Brothers and Sisters

My brother Sam would be 67 today, November 21, 2016. He died from AIDS while still young and handsome at the age of thirty-nine in 1989.  We were very close, in spite of a sibling scrimmage now and then. When we were growing up, I seemed to be the person he preferred to fight with, but also the person he came to whenever he got into difficulty. He was fiercely competitive with me throughout our lives, about everything from my doll collection to Christmas tree decorating to who had the better education.  My first memory from childhood was about Sam, a scowling baby sitting in our red flyer wagon. I remember his dying words, too. He said, “I’m trying to dial 1954, but I can’t get through.” Eventually, I had to write my memory of his life in order to approach understanding what he was trying to say. I was honored to have my essay about our life as brother and sister, Sam’s Way,  published in The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 2012), and doubly honored when it was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013. Writing our story was a way to bring him back into the world – and it worked. Many people who had known him contacted me and I had lots of great conversations about what a funny, courageous, difficult and generous person he was. In honor of Sam, I’ll be making his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing today and thinking about all the beautiful and talented people who were lost to a horrendous disease. Happy birthday, Sammy. Wish you were here. [caption id=”attachment_1061″ align=”alignright” […]

Father’s Day, 2016

Approaching Father’s Day, I scan the years that I shared with my father, remembering the handkerchiefs, the ties, the cuff links, the homemade cards, the terrible black walnut cake I proudly presented him with when I was ten,  but the same unanswered questions bubble up when I think about my dad. I have no doubt of his goodness, however I still wonder about the inner life of this person I knew for the first thirty-five years of my life. He died young by today’s standards, only sixty-one, as a result of falling from a roof he was shingling. He took risks, one of them being his intolerance for safety harnesses when working on the top of a three-story building. He often commented about the birds he had seen and heard while working high above the ground: sea gulls, mourning doves, mocking birds – even an owl at dusk. Perhaps he began to identify with creatures who could fly and that reduced his need to be safe with a tether. My appreciation for mountain tops may have come from my father’s unabashed fearlessness of high places, but I never went to a mountain with him during his life. I remember only watching him from the ground as he strolled across a building truss, using his arms for balance, looking like a visitor from Ringling Brothers circus rather than the father of four children. Jess Maghan, in his book Forty Sons and Daughters: Finding Father Within, eloquently expresses through vignettes of forty sons and daughters describing their fathers, the contemplations we can have about […]

The Noah Bean to David Bowie Transformation

  In the world of show business, there are many fables about how actors and musicians succeed. My son, Noah Bean, who has been a professional actor for almost twenty years, says that it takes at least ten years to become an overnight success – and even then you may have to start over the morning after. Noah graduated from Boston University with a BFA in Acting and attended the Royal Shakespeare Academy along the way, as well as the London Academy of Music and Drama. In other words, he was prepared, but his continued success – while sometimes resembling a roller-coaster ride – has been the result of staying in the ring in spite of long layoffs and tough choices. His recent portrayal of David Bowie is a tribute to Noah’s grace and humanity, and his desire to be generous towards others in a world that is highly competitive and ruthless. His generosity towards me is huge. Without his help I would never have achieved the writing of my memoir about my first husband who was killed in Vietnam. He encouraged me, read draft after draft, and created and narrated the book trailer. There are great humans in this world, and I’m proud that my son is one of them. I look forward to watching his career unfold, over and over, with more and more overnight success stories.

Remembrance and Reunion

Join me at the Veteran’s Summit at Lyndon State College in VT on March 14, 2015, for a presentation on remembrance and reunion after war.  

What is Memoir?

    Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory, except that territory is within you. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a sky diver all at once without leaving your writing table. You take risks on the journey as you delve deeper and deeper into the ravines of memory, but the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer. A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see. There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it is often because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. Russell Baker told the story of writing a complete manuscript – 450 pages – of a well-researched and documented family story. He included a slew of facts about his family’s genealogy and history. But in the end he realized that, although he was accurate in the reporting of facts about his family, he had been dishonest about his portrayal of his mother. He said, “I had been unwilling to write honestly… and that dishonesty left a […]

A Grandmother’s Memory of 9/11

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down. […]

Lost for Words: Can Writing be Healing?

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph. The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s. “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and […]

Critic or Critique: Giving a Writer Useful Feedback

  Most writers need feedback about their work – some more than others. Ray Bradbury, for example, was not only a highly motivated and prolific writer, but also a ferocious reviser without need for advance readers. He was disciplined in his writing process and daring. He said, “When you write – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! Then give yourself enough time to think, cut, rework, and rewrite.” If and when he did show his work to others before publication, he had already logged double-digit revisions. But, most of the rest of us earthling writers need support and encouragement along the road to the finished product. There are those writers who show their manuscript to no one until they think it’s ready for publication, but often, when I’m still revising, I like a nudge now and then from a carefully chosen reader who will be honest enough to say that they have no sense of what I’m trying to say, or they lost interest after the first paragraph, or they just couldn’t figure out what my characters were trying to do. This usually happens when I don’t know what I’m trying to say and I’ve wandered off into a thicket of ideas. My reader is not going to tell me what to do or how to find my way, however they might offer a clue or notice that there is too much of something and not enough of something else. Perhaps I won’t agree with my helpful reader – but I was the one who asked! […]

Grieving the Death of a Child

            When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child. “Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.” He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow. “Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.” Tom started writing and couldn’t stop. “I wrote my heart out,” he said. Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult. Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems […]

Approaching an Understanding of the Vietnam War Era

For those who grew up during the Cold War, the Vietnam War was an unexpected tragedy creating unimaginable losses. This memoir follows the  experience of losing a beloved young West Point officer  at the height of the war and the healing that came many years later at reunions of those who had served with him during the war. Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.