Well, I finally broke down and did it. I set up this blog after a couple of years of writing memoir, fiction, and creative nonfiction. It feels like a fitful, halting start, but I believe that confidence will come and spur me on. My intent for this blog is to build a community of writers and wannabees to bounce ideas off each other and to share critiques, both positive and gently, helpfully negative.
A brief note here on comments, critiques and spam. First of all, there is a setting in WordPress to filter spam, but I am certain that some will leak through. I can control this by approving the first post from contributors. After that, posting is generally unfiltered for that contributer. I am fairly thick skinned, and so will allow a free-wheeling conversation when critiquing posts. I was raised in the philosophy of Amherst Writers and Artists, which stresses the safety of the group by allowing positive comments, and discouraging criticism. I hope to go to a bit more open format, but this is my site, and I will not allow flaming or harsh critiques. Everyone who writes is a writer, and deserves praise and encouragement for their efforts.
This site will evolve, and I hope for growth. In the spirit of encouraging posts, I present the memoir piece that led me to this point in life.
What are fourteen year olds interested in? Most of my peers in 1969 seemed to be into cars, girls, and beating me up. Southampton, New York was a tough town for a newbie, especially a goofy looking kid like me, with an overbite and thick glasses. I wasn’t a member of any of the cliques, and didn’t know how to wedge myself into them.
Most of my time in school was spent with my head down, trying to look small and trying to figure out why no one liked me. I discovered the library as a sanctuary and diversion, and then discovered… witchcraft. Here was the potential for protection. This wasn’t Samantha and Daren twitching noses. This was spells and robes, swords called athamès, candles and incantations so powerful that you could move stuff from across the room. Astral projection. Potions and talismans. I was able to get the little short sword pretty easily from an Indian store that sold incense and brass stuff. The sword wasn’t sharp or real pointy, but it didn’t need to be. It was purely ceremonial. It lived behind some books on the shelf in my bedroom. I didn’t want Mom finding it and asking where I got it and what it was for.
I checked out a couple of books on witchcraft from the library. I was lucky that the librarian didn’t call home and ask my folks if they knew what I was reading. It was that kind of a town, and that period of time where a fourteen year old couldn’t get away with anything. The books were about witchcraft, both history and lore, but didn’t have any of the really good stuff like spells for turning frogs into stone. I learned what witches did, but not how they did it.
In January, my father and mother decided that the whole family would benefit from a month abroad. All five kids were yanked out of school and we flew over to Ireland to look up relatives and drive around doing the tourist thing. We visited Aunt Esther in Waterford, and the kids all got to go to the movies at the local cinema. What a riot. Kids in the balcony were bombing bottles down onto their mates on the bottom level. Chris, my older brother, and suave and sophisticated as only an almost-sixteen year old could be, sat with one of the female cousins, chatting her up and being cool. I sat miserably next to another cousin who spent her time talking with friends and ignoring her geeky American cousin. The movie ended, and suddenly everything stopped. Every single person in the theatre stood up, silently, while The Soldiers Song, the national anthem of Ireland, played all the way through. Everyone sang along, standing still and staring at the blank screen. When it was over, everyone reverted to the mob they had been, and tumbled out of the theatre, shouting, cursing, shoving, and making out, heading home.
We went to Bunratty Castle for their historical feast, and since my dad had a red beard and looked the most regal of all the tourists, they made him King for the evening. They reenacted a medieval court scene with a banquet and a knave that had to be pardoned for something. Dad played along with all the gravity of an ancient Irish King. Great fun, and I got to try mead. We stayed in hotels and bedsits, damp homes with peeling wallpaper, and when we got into bed at night our legs stuck to the damp sheets.
In Dublin, we all headed out for a walking tour and shopping. I have no idea of where I got money from, but I had fifty or sixty dollars in cash Filthy rich! We stopped into a bookstore, and everyone bought something. Kathy, my oldest sister, got a book about communes, with lots of pictures of hippies in domes and shacks and living off the land. I browsed through a bin of old books and scanned titles absentmindedly. Flip, old book, flip, old book, flip, old book, pull it out and scan it, stuff it back, flip, old book, flip…. What?
You know that feeling when you see something you shouldn’t see, and you get a real cold flood down your back and a light sweat breaks out on your forehead and evaporates instantly and your ears ring and you look around quickly to see if anyone else is in the same insane state you’re in? That feeling? There before me, in this cast-off bin of old dirty books going for cheap, was a brown, leather-bound copy of The Key of Solomon the King. Mentioned in all the books on witchcraft I had read in school, and at home in the library books, it was described as the most powerful book of spells, incantations, and talismans ever written. I kid you not. Here before me was the secret to actually doing witchcraft! Really doing it! I could make myself invisible. I could make guys stop beating me up. I could make girls like me. I could do anything!
I bought it. Secretly, up at the counter, and looking around to make sure that no one else in the family saw me. I bought a magazine, too, so I could say I got something and had a reason for carrying a bag. I took it back to the hotel and stuffed it beneath the clothes in my suitcase.
I waited. We flew on to Paris for a day or two, then to Nice for a week. I bought lunch alone at a sidewalk café, spaghetti at a French restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. I wandered the streets, window-shopping. I looked at little lead soldiers on horseback in the window of a shop full of military miniatures, and bought a book with pictures of all the exquisite painted details on the soldiers and horses and scenery. I love little things.
I got up early, before everyone else, and walked down to a little square, and bought a fresh warm baguette from an old lady on the street and shyly said “Merci.” I sat in a little park in the center of Nice, away from the waterfront and big hotels, and shared a breakfast of bread with the squirrels.
All the while, The Key of Solomon stayed in the bottom of the suitcase.
At the end of January, we flew home. I kept the book of military miniatures out, and read it at night in bed, looking at the fine detail, marveling at the painted faces and wishing I could do that. I borrowed Kathy’s book about communes, and fell dreamily into a fantasy about running away from home and living with the hippies. Rising in the morning in my dome, coming out to the sunrise, I would play a praise song for the day on a set of gongs made from old oxygen cylinders tuned and hung from a tree. The Key of Solomon hid behind the books on the shelf, along with the little sword, waiting for me to learn enough to try a spell or two.
On February 13th, Valentine’s Eve, the house burned down.
Mom and Dad were at the movies. Kathy was living in Amagansett with her therapist and his wife. Debbie was babysitting in town for one of the college professors. Brian, my youngest brother, and I were out on the sun porch watching television. We were sprawled on the Big Box and on the floor. The Big Box was a parquet tiled big wooden box that didn’t do anything except sit there to be sat on. Two feet high, eight feet long, four feet deep. Great for sprawling on or leaning against while watching TV.
Chris came home from rambling around, stuck his head through the French doors between the living room and sun porch and said “Are you guys cooking something in the kitchen? I think it’s burning.” We said no, and went with him to the door leading to the back wing of the house where the kitchen and Chris’s and my bedrooms were. Chris opened the door; the hall ceiling fell in and billows of smoke rolled out and up and across the ceiling. He came back, said all wide eyed “It’s on fire!” and ran next door to the Punnett’s house to tell them to call the fire department. When Chris came back, he, Brian and I rounded up the animals. Shane, our Irish water spaniel, bolted out the Dutch door without prompting. We got the momma cats, and started in on the kittens. Most of them were in Dad’s den, romping and frolicking and hiding under the bookcases. We got most of them, ten or twelve, but Chris made us leave to go next door.
The firemen showed up. We were way out in the country, so there were no fire hydrants. The firemen, fresh from the Firemen’s Ball ,wearing tuxedos under their bunker coats, and drunk on their asses, drove three houses down and pumped water out of the pool at Francesco Scavullo’s house. Big shot fashion photographer. The firemen pumped until the pool was empty, but it wasn’t enough to put out the fire that ate our old dry house. My folks put us to bed in the Punnett’s spare bedrooms, and when we woke in the morning there was nothing left of the house except the huge central fireplace that we used to climb, and most of the sun porch. I guess the fire just got tired and stopped after it consumed most of the house. The sun porch would have been too much. The Big Box was still sitting there.
We stayed with the Punnetts until it became clear it was time to move on. I came
down quietly one morning and overheard Mrs. Punnett saying “Yes, but why do they have to stay HERE.” Two weeks with an instant family of seven, plus dog, two Siamese cats and two litters of kittens; I don’t blame them for feeling put upon. Hephzibah, Kathy’s goat, died in the fire, and so did Debbie’s parakeet. I think two of the kittens were still under the bookcases when Chris pulled us out of the house. Dad found us a house to rent, closer to town and off North Highway. After a day or two we all got new clothes.
I shared a room with Chris, and later in the spring packed a shoulder bag with clothes, dropped it out my bedroom window, said goodbye to Mom on my way to school, picked up the bag, pulled nine hundred fifty dollars out of my savings account and headed for Taos, New Mexico to join a commune. The book that Kathy bought in Dublin was just too much for me. I left to look for America, just like the Simon and Garfunkel song. I took the Long Island Railroad to New York City, decided to take a side trip to see the Fillmore East, got mugged at knifepoint, lost the money, all of it, and panhandled for a quarter to call home to be picked up. I didn’t know about collect calls.
My mother said “Stay right where you are, your father is in the city driving around looking for you.” That seemed like the screwiest thing I could imagine, him looking in a city of seven or eight million people just to find me, but I sat down on the steps of Grand Central Station and waited. The drive home with Dad was the longest two hours of my life. I believe my father was the originator of the phrase “How could you do this to your mother and I?” At fourteen, I didn’t know how to tell him that I wasn’t doing it TO them, I was doing it FOR me.
Everyone says the fire started in the kitchen, where we were having the whole thing re-done. A temporary 220 volt line is usually mentioned, along with adhesive for the formica countertops. Chris mentioned maybe leaving a candle lit. Everyone remembers how awful it was. But I imagine The Key of Solomon the King sitting hidden behind the other books on the shelf in my room right next to the kitchen. I had picked out a spell to try as my first one, a real doozy of a spell to keep the bullies at school from beating me to a pulp again. I hadn’t gotten a chance to gather up the courage to actually try the spell. I believe the book just self-immolated. I had no right having such a powerful book, and it killed itself to keep me from doing harm with it. I felt guilty, even though everyone in the family thought I was nuts; it was just the kitchen. I learned the lesson real quick, though. After that, I never did anything more with witchcraft.