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.
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.
With more of my life behind than ahead of me, who would think I’d be having an identity crisis? It’s not that I don’t know who I am, but some people who know me don’t recognize me! No, I haven’t had plastic surgery. It’s my name that gives them pause.
“You are Shirley Melis?” they ask. “We thought you were Shirley Nagelschmidt Bessey Hirsch!”
“I am, but before I became Nagelschmidt Bessey Hirsch I was known as Shirley Melis.”
I was born Shirley (Ann) Melis and that’s how people knew me through college and as a young newspaper columnist before I married Joe Nagelschmidt. In common with many women my age, I happily took – without a moment’s hesitation – my husband’s name as mine. Nagelschmidt wasn’t pretty but it was memorable.
For some thirty years, while forging a career in public relations in Washington, D.C., and later working in community relations for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, I was Shirley Nagelschmidt with Melis relegated to a silent “M” between first and last names.
After Joe’s death, I married John Bessey, and for a brief time I was known as Shirley Bessey. Now, married to Frank Hirsch, I go by Shirley Hirsch. Had I been more of a feminist at the outset, I might have always been known as Shirley Melis. And yet, in retrospect, each of my last names – Nagelschmidt, Bessey and Hirsch – defines a significant phase of my life. So, what’s in a name, or several names? The short answer: 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 Shirley Melis.
“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.