional sustenance, where only love kept me from drowning. Re-entry brings sharper pain. I know she is gone, and although I accepted her absence for so long, I know the difference now. I hope she is at peace at last. I know I will find her again in the grandeur of a sunset, the beauty of a flower she would have wanted to paint, the gnarled trunk of a tree, her great-granddaughter playing Chopin, the eyes and smiles of my children and grandchildren, the sparkle, the laughter, the elegance, beauty, and grace in the world. Fly free, my beautiful mother. I love you.


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RED TAPE

My mother in 1956
Every year as I prepare the traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashana foods, ritual and celebration float on an undertow of sadness, for my father died on the second eve of Rosh Hashana at the age of 63. This year the undertow I try so hard to ignore spills out into everything. My mother at 99 is in the last stages of vascular dementia, and in the midst of overwhelming emotional distress, my holiday preparations are constantly interrupted and infiltrated by the minutiae and Kafkaesque contortions of attempting to disentangle the mess of red tape that surrounds her care. This is not a tale of two cities, but the schizophrenia of living in two worlds.
My vibrant beautiful mother endures the remnant of life that remains to her, lost deep into herself, eyes closed, hunched in her wheelchair, her right hand feverishly tapping a rhythm only she understands, music from my old ipod leading her feet in a barely remembered beat, a subconscious memory of dancing and joy and the music of hope.
My brother, my sister, and I circle the wagons, faster and faster, anxious, desperately pursuing the status quo of her care, hacking daily at the tangled yards of red tape that emprison her in an uncertainty to which she is oblivious.
We are old, ourselves. At 99, people have old children. Every day we try to be the spouses, parents and grandparents we are, and to forget for rare moments that we are still children, her children, needed and loved, loving and lost. We search anxiously for laughter and sleep, moments of sanity. Red tape consumes us. We hold her comfort as carefully in our hands as she held us when we were babies, and we journey stubbornly with her to the elusive end to her life through wildernesses of frustration and emotional debris, paying the price of love.

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