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.
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.
Pressed to come up with a subtitle for Banged-Up Heart -- in time for a poster display at my college reunion -- I quickly settled on A Widow’s Story of Star-Crossed Love. It wasn’t until many months later, about the time I landed a publisher, that I began to lament my hastily concocted subtitle. A potential reader might think my book was about a widow who falls in love with someone who dumps her, and that was not the case. Why hadn’t I seen that earlier? If a subtitle tells the reader what the memoir is about, what was my memoir really about? “Love and loss,” I said to my editor, who’d asked the question. She nodded her agreement. But the words “love and loss” alone seemed incomplete. What was it about love and loss that would give the reader insight into the essence of Banged-Up Heart?
My thoughts turned to the Anne Lamott Plan B piece where I’d found my title, and that’s when it hit me. The subtitle should say something about dancing. I ran a couple of possibilities by Terra Nova Books editor, Marty Gerber: “How about A Widow Dances with Love and Loss?” “Yes,” he said, “you were widowed at the start; yes, you’re twice widowed at the end. But in between is the story of two diverse individuals – powered by love—trying valiantly to know each other and find a way together to battle an overwhelming enemy. I simply feel that the ‘human-ness’ of the tale you tell is so much more than the ‘widow-ness’ angle.” “How about A Dance with Love and Loss?” I asked. “It’s not a single dance,” he said. “You’re dancing with love and loss from beginning to end.” And that’s how the subtitle, Dancing with Love and Loss, came to be. Sometimes it takes time and distance to be able to re-focus effectively on the essence of what you’ve written. And having the reaction of someone else, such as editor Marty Gerber, can prove invaluable.
“Send your creative works for display at Reunion.” My college reunion was three months off but, regrettably, my memoir, my creative work, was not finished. I was still rewriting with no likelihood of completing it in time. But what an opportunity to promote it! I thought. I might even find the name of a literary agent from an author classmate. My editor agreed. With her encouragement, I met with Amiel Gervers, a tall brunette who’d left an advertising career in New York City to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Shirley, I can design a website for your book, and I can have it finished with posters and postcards in time for your college reunion.” Stirring sugar into her tea at the Teahouse on Canyon Road, Amiel told me what she’d need. “First, I want to read your book. I know you haven’t finished rewriting it, but that’s all right. I want to select quotes to go with some of these photos you’ve shown me. You’ll need to send these to me electronically. Also, I’ll need a bio from you and while you at it, something about your “Tahoe Traveler” writing experience. In my twenties, I’d traveled in Europe and the Middle East, writing a column for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Within days, Amiel had everything she needed from me with one exception: a title for the book. I’d sent her a photo to use as a cover mock-up -- a burned out forest with nascent green grass denoting regrowth in the foreground. But I was still clueless about a title. Months earlier, I’d discarded a working title, Love + Loss x Two, because I’d narrowed my focus to my recent love and loss.
Hoping for an epiphany, I hunkered down with the last several chapters. I would be discussing one, possibly more, of these with my editor in a few days. In one chapter,
my attention riveted on a selection by writer Anne Lamott that the Rev. Kim Beach read at John’s memorial service. That’s it! I thought.
Eager to share my find with editor Morgan Farley, I could hardly contain myself as I sat down at the table for our editing session. “I have a title!” I blurted. “So do I,” she said. “Banged-Up Heart,” I said. “That’s what I came up with, too.” Morgan beamed with delight. And that’s the story of how I found a title for my memoir – in time to promote it at my college Reunion. Since then, the cover has changed but the title remains.
A few months after my husband’s death, I told close friends I was going to write about my life with him, cut short two years after we married. I felt blindsided, but by what I didn’t know. By John? By my own naivete? I had to figure it out.
A writer most of my life, I was comfortable putting pen to paper. Aided by a journal I’d kept and a boatload of emails I’d written during John’s last months, I set out to tell my bittersweet story. After two years of grieving for my first husband, I’d been swept up into a whirlwind romance by a younger man who was a rocket scientist. We married and created an adventurous new life together. We were supremely happy – and then I lost him to a brain tumor.
Day and night, in Santa Fe and Reston, Va., I sat at the computer, my fingers flying across the keyboard, capturing the essence of my two-year odyssey. Friends read my drafts and came back with questions that caused me to re-think and re-write.
Over tea at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, I handed my manuscript to editor Morgan Farley. “I’ve been writing for three years, and this is what I’ve produced,” I said. “I know there’s something missing but I don’t know what it is.”
“I know what’s missing,” Morgan said in a phone call a couple of weeks later. Relief washing through my body, I grabbed a pen to schedule another meeting.
“You have three books in one,” she began. “I’ve made a note of the pages devoted to each and would suggest you go with the one that has the most pages because that seems to be where your strongest energy is.”
I’d started off on the energized track, but a close friend who’d known and loved my first husband Joe suggested I also write about my life with him. Once I’d done that I thought, Why not write about my life before Joe – about Nikos in Greece and while I’m at it, my troubled mother?
Back on track, I listened to Morgan talk about the craft of novel writing and how it applies to writing memoir. She explained that a story comes alive when you create scenes to show action, and use dialogue to reveal personality and character. We talked about using description but not too much, to allow the reader to use her imagination, and pacing by relieving highly charged scenes with narrative while keeping the story moving. It was a lot for me to absorb. A history major in college, I hadn’t read many novels; I’d read original sources and become practiced at critiquing authors’ premises and their use of sources to back them. Later, in my professional life, I did a lot of business writing – press releases where scene-setting meant naming the place where a meeting was held and dialogue meant adding direct quotations by speakers that revealed neither personality nor character. Rewriting my memoir to give it the missing ingredients sounded challenging.
“If you choose to do this, it will be transformative,” Morgan said.
Over the ensuing months, Morgan frequently asked, “What were you feeling?” – inviting me to dig deep for my interior emotional state. She helped me to confront my story as I lived it, subjectively, and to reflect, time and again, on the significance of my feelings, thoughts and actions. Looking deep inside to find my truths, when I wasn’t by inclination introspective, challenged me. Having the courage to put them on paper, even those I might not like, meant overcoming my own inhibitions and ignoring the advice of well-meaning friends who believed personal publicity of any sort should be limited to births, marriages and deaths. “It’s too personal,” a good friend confided after reading the first several pages.
The greatest joy in writing Banged-Up Heart was hearing Morgan say, “Beautiful, beautifully expressed.” Or, “I just kept reading, forgetting I was supposed to be editing.” I also heard from Morgan, “Shirley, I’m sorry but this doesn’t work.” And I’d toss eight hours worth of carefully crafted prose.
The successive joys of landing a top-notch agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli, and a publisher, Terra Nova Books, are more than icing on the cake. They’ve made it possible for me to bring my years of hard work to fruition.
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.