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.
How often does fear, real or imagined, influence the choices you make? Prevent you from doing things you later regret? A distressing emotion, fear can sometimes override common sense. Other times it might save your life. Knowing the difference is key.
Watching the televised opening of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last summer brought it home – Brazil’s spectacular natural and man-made wonders, diverse ethnicities, Brazilians’ exuberance, passion for partying despite economic and political challenges – and to think we nearly missed experiencing these because of the fear factor.
Last February, bombarded by a flurry of headlines in local and national newspapers screaming Zika in Brazil and warnings by friends of likely crimnal encounters, my husband Frank and I flew to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. Zika, a virus carried by an infected Aedes mosquito, is linked to microcephaly in newborns whose mothers, when pregnant, are bitten by the infected mosquito. In my seventies, I wasn’t about to get pregnant nor was Frank a likely Zika victim. Nonetheless, we packed a couple tubes of DEET insect repellent and left showy jewelry at home.
“We don’t wear repellent,” our guide volunteered our first day in Rio de Janeiro. “Rio isn’t where Zika mosquitos are.” Great news, we thought, knowing Rio would be the site for golf and other sporting events in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Who knew that four world-famous male golfers, citing Zika fear, would opt against going to Brazil to compete in an event not played in the Olympics since 1904? Do they regret their decision?
Mingling shoulder-to-shoulder with Brazilians on crowded subways from dazzling Copacabana Beach to the Hippi Market in Ipanema and on mountain-scaling funiculars to view Christ the Redeemer up close and Rio from on high, no one picked our pockets. Even in the Sambadrome arena with some 90,000 spectators witnessing samba competitions by schools of 3 – 4,000 costumed singers and dancers, some on floats two- and three-stories high, we had no unsavory experiences. Caught up in the jubilation of the crowd, we cheered – dancing in place – as each school paraded the length of the arena, about a half-mile, vying for the $5 milliion first prize. We lasted until 3 a.m., seeing three of six finalists. The entire competition runs from 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. on successive nights.
Taken by our guide to Rocinah, a “safe” favela, we admired the clean streets and colorful slum houses dotting hillsides overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Driving back down to the center of Rio, we stopped at a Brazilian steakhouse for succulent cuts of meat barbecued, in old gaucho tradition, on an open fire – an over-the-top experience for ambivalent carnivores.
From Rio we flew southwest to Iguacu Falls to see the magnificent spectacle of 275 waterfalls creating thunderous, wondrous curtains of white that stretch nearly two miles wide and 200 or more feet high. Their source, the Iguacu River, forms the boundary between Brazil and Argentina. Wooden stairways brought us within arms-length of the rumbling falls, allowing us to sense the power of falling water, not a few gallons but millions of barrels. Still, no mosquitos.
Up north in Manaus, awaiting a riverboat that would take us onto the Amazon and into the rain forest, we walked through the Adolpho Lisboa Municpal Market, a cast-iron replica in miniature of Paris’s Les Halles market building. Later, we ventured into the city’s famed opera house, the opulent Teatro Amazonas, where the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra was rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth. Comfortably seated inside this Renaissance jewel built in the late 1800s, I let the music fill my body while my eyes feasted on tiers of gold-leafed columns, chandeliers (198 imported from Italy including some of Murano glass) and the ornate ceiling of painted panels depicting music, dance and drama.
Only after leaving the opera house did I focus on its exterior – walls painted a dusty rose, accented by white columns, and a dome covered with thousands of ceramic tiles painted the colors of Brazil’s national flag – green, yellow, blue and a little white.
We had expected Manaus to be a village dominated by the opera house built when fortunes were made in rubber. Instead, we found a city teeming with some two million inhabitants and an ever-growing presence of high-tech companies.
Our cruise on the Amazon and trek through the rain forest led by an indigenous tribesman who showed us how to survive in the forest left me with one regret. I’d hoped to see hundreds of wild birds, including toucans noted for their large colorful bills, but the birds were few and the only toucan I saw was in the Manaus zoo.
After two weeks in Brazil, I’m hard-pressed to describe the looks of a Brazilian. Descendants of early settlers and post-colonial immigrants – Portuguese, Italian, Spaniards and Germans with large numbers of Japanese, Poles and Lebanese – African slaves and Brazil’s indigenous peoples, they, like those of us in the United States, are not
a homogeneous lot. We were told that the largest Japanese community outside Japan – some 2 million -- lives in Sao Paulo.
Our last day in Manaus a mosquito flitted by while I was eyeing souvenirs in a shop in our hotel complex. Wearing repellent, I was relatively fearless. According to one authority, our chances of being killed by a car in the U.S. are 17,400 times greater than contracting Zika from a mosquito in Brazil.
If we’d given way to unexamined fear, we might never have experienced
the richness of Brazil and Brazilians’ unabashed passions.
“You should start a blog, Shirley,” my friend Art said.
“Why?” I asked. “Haven’t I said everything I wanted to say in my memoir?”
“Yes, by writing Banged-Up Heart, you shared an intimate and clear-eyed account of finding love late and losing it early – and the strength it takes to love again. Now that you’ve done that, some people will want to know how you did it -- how were you able to write a book like this and how did you become an author?” “That’s a whole other story,” I said.
“Yes, and it’s one you should tell.”
“But who would care?” I asked.
“Aspiring authors,” Art answered.
He convinced me – sort of, halfway, a little.
But on the off-chance that he’s right, that my experience writing Banged-Up Heart and then pulling off that other huge job of taking it to publication might help an aspirant or two, I’ve decided to plunge in.
I wrote my story not to sell it but purely because of compulsion. I had been widowed twice in four years. The second time, I was totally blindsided, needing desperately to figure out what had happened. So I followed a path that had led to answers before. All through my career, writing had helped me see more clearly. Hoping to do that again, I began what became Banged-Up Heart.
At first, I just wanted to relive the wonderful relationship John and I had had. But once I got started, I became wiser, I think – more curious, more demanding. I was determined to face the questions I had never asked him. In the end, celebrating the relationship was not nearly so important as getting as close to the truth as I could.
Only when a close friend said after an early draft, “Others will want to read your story” did I first think about publication. The trek those words led me to was a long way from straight, filled instead with unexpected twists and turns.
Hoping for more than pointers, I attended a writers’ workshop in New York City. The allure was not tips on the craft of writing (which I thought I knew) but the possibility of a publishing house editor asking for a chapter or two, maybe more, of my still-in-progress memoir. Emboldened by this chance to be taken seriously by industry professionals, I prepared my pitch. Editors from Random House, Penguin, Harper Collins, and other major publishers listened. While other aspiring authors at the workshop seemed mesmerized, not one editor asked to see more.
Undaunted, I kept writing. A couple of years later, I engaged an editor whose knowledge steered me to essential recasting and rewriting, which brings me to my first posting, On Working with an Editor. Future postings will cover choosing a title, finding an agent and a publisher. I’ll be talking about things like this as part of my Trek to Publication, and also will be blogging about Travel as well as Life in the High Desert of New Mexico.
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.