Archive for Family

Shucking Corn: Memory’s Golden Haze

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye
And it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky”

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’

by Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers


We all have them, the sights and sounds that trigger memories, connect us to our past. The old times. Our long gone days.

For some, it might be the sight of an old red wagon, the bells of an ice cream truck a block away, or the aroma of fresh, baked bread. We see it, hear it, smell it and are magically moved, transported, to another time, another place. Our former lives, the past.

J.K. Rowling plays with the idea of the transporting object in the fourth book of the Harry Potter series, The Goblet of Fire, when she introduces the concept of the portkey. It is an object that, once touched, holds the power to warp space, shifting a body to another place — a portal not unlike Proust’s light, spongey madeleine cakes. In the case of Proust, the experience takes you to another time. One sniff carries you away.

I experience a reliable portkey whenever I shuck an ear of corn, an act which always evokes memories. The stripping away of outer leaves is similar, in affect, to peeling back layers of time. I instantly (and involuntarily) recall being a boy again — standing barefoot at the side of my old red house on 1720 Adelphi Road, that narrow strip of property just outside our kitchen door abutting the Esteps’ place, literally our next door neighbors. I am handed a brown grocery bag and pushed out the door, tasked with the chore of shucking the corn.

There are seven children in our family and this is a job that even the youngest child can’t screw up too badly, though I don’t recall ever having a perfectionist’s patience while pulling away each fine strand of corn silk. I loved tearing away the rugged green leaves, layer by layer, revealing the bright kernels of sweet summer corn. So delicious and suddenly in season, piping hot on our kitchen table in a great steaming bowl, wrapped in a kitchen towel to keep warm.

I still love that job today — shucking the corn — and always volunteer. I even love the word itself: shuck. Aw, shucks. That wonderful “uck” sound: truck and cluck and who knows what else. It’s as fun to say as it is to do. Each time I’m brought to a simpler moment from the past, a childhood ideal. Our family, bustling and busy, together. A time before any of the hard stuff ever happened.

We even had a dinner bell my mother would let me ring. And I’d shout: “Barbara! Neal! John, Al, Billy, Jean! Dinner’s ready!”

And then we look up and the leaves have turned, we blink and they have fallen, and soon we’re wearing sweaters and tramping off in heavy boots. The harvest season is over. The corn spent, the stalks cut, the fields brown and barren. But the golden memory persists.

Some folks talk with disdain about living in the past, as if it were a bad thing. We’re told that we need to focus on the here and now, the life that’s lived in front of our senses. And I suppose they’re right about that. But the older I get, the more past I gather. There are people I love who exist only in my past, exclusively in that long gone time: two brothers, Neal and John, a father, some absent friends. I visit with them only in memory.

Richard Ford, one of my favorite writers, has his most well-known character, Frank Bascombe, make a casual comment about dementia. Frank opines that it’s probably not as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps not for the circle of loved ones, but for the dementia-sufferer herself. Living in that white-blue haze, staring off at the television screen, watching something or some time, misty and uncertain. The chair my mother sits in becomes a portkey and the crumbling architecture of her mind lifts off, roams and wheels like seagulls above the surf. And there in the lambent light steps forward a flickering image, her youngest child struggling with a heavy brown bag filled with corn, tasked with shucking, peeling away the outer leaves and silky tassel to reveal, once again, those yellow rows of tasty kernels, a bright golden haze on the meadow.

 

 

 

Brutally Honest 93-Year-Old Critic Raves About BLOOD MOUNTAIN: “I’m Sure It’s Wonderful.”

Thanks, Mom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baseball Comes Round Again: Recalling “Six Innings” and How Cancer Came Into Our Lives

I sometimes tell this story on school visits, if I am in the right mood and have the right group before me. My oldest son, Nick, is a two-time cancer survivor. First diagnosed at age two. It was a hard time. The nurses at the pediatric oncology unit at Albany Medical Center would say to me — and let me tell you, those are truly inspiring human beings who will always have a special place in my heart — “You are an author, you should write about this.” At the time, I couldn’t conceive of it, happy to just navigate the parking garage without getting into an accident. Mentally, just gone. Nick recovered, only to relapse again in 4th grade. All he wanted to do was run with the pack, play travel soccer, be a kid. I watched him face it all with strength and courage; and let us remember, there is no courage without fear leading the way, linked hand in hand. I watched Nick’s friendships, the way certain boys rallied around him. And to this day I can’t think about any of it without tears streaming down my face. 

Nick with Lisa holding him tight.

Around that time I started writing a book called Six Innings. A book about a Little League baseball game, and moreso, about the kids who played it. A lot of characters to dream up. As a useful storytelling device, and as a faithful recording of how things worked at my local Little League, I wanted there to be a kid announcing the game. “Now batting, Cleon Jones,” that kind of thing. And I vividly remember sitting in my chair, staring at the computer, when the thought came: What’s this kid’s story? And it hit me, Oh, he’s sick. He’s very sick. And so I gave that kid cancer. 

Six Innings is a baseball book, full of plays and on-field drama. But it is also about those kids, their lives and hopes and conflicts. I mean, there’s a lot of baseball in this book, so it’s not for everyone. Below I’ll share one scene that comes directly from our experience. When Nick relapsed, and we had to go through it all over again, our doctor came to our house for a family meeting. We sat together in the living room, stunned and serious and scared. She laid it all out before us, Nick included. While many details were altered, Nick’s response was the exact response I gave to the character, Sam, in the book, almost word for word. 

Six Innings was named an ALA Notable, and I’m proud of that. And it’s still in print, and I’m grateful for that. And Nick is strong and healthy and living in NYC, and goodness, I don’t even have words for it.

Here’s a scene from Six Innings. Thank you for reading: 

 

And now they gave it a name. Sam had osteosarcoma. Or, well, osteosarcoma had him. The two words — Sam and osteosarcoma — were joined now, entangled, entwined, forever linked. Buried inside the big word, he discovered the letters to his own name, s-a-m. It was there all along.

Doctor Shrivastava looked from one to the other: Sam, his father, his mother. Mostly though, and to her great credit, the raven-haired doctor with milk chocolate skin spoke directly to Sam, kept meeting his eyes, looking at him with sharp-eyed clarity and infinite kindness. She was nice. There was goodness in her. Sam felt it.

So. That was that. But what did it mean? It was as if doctors spoke only secret words no one could understand: biopsy, retinoblastoma, metastasize, limb salvage, and chemotherapy. Somehow all those words were stuck into Sam like darts, but they didn’t seem real. All Sam really knew, judging from the way his mother kept chewing on her lower lip, the way his father reached for Sam’s hand and squeezed, was this: Not good.

Sam’s mother kept scribbling on the legal pad, flipping pages, writing furiously. In Sam’s family, she was in charge of facts. For reasons no one could explain, Sam had contracted the most common type of bone cancer. It usually appeared in teen boys, often during growth spurts. A tumor grew in Sam’s leg. Doctor Shrivastava wanted to remove the bone before the cancer could spread. She said that they would replace the bone with a metal rod.

How weird was that?

This surgery, she said, would take place in about twelve weeks. During that time, and for nine months afterward, Sam would have to take some very strong medicine. The medicine, or chemotherapy treatment, would destroy the bad cancer cells in his body — but they would also make him feel very sick sometimes.

At a certain point, Sam stopped listening. He closed his eyes. It was dark, and he was swirling in an inky sea of words, drowning in the dark, mystic language. He needed to get away. Fly to some other place. He was tired of listening, tired of hushed conversations, of doctors and their white coats.

Dr. Shrivastava looked at Sam. “Most patients fully recover,” she assured him.

Sam stifled a yawn. He had been stuck in this office forever.

“Can we go now?” he asked his parents.

“Sam? What?”

“I want to go to Mike’s house,” he announced. “He just got the new MLB game on PlayStation. He says it’s awesome.”

“Mike’s house?” his mother repeated. “Sam, I . . . ?”

“It should be fine,” Dr. Shrivastava intervened, checking her wristwatch. “Perhaps that’s enough for one day.” She looked at Sam, smiled warmly. “Mike is your friend?”

Sam nodded, yes, of course. Mike was his friend.

Me and My Dog

 

If anyone in our family sits on the floor, our puppy, Echo, comes and sits in our lap. True story. I have evidence.

School Visits: A Couple of Photos, Some Words

I’m 58 today. All day. Was just sent this photo from a school visit in East Williston, NY. I’m pleased to see the background image, the photo of my brothers & sisters a few years before I arrived on the scene, the youngest of seven. There’s been no greater influence on my writing — on my self — than the family I come from. In some respects, it surprises me how much I talk about family at the younger elementary levels. I want them to look around at the people in their lives, and value what they have: the stories that are right there. 

This one is from Weber Middle School, also on Long Island, where I spoke to 6th graders who had all read Bystander. Obviously, I very different presentation. In this one, we were able to fit into a spectacular library for an intimate conversation. Some rooms are tougher than others. The cafetorium can be hard on an audience. I’m always grateful when we can find this type of warm, comfortable setting. It makes a difference. 

And, okay, sure: happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me! Grateful I can still do this job, still speak to young people, still live this life of books and dreams and thoughts and feelings and words, words, words. Couldn’t last a year without the support of teachers and librarians and parents who share my books with young readers. Thank you!