A list of names appeared on my Facebook wall. Multicolored stars of various sizes rimmed the border. Normally, I would simply scroll past but this time, I stopped and read the names. They should have meant nothing to me. These people were not from my neighborhood; I didn’t graduate high school with any of them; our kids weren’t on the same little league teams.
No, this list was different and it sent me back to my childhood.
I grew up in an idyllic Pennsylvania community. On the edge of the woods, at the top of the hill, surrounded by three cemeteries and a convent. Summer nights were spent outside running barefoot this way and that, playing kick the can or tag until dusk. Riding my bike in the 4th of July parade, red, white, and blue streamers trailing in the wind. Participating in spontaneous watermelon seed spitting contests in the grass.
Occasionally, I would end up in the Jewish cemetery, the closest to the house, and read the engravings. I was fascinated by the tombstones with the long registers of individuals who shared the same last name. I would sit in my cutoff shorts and do the math. Some were very young, only two or three. Others were my age. But most were adults. Entire families remembered on granite slabs only a few decades after the Holocaust. Remembered by their relatives and memorialized because they mattered. And the reason for their gravesites matters.
The list of names that appeared on my Facebook wall also matters. Maybe their names will be the last list of people silenced because of hatred I’ll have to read. Probably not.
But maybe, just maybe, their names will be the be the ones to spur change. Maybe, their names will finally be the change that matters.
The crisp fall air lingers on my lips as I calmly whisper, “Shhhh.”
I am enjoying a cool Florida morning on the screened-in lanai with my eyes closed to block the glare from the morning sun. I am also hiding from the voice in the kitchen just beyond the open sliding door; the one on repeat.
“Mom. Mom. Mom…”
“Shhhh.” Sinking into the chaise lounge, I allow my hands to compress around the hot mug. Fronds from the palm trees at my fence line sway and tickle their leaves against the top of pool cage. My mind drifts with the breeze.
“But Mom,” the voice continues.
“Mmmm, I’m not listening,” I tell him as I raise the mug closer to my nose. The fragrant bouquet of rich nutty spices carries my muse to Fiji or Tahiti or Bora Bora where she sits on a secluded beach with a tall, dark, handsome billionaire.
“Mom, this is important.”
I relax into the pleasure of my fantasy. Niko hands my muse a cup of coffee while she gazes into his chocolate eyes.
“Mom, this is really important.”
“Ahhhh, so is this,” I say in a soft, yogi chant. The warmth of the cup slowly spreads from my fingertips, through my arms, and into my core. My senses are enlivened. This is my pre-sip ritual. I hang onto this moment for another three seconds, fully raise the cup to my lips, burn the crap out of my tongue, break my tranquility, and return to reality.
“Shhhuger,” I say as I spray hot liquid from my mouth onto my white, cottony robe.
I open my eyes and focus on the bed-head, snaggled-tooth, half-dressed man-boy now in front of me.
“Mom,” he says as his voice crackles between octaves.
“Yes?” I purse my lips while trying to feign a smile.
“Don’t just sit there and stare at me! Blink, do something!” My blood boils. “I hate you!”
My home-for-fall-break 19-year-old stops mid-stride and looks for a brief second; he’s rolled out of bed in time for lunch and my tirade. He is not part of this conversation, but my eyes cut to him. If looks could kill.
I quickly shove my chair back, banging on the wall behind me. Shimming from the table, I swipe a newly formed tear with the back of my hand, as I run from the room, heart pounding, face reddening, a powder keg ready to blow.
Catching my breath, my stride slows. Balling my fists, I begin to pace, turning circles in front of the living room couch, brooding over my situation. I will not be defeated. I want to throw something, but that won’t solve my problem. What to do? For lack of rational thought, I grab a nearby pillow and scream into it until my vocal cords strain with pain.
What to do? I ask again silently looking at the dog who daringly lifts his head to make sure he’s not my next target. He sighs and lowers his muzzle back to the cool tile. “Do you know?” I ask, my voice raspy from my recent screech.
He sighs once more and rolls onto his side as if to say, “You scratch my belly, I’ll scratch yours.” His tail thumps once.
More calmly than seconds ago, I rise and return to the kitchen.
With apologetic eyes, I glance at my son, wishing he hadn’t heard my outburst.
He gently pulls a plate from the cabinet and shrugs while he glances at the laptop on the kitchen table. “Mom,” he says in that know-it-all teenaged tone, “Did you try turning it off and back on?”
*A shout out to Kendall Nissen for the inspiration
In Resolve, Courage, Hope, discover the true story of murder, aftershock, court trials, and picking up the pieces.
At the 2016 Royal Palm Literary Award Banquet, author Alison Nissen won First Place in the Unpublished Autobiography/Memoir category. Each year at the RPLA Banquet, authors experience the joy of earning accolades for all the hard work that is often done in the privacy of the home with little to no recognition. We’re showcasing the best of the best with our First Place winners spotlight. Not only does RPLA recognize extraordinary talent, but we’re giving readers an opportunity to sample excerpts from the winning stories.
Click the link to read a sample:
Q: Where do you get your story ideas?
A: As a ghostwriter, I might not have the original idea; however, it takes creativity to “see” someone else’s project and make it great for both the author and the audience. In the memoir Resolve, Courage, Hope, my co-author told me his story through a handful of interviews. Like all writers, I had to decide what was good and what was not, then write a compelling story based on that information.
Q: Anything in particular about your award-winning RPLA entry that you’d like to share?
A: When I won the RPLA, I didn’t know my heart could beat so fast! It was joy beyond belief, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share someone else’s story and have it be so well received.
Q: Whom do you credit with inspiring your writing?
A: I suffer from dyslexia, and my 9th-grade English teacher thought I would never be a good writer because I was a bad speller. When spellcheck came along, I set out to disprove her opinion. Conversely, I had a professor in college who told me, “that’s what editors are for.” Now I work professionally as both a writer and an editor. I’ll tell everyone to do what you love and figure it out along the way.
Q: Any tips for new writers?
A: Writing takes time and perseverance. My biggest advice to all writers is to write, rest, read your work out loud, then repeat. Allowing your work to rest lets your brain recharge; reading your work out loud allows you to hear how your work sounds. The writing and repeating get the job to the finish line.
If every member of FWA went to Smile.Amazon.com, chose Florida Writers Foundation, Inc. as their charity and, instead of logging into Amazon.com, logged into Smile.Amazon.com, FWF would receive 0.5% of the purchase funds. Every time.
We could significantly fund the literacy efforts of our organization. No money out of your pockets…just some invested time to set this up.
How easy for us to make a difference. To see all of our work, please read the pages of our website www.floridawritersfoundation.com. You’ll be proud.
Tom Swartz, President, FWF
There I was, in the Congo. Wild animals all around. I focused the camera, looked at the lens, and, let’s just say, the carnage wasn’t pretty.
Okay, I wasn’t in the Congo. But there were wild animals and I did focus the camera lens. And oh, the carnage.
Truth be told, there weren’t any wild animals, either. But the bulls were running. Men, dressed in white, wearing red sashes ran through the streets. The noise caught my attention first. Feet slapping on cobble stoned streets in Barrio Alto, Lisbon, Portugal. They approached without warning and with such speed I jumped from the sidewalk into a doorway.
The stars shone that night. The air, crisp and clear. Shopkeepers stood in front of their businesses beckoning for customers, gesturing toward their front entrances, handing out cards and coupons, “Try the fish.” “We have pizza.” “Come, join us.”
They smiled, the night was young. A bachelor party of men outfitted as mozos (runners from the bulls) chased a single man dressed as a cow through the narrow streets and skirted bistro tables that sat awkwardly along the steeply sloped alleyway.
My husband and I entered the establishment. The barkeep smiled and poured us a small draught of local brew while passing along insider tips about local restaurants and tourist attractions. “Don’t take the train up north if you value your wallets. Visit Pena Palace for spectacular views.”
We talked for a while as I swiveled nonchalantly on my barstool which had been screwed into the back edge of the platform from which it perched. My husband stood casually behind me.
“Smile,” I said as I pulled out my phone and held it above our heads. A picture to commemorate the evening.
“No, that’s no good. Let’s take another.” And another. Five or ten pictures later, frustrated at the poor photography, I precariously leaned against my husband for one last photo.
His boot heel slid off the platform as he momentarily lost his footing. In doing so, he grabbed my shoulders, only to have gravity overpower him and he slowly fell to the floor.
The chain of events could not be undone. I quickly grabbed for the bar top while my fingertips slid from the polished granite counter. Unable to maintain my upward position, I too, gradually tumbled from my seat. “I gotcha,” I heard my husband mumble as I landed squarely on top of him.
We laughed, dusted ourselves off, and stood back up. Down the street, the party raged on. The stars still twinkled, only our pride slightly shaken. A short while later, a colleague emailed us an article from the Ireland Journal of Medicine. The number of selfie injuries has quadrupled in recent months.
So, the next time you’re in the Congo, or the wilds of Barrio Alto, or the backwoods of Lakeland, please remember: Selfies are hazardous to your health.
I grip the hand of my son. His six-year-old fingers squeeze back as we walk a step behind his nine-year-old brother. The damp ground moistens the bottoms of my shoes as I shuffle to the sound of the cadence of the horses’ hooves 20 feet ahead of us as they pull the caisson carrying the remains of what was my Marine.
Arlington is otherwise still. The rain has kept tourists away, but the freshly manicured grass and spicy scent of autumn leaves drift through the air and fill the soul with peace.
It’s an irony that is not wasted on me. This noble place. It’s not one wishes to race for, but rather one strives to. Guarded by sentries long gone, their granite tombstones welcome its newest arrival. I smile as I remember the lyrics of the Marine Corps Hymn, If the Army and the Navy / Ever look on Heaven’s scenes, / They will find the streets are guarded / By United States Marines.
A cardinal flutters and lands on a branch above. It is not a sad day, but rather one of honor that few will ever know. I shiver and shove my empty hand into my pocket.
In the summer of 2006, my future husband and I found ourselves kid-less. They were all at camp: band camp, basketball camp, sailing camp. The idea of adult camp grew into a magnetic force we couldn’t contain. We packed up his new Audi A4 and took her to the open road.
The five hour drive from Houston to New Orleans became four as we blasted our way around road construction and endless lines of eighteen-wheelers. We timed our departure for late morning: avoid rush hour at both ends and arrive on Bourbon Street while the three-for-one beer offers were still good.
I had never been to the French Quarter so my boyfriend decided to show me the sights. We walked from one end to the other; we heard music from Zydeco to Doo-Wop. The Quarter was a pocket of the city that survived Hurricane Katrina less than a year before; the city itself, still reeled from the destruction. The next day, we hopped back in the car to see firsthand the wreckage.
We realized the devastation as we drove through town. Blue plastic tarps covered roofs, plywood covered windows and doors; buildings, dilapidated, left to fend for themselves, lay vacant and abandoned.
We drove through areas where the waterline left marks taller than I, taller than my 6’1” boyfriend. Houses with a giant X spray painted on them indicated the number of bodies found within. Most had 0, some had more. We meandered, slowly, absorbing the damage. Some people were out with shovels and brushes; laying concrete, painting houses. Rebuilding had begun.
In search for the Lower Ninth Ward, the area of New Orleans hardest hit by the flooding, we continued to drive. Hurricane Katrina left its biggest mark on the poorest in the city—stuck, helpless, homeless. The little rebuilding we saw dwindled. Foundations lay empty, evidence that someone’s life had once been there but was now gone. Apartments resembled bombed out buildings in Bagdad or Beirut.
We found what we were looking for as we crept along the pothole riddled streets, and then they found us. In the distance as we drove towards a dead-end street, kids with nowhere to go. They started to gather and walk towards us with sticks and stones. 200 yards, 150 yards, 100 yards, “Back up, turn around, now!”
We left in a hurry, before the gang of twelve or fifteen could reach us. We drove fast, no longer interested in the sights, no longer worried about the bumps in the road. We found Bourbon Street in a hurry, visibly shaken by our almost encounter.
I’ve returned to New Orleans several times since then and have watched it come back to life. But those hardest hit, those left for dead, children, not at summer camp but at a dead-end street, those are the ones etched most into my memory.
I frequent a place where Shopping Is a Pleasure. Each time I check out, the bagger asks if I need assistance. I love this when I have a 50-pound bag of dog food or a few cases of beer. But most of the time, I politely say, I’ve got it today, with a smile. And today was not any different.
I wheel my items to the car. Fill my trunk. And trek back to the store with the cart. I must do this because, at my store, there are very few cart-return racks.
I (almost) always return my cart for a very simple reason. One day, someone said to me, that my actions could have a profound impact on someone’s day.
Yes, he said. Take for example a grocery cart. If someone does not put their cart away and the wind shifts, the cart could roll into a car and cause a dent.
Hmmm. I thought about the example and agreed, putting the cart away was something I could do to help someone else have a better day.
Since that conversation, I (almost) always return my cart. And today I did. I loaded the groceries into my car, closed the trunk, and wheeled the cart past four parked cars, across a wide thoroughfare, over the curb, and to the sidewalk in front of the store.
I then walked back to my car and opened the door only to turn around at the sound of a cart rumbling toward me. It was the same one I just put away. It had rolled off the curb, across the thoroughfare, and past the four parked cars. I watched in amazement at the trajectory and was unable to extract myself fast enough to save my bumper.
As it approached, a woman took a stride forward and exclaimed, I’ve got it! And she did. She pushed it back from whence it came. What had been an ordinary day almost wasn’t. But fortunately for me, someone else had altered the chain of events that stopped the wayward cart from ruining my day.
So, from now on, when the bagger asks if I need help to the car, I’m going to smile and politely say, Great. I’m the white Honda over there.