A silver Jaguar pulled up out front. Through the front window, I observed Paul. He moved with agility despite a slight hitch in his gait. Trim, with a head of thinning gray hair, he was not unattractive in a dark brown leather jacket that was just a little too long. Suddenly, we were face-to-face and embracing. We chatted a few minutes with my friend Gay before walking next door. I had wanted her to meet Paul, and I was eager for her daughter Kerry to meet him too. They had known the significant men in my life, including Nikos, the Greek physician whom I once had almost married.
Kerry and Dick met us at the front door. After quick introductions, Kerry invited us into the dining room for a glass of wine.
Sitting quietly, tasting the wine, I was struck by Paul’s easy affability. What gave me pause was his jacket. What had looked so good through the window was indescribably cheap-looking up close. From across the table, I noted his broad-boned face, well-defined cheekbones, and strong chin. His nose, injured in an accident years ago, was somewhat bulbous with a cleft at the end, but I was not put off by it.
We stayed just long enough to finish the one glass of wine. Back outside, Paul opened the door of the Jag and I stepped in, sinking comfortably into the leather seat. The sun was setting.
“I know this neighborhood,” he said as he maneuvered through Raleigh’s rush-hour traffic toward Chapel Hill. “I used to date someone who lived on Glenwood Avenue . . . a lot of years ago.”
Trying to picture Paul “a lot of years ago” was a stretch, although I’d seen photos of him in younger years on the walls of his office.
It was to be an at-home dinner. Paul had told me that after Sharon died, his children hired a chef to prepare gourmet meals for him, which he was enjoying. The problem was quantity, he’d explained, saying there was so much delicious food that he was throwing weekly dinner parties. When he’d suggested we share one of his gourmet meals, it sounded tempting.
As we neared Chapel Hill, I recognized the area. My husband Joe and I had driven down from Virginia a number of times for special events – birthday parties, book signings, weddings. Usually, we’d stayed with friends in Durham, but Joe delighted in showing me Chapel Hill, where he’d lived in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
As Paul pulled into his driveway, I was hopeful that we might be a match. I wanted to know him better. Joe had liked Paul, although he’d described him as consumed with work and neglectful of Sharon at times. But that was years ago. Paul had spoken movingly of Sharon at her memorial service, and I suspected a softer side. I was hoping for Joe’s sensitivity and charm, someone who loved animals, someone who enjoyed music and theater.
He led the way up a wooden stairway to the wide front door. Like the rest of the house, it was made of dark wood. As I remembered from the times Joe and I had visited, even on the brightest day, the interior of the house was dark except for the atrium.
Paul switched on a light, revealing a small kitchen table set with two placemats hugging one corner. The overhead lighting was aimed toward the table, the rest of the kitchen in semi-darkness. “Have a seat.” Paul pointed to one of two straight-backed chairs. I sat down, noting the old flooring and dark cabinets, unchanged since I’d first set foot in the house, while Paul went to the fridge and came back with a decanter of chilled white wine. He offered me some (though he was not drinking alcohol for health reasons), which I accepted. Then he got two small glass bowls filled with several large peeled shrimp and wedges of lemon from the fridge, placed one on each mat, and sat down.
“The cook couldn’t come yesterday because of the holiday, so we’re eating what she made last week.”
Vision of a delicious gourmet dinner suddenly gave way to images of stale, dried out food, tasteless and worse. Was it my imagination or were the shrimp ultra-chilled, the lemon wedges flabby? Why hadn’t he suggested going out for dinner? As soon as we’d gotten through the shrimp, Paul stood up, and cleared the empty bowls from the table. A buzzer sounded, and he reappeared with Tupperware containers filled with steaming side dishes that he placed on the table. A buzzer went off again as he made another trip to the microwave, returning with a plate that had a single thick fillet of beef in the center which he placed in front of me. After he returned with a steak for himself, I
easily cut into the tender fillet and closed my mouth on a piece that was absolutely chilled.
“I’m sorry, Paul, but my fillet is cold.”
“Oh, I can fix that.” He jumped up from the table. “I’ll just put it back in the microwave.”
He did not offer red wine to accompany the steak, so I continued to drink the white. Except for the on-again, off-again buzzing of the microwave, it was quiet. Paul, a presumed music lover, did not have any music playing in the background.
“I’d like to hear more about your new real estate project.”
“I’ll tell you about it as soon as I reheat these fillets.”
This real estate venture was in addition to his consulting. For as long as I’d known Paul, he’d done consulting, and had continued since retiring from the university.
“Say,” he said, cutting into his reheated fillet, “whatever happened to that fellow named Richard, the one I met at Joes birthday party? I sort of figured you’d be seeing a lot of him.”
I swallowed hard. Richard, a few years younger than Joe, had been Joe’s best friend and a good friend to me too. When his wife was alive, the four of us had seen a lot of each other, taking weekend or longer trips together, and after her death, Richard had been like a member of our small family.
“Richard moved back to Ohio.”
I had not been happy with his decision to return to Ohio, where many of his relatives still lived. But I thought I understood in part why he had moved. “You know I love you,” he’d said to me shortly before he left, about a year after Joe’s death. I had suspected he might, but at the time, I was incapable of reciprocating his feelings, and I think he knew that.
“Tell me,” Paul said, as though mentally ticking off a list of must-ask question, “why haven’t you retired?”
“Well, I’m a bit dubious about my financial situation.”
“Tell me what it is.”
Without hesitating, I proceeded to give him a general picture.
“You could easily arrange for a fixed annuity that would pay you a certain amount each month, and you’d be fine.”
I assumed that Paul, with his various business interests, was an effective money manager, and made a mental note to ask my financial adviser about this type of annuity. (When I did, I found it was actually not in my best interest.)
Paul started talking about there being no good reason for me not to retire.
“There’s another reason I want to work, at least through the summer,” I said, interrupting what was becoming a rant on the subject. “I’ve arranged for a recently discovered young relative in Prague to fill a summer internship at the
Airports Authority where I work.”
“Does he need protection?” asked Paul, somewhat derisively.
“He’s never been to the United States. He’ll be staying with me, and I want to help him as much as I can.”
“I’m planning to take a cruise this spring,” Paul said, abruptly changing the subject, and, without outright inviting me, started in again about the desirability of my retiring right away. As he talked, I looked at him intently. Ever aware of eyes, I found Paul’s bright gold-brown eyes a bit small for his face, and his wide smile marred by nearly non-existent lips.
“I’ve met a lot of women in the last few months, but none of them appeal to me.” Appeals, I thought, almost saying it aloud. “None of them appeals to me.” I couldn’t help it. I was a demon for correct use of the English language, much as Joe had been.
While I was mentally correcting Paul’s grammar, he moved his chair closer and turned, pushing his face inches from mine.
“Well, Shirley, why did you want to have dinner with me?” Taken aback by the question, I sat back in my chair and thought for a second.
“The possibility of a romantic relationship had crossed my mind.”
Paul grinned, his thin lips stretching wide. “I’d like to fly up to see you again on Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh, that might be nice.” On the other hand, I thought, it might not be. Paul’s manner coupled with his apparent assumption that a micro-waved week-old dinner in the kitchen was an appropriate dinner date wasn’t computing as Valentine-worthy. Suddenly, he kissed me hard on the mouth, his lips closed. Surprised, I blanched and stood up, excusing myself to use the bathroom. This wasn’t even close to a match, I
thought, as I looked in the bathroom mirror to repair my lipstick. Why had I thought it might be? Joe was right. Paul had the charm and sensitivity of cardboard. I should have insisted on going out to dinner, then he could have just taken me back to Raleigh. Now what was I going to do?
When I walked into the dimly lit living room, I heard sounds coming from the kitchen. I supposed he was cleaning up. He had that ‘everything in its place’ way. It would be so easy to just walk out the front doo, but then what would I do? Feeling trapped in a situation of my own making, I sat down on the long upholstered sofa. Within seconds, Paul walked in and sat beside me. Without reaching for my hand, or pausing to talk, he kissed me again. I tensed, inwardly recoiling.
“Paul, would you play the piano for me?” I asked, hoping to put some distance between us.
“Sure,” he said. “Whaddya wanna hear?”
“How about show tunes and jazz?”
An accomplished jazz pianist, he had played at Joe’s birthday party not that many years ago. As he started, I could feel the tension in my body start to ease. What a talent, I thought, wishing there were other aspects of Paul I could appreciate as much. He must have played for thirty minutes, maybe longer, when I stood up, purse in hand.
“I’m sorry but I need to be getting back.”
“Okay,” he said, getting up from the piano bench and putting on the leather jacket.
“I enjoyed your playing,” I said, following him out to the car. Paul said nothing as he opened the door for me. It was pitch black, a moonless, starless night. He had just driven onto the highway heading to Raleigh when he announced, “I can’t get an erection because of the prostate surgery I had,” then went on to describe it in some detail. Joe had told me about the cancer. It was serious, and we’d been concerned about Paul’s survival. His erectile function, or lack thereof, had never crossed my mind, at least not until now. His voice rose: “It’s been seventeen years since I’ve been inside a woman!” I said nothing, not knowing where this clinical confession was going. “But I’m taking treatments to correct the condition, and . . . I’m doing this just for you!” I could feel my jaw drop. For me? Why not for himself, or for Sharon who’d had a vested interest in the relationship? As if nearing the finish line of a race, he went on: “Rest assured, I have no trouble finding the G-spot!” I really didn’t want to hear this, any of it, not on a first date, maybe never! Nonetheless, my curiosity was piqued.
“What are the treatments?” I asked, thankful for the cover of darkness. He explained that he was getting injections directly into his penis. In fact, he said with notable enthusiasm, he had recently experienced an erection improvement, describing the angle as a mathematical percentage. Suddenly, I found myself feeling sorry for Sharon for so many reasons, Paul’s physical complaint perhaps the least of them. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car, away from this man.
“Can I give you a ride to the airport in the morning?” Paul asked, pulling up outside the house in Raleigh.
“Thank you but the family’s planning to take me,” I said, opening the car door. I gave Paul a perfunctory hug and then got out. Fighting the urge to run, I closed the car door and turned toward the garden gate. Opening the front door of the house, I let out an audible sigh.
It was 10:30. Gay was in the living room, sitting in an easy chair, ostensibly reading the Times.
“My date with Paul was less than stellar,” I said, taking off my shoes and falling back onto the sofa near her chair.
“Did you notice his leather jacket?”
“Yes,” she said knowingly.
“Well, my evening with Paul was a lot like his jacket – cheap and a little too long. But to his credit, he plays wonderful piano.”
I do not have children and yet, I don’t recall deciding not to. In my twenties, living in Greece, I became pregnant. I had stopped taking birth control pills while living apart from my Greek lover – a way of showing him I would not be sexually promiscuous while separated. When we got back together, I started again taking The Pill but, apparently, not soon enough. The would-be father, my lover, a physician who had practiced medicine in Germany, was unemployed. He talked about our having children when he could support a family financially. After the abortion, I felt grief-stricken. My feelings baffled me because I knew I had made the right decision.
A few years later, back in United States, I married a man 21 years older than I. At the outset, before we married, he made it clear that at his age – in his fifties -- he did not want children. He was haunted by memories of his first wife who, after suffering a miscarriage, succumbed to tuberculosis and died two years after their wedding. He blamed himself for her pregnancy, which he thought had weakened her, making her susceptible to TB. I did not object to his not wanting children. Nearly 35 years old, I was not aflame with desire to be a mother. “We can concentrate on your career,” he said, mindful that his would soon be waning. And we did.
Now in my seventies, I do not regret not having children of my own. Pondering the road not traveled is a futile exercise although I sometimes wonder what kind of mother I might have been. And if I’d had children, how would I have evolved? Giving my energies to my work and my husbands – I have been widowed twice – allowed me to evolve into the person I am. And now, married to a man who brought a fully formed family – three grown children and six grandchildren – into my life, I am enjoying this new chapter to the hilt. Family gatherings around holidays and in-between are special occasions because family members are scattered geographically from New York City and Chicago to Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This month we’ll be spending holidays together in Mexico, exploring Mayan ruins and doing a bit of snorkeling.
I’d been writing my memoir for three years when I called my first draft DONE and looked for an editor who could tell me what was missing.
“I know exactly what’s missing,” editor Morgan Farley said, two weeks after I handed her a 400-page manuscript. “For starters, you have four books in one. I’ve noted the number of pages in each and would suggest you go with the one with the most pages, because that seems to be where your energy is.” Early in the process I’d shared the first 60 pages with my goddaughter, an author of books for middle-school-aged children.” “Shirley,” she said, “you need to finish this. Others will want to read it.” Really? If that’s the case I’d better go the distance and make it worthwhile, I thought. “But you need to write about Joe (my first husband),” she said. Taking her advice to heart, I wrote about Joe and once I’d done that I figured I might as well write about my philandering Greek lover and my troubled mother.
Lesson #1: A memoir is not a beginning-to-end autobiography. It’s a slice of your life, limited in scope, with a unifying theme. My scope? 2 ½ years. Theme? Finding love late, losing it too soon yet choosing to love again.
Lesson #2: Sources. Some memoir writers journal, others keep diaries, letters and scrapbooks. In college I was a history major with a healthy regard for original sources. My original sources for Banged-Up Heart? Emails and a detailed journal. Good recall of conversations helped too.
With the scope narrowed and the theme clear, there was still a lot missing and yet, I thought I had put down everything!
Lesson #3: A memoir is more than the visible, external story. In my 2 ½-year story, there was a lot of action, a lot of drama, but action alone is not enough. Explicit in the definition of memoir is “intimate experience,” intimate meaning deep within. I had to go deep inside, reliving some painful moments, to find the unvarnished truth. And once I acknowledged it, I had to have the courage to put it on paper and let the chips fall where they may. This was hard for me, initially, because I’m not by nature introspective but with questions and guidance by my editor, I found I could be. Often, a simple question, e.g., What were you feeling? could, once I was home alone, trigger recall of intensely felt emotions.
Lesson #4: Use the tools of novel-writing to make your memoir come alive. Create scenes, characters and dialogue. Resolve tension. Show rather than tell. As a longtime business writer, a scene was where a meeting took place. Dialogue? Reporting contrasting views by one or more speakers, while germane to business writing, was hardly a conversation.
Scene-setting: We create scenes to help anchor the reader with where we are and what’s happening, with enough detail to give a sense of place but not too much – too much detail can inhibit the reader’s imagination. A scene takes place in one place and one time period. Whenever you move location or time in a significant way, it becomes a new scene. In a scene, you want the reader to see, hear and smell, even taste and touch everything you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. This gives the reader a sense of being there, in the moment. (See page 100 in Banged-Up Heart.)
More on creating scenes: A scene is a moment when something happens and someone responds in the outer world. The reader wants to see you externally and internally. Tell your story as you would to your best friend, allowing a kind of intimacy to happen.
Lesson #5: Reflection. A memoir is more than using fiction techniques. In memoir-writing, part of the process is reflection. You have a point of view at a certain time, but you need to look back and reflect on that point of view from where you are now. (See examples in Banged-Up Heart on pages 21, 33 and 71.)
Lesson #6: Unpack key moments. Slow down so the reader sees and hears what you see and hear, so the reader is in your skin. (Beginning on page 258, you’ll see nearly two pages that started out as nine lines before I unpacked the moment.) Slowing down was hard for me. When I was working with lobbyists in a fast-paced environment, I did a lot of things almost simultaneously.
On slowing down by author Natalie Goldberg: “Writing can train you to wake up. I had to get slow and dumb (not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects.”
Lesson #7 Voice. When you slow it down, your natural voice can come out.
Lesson #8: Tell on yourself. The more you can tell on yourself, the more the reader will like you and trust you as a story teller. (See page 50, my reaction to John’s revealing my age to Carla.)
Lesson #9: Use slang or colloquial expressions. These communicate a little of who you are and make the writing more lively. (See “chowing down” on page 21; “hardly ready for prime time” on page 22.)
Lesson #10: Show feelings through what the body does. (Examples from Banged-Up Heart and a few from Jennifer Lauck’s Blackbird: Instead of “John listened attentively to my story,” I wrote “His eyes never left my face.” Others: I nodded my understanding; her eyes opened wide; alarm rang in my brother’s voice; my stomach moves around and around the way it does when I’m hungry except I’m not hungry; she breathes in and out like she can’t get enough air and sweat dots poke out on her top lip.
Lesson #11: Revise by free-writing. I had to re-live some painful moments by re-entering the experience in mind and body. To do this, I often set time limits, e.g., 15 minutes on a particular moment, using pen on paper, NOT computer.
Lesson #12: Pacing. When I wrote my first draft, I wrote down everything without a thought about pacing or structure. But in rewriting, I had to think about pacing. When looking at a paragraph, think about it in terms of action. What are you trying to make happen? And weigh whether stuff is extraneous. Too much can slow the narrative. With our own lives, it’s hard not to think everything is important, but you have to include only those things that are good for the story. (The sentence on page 2 of Banged-Up Heart, “Would you like to take a walk?” replaced three pages of extraneous stuff in my first draft – a lot of detail about what I was wearing and how John and I walked down the porch steps to the public sidewalk -- I cut all but this one sentence.)
Pacing as it relates to chapters: Look at each chapter and ask: Does it stand alone? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? You need an arc in each chapter where something happens. Episodic does not a story make. Each chapter has a purpose, structure and action that give it momentum. Each chapter should have one full scene with dialogue, characters and description.
Lesson #13: When writing about travel, write about the unordinary. For example, many people have not been to Botswana (pages 75-80) but in writing about France where many readers have traveled, the challenge was to make it new by experiencing it through my eyes, e.g., What was it like to climb all those steps to the abbey at Mont Saint-Michel? (See pages 105-106.)
Lesson #14: Logistics -- Don’t get hung up on logistics, getting from place to place – it’s TMI (too much info.)
Lesson #15: Remember the power of short, declarative sentences. They add tension and a sense of urgency. (See 148, in emergency room.)
Lesson #16: Revealing intimacies – Someone asked if I had any qualms about revealing intimacies found in my memoir. Yes, initially I did. But when my editor asked questions I had to answer, I became more comfortable with revealing and decided that if I wasn’t hurting someone else, I would tell the truth. Reviewers have called Banged-Up Heart “remarkably candid,” filled with “. . . and shocking honesty.”
Lesson #17: The strength of a memoir is the weaving together of present time with reflection on times past. This is how we experience life. We’re in present time but going in and out. Present and past are possible when you slow the action and your story becomes rich with layers of memory and feeling. Although I discarded all in my first draft except the book about John, I was able to use a lot of the writing I’d already done. For example, Joe comes in as my backstory in the context of meeting John. (See pages 3-5.) I selected anecdotes from the Joe story and placed them in the narrative about John and me. By doing this, my story became more poignant. It gave the story of John and me more depth and me as a character more depth and vulnerability and makes it easier for the reader to identify with me.
By Shirley Melis
“I came here expecting to buy produce, and here I am, buying books!” The tall man in khakis and a blue polo shirt cradled three books in one arm while his wife listened to another author at the table pitch her book.
Home-Grown Authors, sponsored by the New Mexico Book Association, is the brainchild of Maxine Davenport, a local author who writes compelling short stories and novels about strong women. Love Is a Legal Affair is her latest. As many as six local authors can be found indoors at Santa Fe’s Farmers Market every Tuesday morning until Thanksgiving. Their works of fiction and non-fiction run the gamut from westerns and murder mysteries to memoir and travel stories.
• Gone to the Dogs is author Tom Lohr’s story of his 103-day odyssey to find the best combination of baseball and hot dogs at major league baseball parks in North America.
• Belinda Perry, author of An Old Woman’s Lies, also writes westerns, using the name William Luckey. “When I started writing westerns, I figured no one would buy a western written by a woman,” Belinda confides.
• Taking the act of walking seriously is author Michael Metras’s mission. Germany to Rome in 64 Days: Our Pilgrimage is Michael’s book about a walk he took with his wife, whom he met on a walk across northern Spain. On the Germany-to-Rome trek, each went through nine pairs of shoes.
Farmer's Market Author's Table
NM Book Association sponsors the table, exhibitors must be members of NMBA. For further information about exhibiting, please contact Maxine Davenport: email@example.com.
Authors present on October 10, from left to right (and latest publication):
Maxine Neely Davenport ("Love is a Legal Affair")
Shirley Melis ("Banged-Up Heart")
Roberta Parry ("Killing Time")
Tom Lohr ("Command Decision")
Belinda Perry (pen name: William Luckey, "Time Alone")
Melis, Shirley. "We Will It So." Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss. Santa Fe: Terra Nova Books, 2017. 65-68. Print
I inhaled deeply. It’s really happening, I thought. I’m getting married for the second time in my life, and it feels right. The first time, thirty years ago, had felt right too. I thought of Joe, how shattered I’d been by his sudden death and how, when I could feel again, I’d wondered whether I would ever stop feeling sad. Joe had been like a symphony—strings, brass, wind, and percussion—largely agreeable, occasionally discordant, and always provocative. We had shared so much, and through it all, Joe had always been there for me. Without warning, the symphony had stopped, and the resulting silence was deafening. I had felt bereft.
I looked out at our guests on the patio below. Their faces, dappled by shafts of sunlight through leafing trees, were upturned and smiling. Almost everyone there, with the exception of John, had known Joe. They knew how stricken I had been after his death and, three weeks later, the death of my father. They knew I had tried, not without mishap, to put one foot in front of the other until I thought I could make a new life for myself. If they were surprised by the suddenness of my decision to marry John, they didn’t let on.
I stood on the balcony, my left hand holding a bouquet echoing the colors of my dress: deep pink and white roses, lavender freesias, and a singular white stephanotis peeking past lilacs. Their delicate scent wafted through the air. My fingers tightened on my brother’s arm. My eyes were riveted on the minister as he read the poem John and I had selected, “The Ivy Crown” by William Carlos Williams. I remember fighting back tears, mindful of my makeup helper’s warning, “Whatever you do, Shirley, don’t cry!”
is past. This is
the heart says,
and not even the full of it.
are permitted --
though they will come
before our time
We are only mortal
but being mortal
can defy our fate.
by an outside chance
even win! We do not
look to see
jonquils and violets
but there are,
At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
to make roses
stand before thorns.
love is cruel
and totally obtuse --
at least, blinded by the light,
young love is.
But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
the jeweled prize
at our finger tips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.
-The Ivy Crown by William Carlos Williams
This poem was my heart speaking. With more of my life behind than ahead of me, I did not regret the passing of spring. It was in the spring that I had been mesmerized by Nikos. I had not seen clearly the pitfalls of loving someone who was not trustworthy, of living in a centuries-old male-centric culture, of being far away from close, sustaining friendships. When I married Joe, who was all that Nikos was not, I grew up, becoming someone better than I had been—more accomplished, more self-confident and kinder. Despite our difference in age, I was not prepared for his death. Like an arrow, it had pierced my heart, emptying it of joy. “Remember, Shirley, you are alive!” a woman I barely knew said to me nearly two years later. Her words rattled my brain. Did I want to do more than survive? Yes, as improbable as it felt, I wanted to love, perhaps more than to be loved, but the path was unclear. One afternoon, alone in my bedroom, I took off my wedding and anniversary rings and placed them in Tiffany boxes in the back of a dresser drawer.
Ringless, I would tell the world I was ready to move on, but I felt naked and hypocritical. My scarred heart still longed for Joe. I was not ready. I was not ready the day John walked into my life. When I was younger, he would not have appealed to me. Too quiet, too nondirective. So different from Joe. But I was older now, more self-possessed and self-directed. In the summer of my life, I found myself appreciating John’s many qualities, including the quiet, nondirective ones. Like a budding rose, my heart had slowly opened until I found myself capable of loving again. By loving John as I did, I was able to step away from the grief that had run through me like a raging river, its currents swift and unstoppable. Granted, I did not know John fully, but given time, I would. Given time, I would come to know his shadow, and I would love that darkness in him too. I harbored no doubts. My unspoken vow: I love you past all accident. I love you forever.
As Kim read, I thought of John’s courage—his determination to live and love despite the cancer diagnosis, the divorce, the death of a fiancée. Against all odds, we had survived to reap the joyous reward of discovering one another. We were astonished that at our age, we could be so deeply in love. The words of the poem Kim had read came back to me: We have, no matter how, by our wills survived to keep the jeweled prize always at our finger tips.
Ours was a bold marriage. We had been together only thirty-two days over a span of five months when we pledged the truth of our very beings to one another.
“It’s too grim.” College classmate and author Leslie Garis stared at the poster displaying the cover of my not-yet-completed memoir, Banged-Up Heart. “What do you think?” she asked Marjorie, standing nearby. “I agree. Can you re-take the photo?” I swallowed hard and shook my head no.
To gauge classmates’ interest in my memoir, I’d asked a graphic artist to create a poster display for my college reunion. I gave her a photo of a burned out forest -- skeletal black trees, some standing and others strewn like matchsticks across a carpet of green grasses – to use as a book cover. To me the grasses symbolized re-growth. Perfect for my memoir, which is about courage and resilience in the face of heartbreak. And especially meaningful because my story focuses on my life with John who took the photo. But in the poster, the grasses looked more beige than green, almost invisible. My classmates were right: too grim. Even if the grasses were greener, the overwhelming feeling was one of desolation. Reluctantly, I gave up the idea of John’s forest photo as a cover.
Months later, after landing a publisher, I found myself facing the cover question with a deadline looming. “Take a look at memoirs in bookstores and see what kinds of covers grab you,” my publicist suggested. In the bookstore I found several with forest covers but these books were about actual treks through forests. The covers that grabbed me were brighter in color but I was no closer to knowing what I wanted. Audibly fretting, I heeded the advice of artist friend Lewis Hawkins: “Get a pencil and paper and start doodling. You’ll come up with something.”
At breakfast one morning, I showed my doodle -- banged-up looking letters for the title separated from the subtitle by a rose – to my husband Frank. “Here,” he said, pencil in hand. “Break the stem of the rose.” Eureka! By breaking the rose stem, he captured the essence of my subtitle, Dancing with Love and Loss. I shared our doodle with friends at dinner who applauded. Why the rose? I can’t tell you. It must have been subconscious. In fact, roses frequently appear in my memoir. But it was graphic artist Scott Gerber, publisher of Terra Nova Books, who turned my doodle into a winner. The cover of Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss won first place in the 2017 Southwest Book Design and Production Awards competition.
My brother Al, my only sibling, died on March 22, 2017. His death, ending a life whose quality declined dramatically a few weeks earlier, was not unexpected. Today, after speaking at his memorial service where I felt remarkably composed, I’m convulsed by an inexplicable grief sweeping through my body.
Our relationship was complicated but it was like no other in either of our lives. Al was the only person who knew my parents and others in our small family as I did. We were close enough in age to know each other’s friends. And Colusa, California, where we grew up, was small enough that we knew our parents’ friends, too.
In February I spent parts of three days with Al at The Cottages at Clear Lake in Houston, Texas. Together we reminisced about our lives growing up in Colusa at 549 Parkhill Street, in a white clapboard cottage-style house fronted by a large elm tree. In the backyard, behind a cedar fence, a garden of roses -- Peace and other varieties -- opened onto a lawn large enough for a good game of croquet and a patio with a Ping-Pong table and a grill. We spent many evenings as a family in the backyard, the two of us often trying to best our father who was a champion croquet and Ping-Pong player.
Al was a bright little boy. He amazed me, my parents and grandparents plus an uncle of two when, at the age of six, he recited from memory that well known poem, “A Visit from St.Nicholas” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas” – all 56 lines.
Al harbored a special feeling about Christmas – the magic of Christmas – especially when he was an adult with young children. I remember being with his family in Virginia Beach one Christmas Eve. After the children were sent to bed, the adults feverishly assembled a dollhouse and train set and wrapped last-minute stocking stuffers. Happily exhausted, we dropped into bed only to be awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of sleigh bells. Al was on the roof jingling bells, signaling that Santa was in the ‘hood. And the next morning, proof of Santa’s visit was on display for all to see.
Summer vacations often found us driving north to Oregon to visit our grandparents. Both sets lived on farms. Orchards of cherry trees and a few filbert trees covered the hills of my mother’s parents’ farm outside Salem, Oregon. Eager to make a few pennies of our own, Al and I would join the hired hands, carefully picking Bing and other kinds of cherries – with the stems on -- filling one or more boxes over the course of a morning.
We usually visited my father’s parents in Mist, Oregon – on the Nehalem River -- during hay-baling season. Al and I were too young to bale hay but not too young to wander down to the creek that ran behind the cow pasture where we’d catch crayfish. After delivering a catch to our grandmother, we’d walk about a mile to the General Store to stock up on black licorice. Until the General Store burned to the ground about ten years ago, it was the oldest continuously running business in the state of Oregon. Memories of those days with my brother -- catching crayfish, collecting eggs from under the hens in the henhouse, picking wild blackberries, hovering nearby while our father milked a cow, squirting sudsy warm milk into our hand-held cups, and playing hide-and-seek among the bales of hay in the barn – feel still-fresh. It was a simpler time, no electronic distractions.
Before moving to 549 Parkhill Street in Colusa, we lived outside Colusa on a ranch, in a large house my parents rented. One day Al and I were riding new bicycles, exploring dirt and gravel roadways when we spotted a cluster of buildings. One looked abandoned, with a lot of dirt-stained windows. I don’t know what possessed us to toss rocks at those windows but we didn’t stop until we’d broken all twenty! We didn’t say a word to anyone. But a couple of weeks later, the owner of the ranch paid a visit to our parents – how he knew Al and I were the culprits, I’ll never know. We received a strong verbal reprimand from our father and a lesson we both learned: Don’t mess with other people’s property, even an abandoned chicken house!
Like my father, Al was a big tease, and I was an easy target. Sometimes I’d get so upset, I’d run to my parents to complain. “Shirley, just consider the source,” was their usual response. With my parents’ lack of empathy and Al’s continuing teasing, I made a deliberate effort to develop a thicker skin. And then one day sweet revenge flew into my life: Well after midnight, an owl trapped in the attic of the old ranch house found an opening into my brother’s bedroom. Sounds of the owl flying into walls mingled with the terrified screams of my brother, woke the rest of us. From that moment on, whenever the spirit moved me, I would simply mimic the sounds of a hooting owl and enjoy seeing my brother visibly wince.
Al loved all the pets he ever had, and he collected a lot of them – from gerbils and hamsters to lizards, including a special chameleon. One Saturday while Al was away, I heard a shriek from his bedroom. Running in, I found the house cleaner Rosetta trembling, her eyes riveted on a green curtain above Al’s bed. Staring back at us was a freshly dusted green chameleon. When Al heard the story, his concern was not for Rosetta but for the health of his chameleon.
My brother had a palette for good-tasting food, not gourmet or healthful but good-tasting. He flew from Houston to northern Virginia to help my husband and me move from one house into another. The morning after the big move, I had nothing to serve anyone for breakfast. Al suggested we go to McDonald’s. On this visit to McDonald’s, my first fast-food experience, Al introduced me to an Egg McMuffin. Delicious! On a trip to Houston, Al took me out for breakfast where he introduced me to biscuits and gravy, “a Texas specialty,” he said.
At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Al was deemed a “marksman” for which he received a gun, a revolver. Ironically, he may have been a marksman but he was no hunter. Although a carnivore, he told me he felt guilty about eating meat. “So, eat fish!” I said. “I even feel guilty about eating shrimp,” he replied. Like me, he expressed a vegetarian sentiment but never made the leap.
While a cadet at the Coast Guard academy, Al visited me at Vassar where he got into a heated discussion with one of my bright roommates about the ramifications of some historical event. He said he loved it because he didn’t often have many opportunities for such discussions at the academy. I’d hoped he would go to a liberal arts college and study law but that was my dream, not his.
And then there were the girls. My college roommate Ann remembers Al as “drop-dead gorgeous.” She told me her sister had a crush on him for years. I heard this about him from other females but to me he was simply my brother.
In later years we didn’t see much of each other, but we did have some long phone conversations. His memory for family incidents was far keener than mine. “Don’t you remember that, Shir?” he’d say. And when I didn’t, he’d happily fill in the gaps.
During these conversations he delighted in sharing some bit of new information he’d gleaned from watching the Discovery channel or relating the plot of a movie recently seen. One of his favorite actors was Matt Damon. I think he’d seen all of his movies.
Al surprised me sometimes. Two years after the death of my first husband, I called Al to tell him I was re-marrying, someone he’d never met. “Do you want me to give you away?” he asked. I laughed. At my age I figured I didn’t need to be given away. But Al and his wife Nancy flew from Houston to Virginia for the wedding where he did, in fact, give me away.
Five years ago, I sent Al the first draft of my memoir – he was in it and I wanted his reaction. Two weeks later, he called: “Shir, your memoir is going to be a success. Nancy agrees.”
“I hope you’re right,” I said, “but I have a lot of rewriting to do, and once that’s done, I have to find an agent and a publisher.”
My memoir was published five weeks before Al died. And while he will live on in my memoir and in my heart, I grieve because I've lost a visible and irreplaceable bridge to our shared past.
Do you have a favorite animal in the wild? Mine, hands-down, is the elephant. Known for intelligence, fascinating behavior, methods of communicating and complex social structure, elephants captivate and scare me a little, too. They’re big – the African elephant is the largest living land mammal – and totally impressive. Their muscular trunk serves as a nose or an extra hand or foot, a means of signaling or a tool for gathering food, water, dusting, even digging. This long trunk permits an elephant to reach as high as 23 feet while at the same time pick berries or caress a baby elephant or companion. This trunk can twist and coil, tearing down acacia branches and large trees or fighting.
Elephant tusks are elongated incisors with about one-third hidden in the skull. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, although among Asian elephants, only males have them. Elephants favor one tusk over the other, using the favored tusk more often as a tool, thus shortening it with constant wear.
Elephants spend most of the day eating (some 16 hours), drinking bathing, dusting, wallowing, playing and resting (about three-to-five hours). Because an elephant digests only 40 percent of what it eats, it needs tremendous amounts of vegetation and 30 - 50 gallons of water a day. They eat a strictly vegetarian diet
The African elephant’s ears are more than twice as large as the Asian elephant’s and have a different shape, often described as similar to a map of Africa.
In Botswana, in the Okavango Delta with my second husband, John, I encountered elephants up close on more than one occasion and describe these events in my memoir, Banged-Up Heart: sighting two young male elephants within seven feet of our vehicle; being awakened one morning by the ear-splitting sounds of an angry bull elephant a few feet from our cabin; walking with three elephants “tamed” by an eccentric Oregonian who encouraged us to caress the smooth breast of the female elephant beside us; and dining al fresco when an elephant behind us places her gigantic trunk between us.
When owner Dorothy Massey offered me a Reading/Signing at Collected Works, I was euphoric. Reading at Collected Works, Santa Fe’s #1 independent bookstore, would be a dream come true. But what parts of my 300-page memoir would I read?
“You need a program,” said editor Morgan Farley, who suggested I take a look at some author videos on YouTube. I clicked on a YouTube of one author who impressed me because she looked and sounded spontaneous. Much to my surprise, I found when clicking onto her other YouTube videos that she’d repeated the same “program” time after time. Heartened by the idea that I might put together a reading I could use more than once, I selected passages that followed my story line without revealing the ending.
For a practice reading in front of Morgan, I copied pages from a pdf of my book. Squinting to read without my glasses and rushing through the passages, I could see the disappointment in Morgan’s face. “You have time,” she said, “to make this good. I’ve heard you read before; I know you can do it. You can find a recording machine at Best Buy for $100. Get one and listen to yourself.”
Over the next few days, I made a few decisions:
For the next few mornings, I practiced my patter aloud during 30-minute treadmill sessions. I wanted to memorize it so that I could look up and out at the audience except when looking down to read the passages. In the afternoons, when nobody was around, I’d tape myself. Eventually, I was satisfied with my reading, my voice inflections and pauses. (Morgan, a poet who reads beautifully, was a great help with this.)
And then there was the question of using a microphone. At Collected Works, I would be on a small stage, a platform three giant steps above the main floor. One afternoon, about a week before my reading, Dorothy arranged for one of her staff to set up the microphone so I could test the sound and determine how close I needed to be to the mouthpiece. She offered a music stand onto which I’d drop my pages as I read.
The day of my reading, I awoke feeling a little nervous but as ready as I could be. That evening, before an audience of 115, I learned that my initial concerns, subsequent decisions and practice paid off.
Uncomfortable in small spaces or at great heights, e.g., in a small elevator or on a ferris wheel that stops when I’m at the top, I try to avoid them and when I can’t, I grit my teeth or close my eyes and tell myself I’m going to be okay. So far so good.
I have a goddaughter who turned fear on its head. Afraid of flying, of insects and closed-in spaces, she confronted her phobias, channeling them into a successful book series, School of Fear, for middle school students. Acknowledging her crippling fears and developing ways to cope, she’s now a frequent flyer able to live a full life without phobia paralysis. “I still don’t enjoy flying,” she says, “but I’ve figured out what to do to help me stay on a plane.” Good thing, too. Living in Madrid, she’s often on planes to the U.S., to see her publisher, family and friends.
I'm Shirley Melis. You may know me as Shirley M. Nagelschmidt, Shirley M. Bessey and now, Shirley M. Hirsch. Each reflects a particular phase of my life. Banged-Up Heart is a slice of my life's journey and in telling my story, I'm giving voice to my long silent "M" by reclaiming my maiden name, Shirley Melis.