After a joyful, dance-filled Easter Mass a few weeks ago I got on a plane and flew to Vienna, then took a train, fighting sleep, to the Austrian town of Klagenfurt am Wörthersee, near the Italian border. There my son Tom, his wife Katya and their two-year-old baby Arisha met me. “Hallo,” she said, greeting me with the friendly wave she bestows equally upon friends and strangers.
For a week I responded to her invitation, “Mmplay?” each morning on awaking. She’d take my hand and lead me to her room, where we’d take a bus, go to Europa Park and have a picnic, all without leaving home.
When I returned to Chicago, I was sucked into the maelstrom of pre-publication for my novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, forthcoming from Fomite Press. I arranged the launch October 16, 7:30 pm at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago, and marveled at the bumpy journey the book had made from conception to launch.
In 2007, thinking my memoir, The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s journey of loss, faith and family, would never see the light of day, I traveled with writing friend Tsivia Cohen to Tepoztlan in Mexico. We spent a week in the beautiful house and around the pool of my long-time friend Silvia Pandolfi, writing mornings and exploring the markets and byways of the town afternoons. As I wrote, I was sounding out the subject matter of my parents’ time and place, Chicago 1930, to see if I could make it into fiction. It was like taking depth measurements, asking: can I probe this moment or this feeling and find its living heart?
Three years earlier, my mother had died, and I’d acquired correspondence from her youth. In those pages I met a young woman I’d never known. She was smart, irreverent, in love with poetry and word-play, but also fragile, oppressed by her own dominating mother and dangerously affectionate father. The mother I knew growing up had already sacrificed that young girl’s saucy daring for stability, and she’d raised me and my sister with calm care. Reading the letters I wanted to give that girl a chance to enter into the struggles of her time, find her voice and speak her mind, to do the things my real mother never dared. In Tepoztlan I tried out moments, scenes and feelings, searching for the ones that rang a bell. I ended up with text like scrambling eggs, lumps of specificity barely taking shape in a thick and formless muck.
In 2009 my memoir was published, and a year of book promotion followed. Meanwhile, my novel simmered acquiring two narrators, a man and a woman. I read Douglas Glover, Charles Baxter, E.K. Brown and others on the novel and took an early version of the story to my writing group and friends who volunteered to read. The best advice I got was to drop the male voice and leave the story to my sassy protagonist, and this I did. But the book-in-progress had promises to keep and miles to go.
Flying back from Austria less than a week ago, I only wished Arisha could have joined the jubilant children at the Easter Mass, dancing in the aisles and on the stage at the back of the gym. But I can take a page from her book of adventures, where Europa Park is no less exciting in her room than in the real world. For the distance between what could have and was is precisely what first lured me to my mother’s letters and now fills the pages of my novel.