The Latest Excerpt and an Announcement!

The first of February already – time to post another excerpt from the first draft of One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness and Finding One’s Place at the Table.

And speaking of first drafts….I have committed to the deadline of March 1 (as in a month from today!) to have a messy first draft in the hands of Max Regan, a mentor and Development Editor who is going to give the manuscript its first full read!  I am nervous and excited and looking forward to his wise words and guidance.

So, I still have a lot of writing to do, which is where you’ll find me for most of this month. For now, here is the latest excerpt to share, a deeper introduction into the story’s protagonist, Bea. I hope you enjoy it.

Night's treasures

The problem with time, Bea thought, leaning back in her chair and looking up at the deep blue-black sky peppered with stars, is that one always thought there would be enough of it. But the opposite seemed to be true: There seemed to never be enough time. How could one ever avoid wanting just one more conversation; one more afternoon sitting in the sun; one more smile and hug from a loved one; one more chance to ask all the questions left burning inside.

Had Bea ever felt like she’d had enough time? Why hadn’t she learned the lesson, but instead continued to be surprised when Time was up, over? Would she end her life with the wide-eyed sense of surprise and her last words be “but I thought there would be more time?”

She took a sip of wine, squinting up into the night, and tried to sketch out the pictures of constellations that her father had shown her when she was only six or seven, standing together in their darkened back yard in small-town Minnesota; kitchen lights off, standing still long enough that the motion-detection spotlight on the garage stood down from its duty. They would stand there at different times of the year, to be able to see the different characters and pictures that arced overhead through the seasons. Bundled in down coats and scarves in the winter, sweaters in spring and fall, or trying to stay cool in shorts and tee shirts in the thick, humid Midwestern summer, when sleep was elusive and they might as well be outside looking at the stars. Cassiopeia, Sagittarius, the dippers both big and little, Ursa both major and minor; Bea couldn’t remember them all, and now she was half a continent away, under a slightly different sky – the lights of the city prohibitively bright. She sighed. When her father had left time had abruptly stopped, then jerkily started again for the three of them, but in an out of sync rhythm like trying to walk with the heel of one shoe broken off. As a child she hadn’t considered an end-point to the time with her father. Thought there would be more time, enough time.

Her mother’s stroke. Another time thief. Bea had thought there would be plenty of time to finish the program at culinary school and then propel herself on a long and satisfying career path. But suddenly that time was suspended – or over, at the time she didn’t know for sure – as she moved back home (alone, without Alice; Bea took a sip of wine to wash the acrid bitterness of that fact off her palate). She had imagined a future time possibly spent in the process of care-taking her mother, but imagined it many years in the future; thought she had more time, enough time, before then. Time for those talks, those holiday visits, those occasional letters and packages in the mail.

But, is there ever “enough?” What is enough and who decides? Don’t we always, like selfish children, want more? Bea had wanted more time with her mother, had tried to squeeze every bit of what was left to them and be achingly present, to somehow store each memory, the sound of her voice (what was left of it), and after that, the feel of her hand, the deep amber color of her eyes. But there was never enough time for it all, for all that Bea imagined she would have.

Then there was an estate to close, a house to sell. Thoughts about moving away somewhere that maybe the clock could be started again and Bea could once again have enough time.

 And then she had met Peter, at the home of a mutual friend. A relaxed evening and quiet dinner of scallops and roasted asparagus, fresh strawberries, creamy farmers cheese and almonds for dessert, and a few bottles of crisp white wine (yes, Bea remembered the meal, as well as the company); and through him time stretched out again – the dream of having enough of it was like a sweet balm of refuge from the ache of time having been snatched away what felt like over and over again.

     They had married that autumn – the day before the first Minnesota snowfall of the season – and for the first year or two she was so happy that she would lay awake at night listening to Peter’s even, peaceful breathing, trying to memorize it, just in case this time would get stolen from her, too. But finally, she relaxed in the rhythm of their days, of their life together. Peter was a constant – like the Northern Star that Bea now found overhead in the night sky – a star so bright that all the artificial lights couldn’t dissipate its brightness. That was Peter, for Bea.

     The years went on and she thought herself happy; was happy, truly. But as she crested the hill of her life and stumbled upon sight of the threshold of forty years around the sun, she felt once again that shadow of impending…something…that kept her awake at night.

     She disliked the idea of a midlife crisis, it seemed so cliché, though menopause was going to be real and upon her, soon enough. Ah. At one point in her life she thought she had time enough to have a child, though was undecided whether or not she wanted one. Peter and she had talked about it with no great enthusiasm or driving need, but no real aversion either. They both danced with their fears and tender memories of family gone awry, enough so that they could push away decision about a child of their own until it either happened or didn’t. Well, the “enough time” for that event was coming closer to an end.  And how did she feel about it? She didn’t know for sure. It was all muddled up with the rest of her emotions about her life, another grain of sand flowing through the hourglass.

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Latest Excerpt from “One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table”

Reserved II

     In the spirit of staying true to my intention to regularly post excerpts from the novel-in-progress, here is this month’s offering. I hope you are intrigued.

Bea brought the pale green towel down from drying her face and paused, considering her reflection in the mirror; thinking how odd it was that no one ever gets to see their own face, but others could view it, could stare at it as long as they liked, taking that fact for granted.

Your only view was from inside it. For the exterior, one was limited to photographs and this backward mirror image. How could it be? Nothing closer to you than your own skin, but never getting to actually see your own face, not ever. You could look down at your hands, your feet, your knobby knees, and there they were, live and in real-time. But not your face.

How much was the reflection in the mirror like a mask you wore?  And if so, where was the real you and who really gets to see it?

Bea frowned and her reflection frowned back. “Where did all that come from?” She wondered. “Middle of the night musings agitated by spicy food too soon before bedtime – philosophy driven by a slight case of heartburn?” Probably it came from all her recent thinking about the nature of Truth, about some of the people in her life and who the hell were they, really?  A mother, dead all these years, who had held a wound and secret alone and close in her heart nearly all the way to her grave, and not shared with Bea; a sister who she had thought was a whole-sister but turns out was only a half-sister (and is that a matter of blood and DNA, anyway, determining who gets to be “whole” and who gets to be “half?”); a father who had been absent most of her life and was now dropping back inside the frame of the picture – but only briefly – as it turns out, just as a cameo appearance before moving back into the turnstile out of her life. Out of life itself, in fact.  Bea felt sure she knew Peter well, but she felt the queasy wavering of doubt. What did she know to be true, after all, even about her husband? And who was she, for that matter? Could she trust a face that she never really got to see with her own eyes?  Bea closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, trying to stop this Möbius strip of thought, but without much success.

People identify who they are, their place in the family, by who they look like, right? Bea contemplated who was present in her features: She peered intently, turning her face slightly left, and then right (or right and then left, depending on how you wanted to look at it). Her thick chestnut hair was definitely her mother’s; likewise the pale color and somewhat dry texture of her skin. Her height and her general build – tall, slender except for a tendency toward heaviness in the hips if left to their own devices – were also her mother’s. Her blue-gray eyes and slightly too-large nose came from her father (though only known through photographs, Bea made a point to note). She shared her maternal grandmother’s name – but also her hands, Bea suddenly realized. They were not her mother’s hands; they had skipped a generation and became hers instead. She held up her hands in the mirror, palms facing her, and gazed at them through the distance of the mirror to make sure. Yes, there it was – she hadn’t ever quite seen it before – how had she missed it? Fingers long, slender but strong. Hands slightly larger than average. Not yet as wrinkled as she remembered her grandmother’s, but hers unmistakably. A duplicate of the hands Bea had grown up watching kneading bread, stirring sauces, tying roasts, peeling potatoes. Bea was suddenly washed over with happiness. Giddy almost, like she had just been given a gift. She had loved watching her grandmother’s hands, and it felt like through them a part of her was still alive in Bea.

Could knowledge be transmitted and carried forward in such a way? If so, what was Bea’s responsibility to her grandmother, if anything? Had her grandmother entrusted her with those indispensable tools for cooking? Was she obliged to use the gift, fully and completely, to the best of her ability?

Her grandmother had smiled at Bea when she’d heard about Bea’s wanting to go to culinary school – something Bea had not yet told anyone else – the summer between high school and college, while they were sitting together on the cool, shady porch, shelling peas into matching bright yellow bowls (had Bea really held that dream for so long?). It was one of the last times she had seen her grandmother, whose eyesight was failing gradually and the rest of her fading away more quickly. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday, and it was uncertain whether or not she would see ninety-one (she fooled them all and lived another three and a half years, dying peacefully one windy autumn afternoon in her sleep).

Bea remembered those last few visits vividly, all the more so for knowing they were numbered: The smells of spring lilacs and old age; chicken soup and eucalyptus ointment. Nearer the end, Bea trying to fill the empty, unknown silent spaces with talk – about college, trips to the lake, things she had been cooking –  almost desperately trying to bring the world to her grandmother, who was by then steadily withdrawing from it. Her hands, that Bea remembered still so clearly as active and precise in their movements, now lying still on the soft blue cotton blanket.

Amuse Bouche

 

Tapas

In keeping with my intention to share the writerly process and occasionally post an excerpt from the novel-in-process, still tentatively titled One Dish at a Time: a Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table, I decided it was time to post another one. (The first two are here and here.)

The question of what to choose was answered for me when recently assigned by Jeffrey Davis to share the first five hundred words of our book with the other participants in his eight month long author’s mentorship program.

This was the first declaration of the beginning of the actual container that will hold this story, and was the first step in being able to start assembling the many pieces and scenes and conversations – both past and present – into what I hope will eventually be a coherent and captivating whole.

So in the spirit of writerly courage, here you have the first draft of the first five hundred words:

 

 

Amuse-bouche

 

 

Amuse-bouche: noun \ˈä-ˌmüz-ˈbüsh, from the French meaning “entertaining the mouth.” A single-bite appetizer or hors d’oeuvre that sets the tone or theme for the meal that will follow.

 

 

Bea’s grandmother made bread every Wednesday. After school, when she and Alice walked – or more typically ran, bursting through the kitchen door with the slap of the screen door behind them – into the house, it was to be enveloped by the heady aromas of baking and heat. Bea would sit on a tall stool by the massive butcher block, watching the choreography of her grandmother’s hands and the moving ball of dough. “You just get a feel for it in time,” she’d say.

 

* * *

 

Every time Tyler smelled freshly baked croissants he thought about Octavia.

As the years went by, he got to know the shape and texture of his grief in such a way that he could almost feel it, pliable and soft, but ever-present with a tenacious solidity.

 

* * *

 

Alice breathed deeply and caught a whiff of the Plumaria blossoms near the steps – that faintly spicy, faintly sweet combination that brought her comfort. The scent that welcomed her home after a long day or occasional week or more away for a photo shoot. It was the scent she had first encountered when she stepped off the plane at the Honolulu airport; the woman walking ahead of her was greeted by a group of friends, one of whom placed a lei of creamy white flowers around their returning friend’s neck. When she later saw the Plumaria tree growing next to the porch of a cottage she was looking to rent, she knew she had found her new home.

 

* * *

 

Michael eased himself down onto the step of his airstream as the sun was just beginning to dip down and color the western horizon of the far hills. He groaned slightly and then coughed. It had been a long day of pulling a stubborn engine out of a Studebaker, and he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He coughed again, ran a hand through his graying hair. He took a long drink from the cold beer and sighed with satisfaction. He never got tired of this view, of so much sky that held so many stars to look at in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. He was glad he found this place on the periphery of town and beyond the reach of the lights that obscured the stars.

He coughed again.

 

* * *

 

Bea sits at table on the deck, overlooking the greenway and beyond it the river, with stacks of recipe books and her laptop and an indulgent mid-afternoon glass of wine. She picks up a fawn-colored file folder with long-ago notes and scribbling on food-stained pages; the remnants of her months in culinary school. She slowly turns over page after page, looking for a clue, an idea, an inspiration from these ghosts from her past.

     Goddamn it, she thinks. I need a plan.

 

One (more) Dish at a Time

Raw coriander, garlic and flax on vintage desk

The first excerpt of the novel-in-process was published last spring (with much thanks to  Marisa Goudy for giving me the nudge and the venue). It was anxious-making and exciting to see it out in the world as a Real Thing, even virtually, and I decided I would post more bits and pieces as I went along.

Since that first excerpt, I have doubled my page count (up to over two hundred pages, though I know there’s still quite a ways more to go on a first draft that has yet to be subjected to the editing and shaping process), and have added to the working title. For now at least, it’s:

One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table

And now I am in the midst of a several-month online mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder which is helping propel me through this process. Their encouragement, too, reminds me that I said to myself I would share more of the process with you, too.

So, here is another draft excerpt. Hope you like it.

     “Did you know that if you hold the end of a piece of string to your nose with one hand and take the string in the other hand and stretch it out straight to your side, that piece of string will measure one yard?” Michael Smithson’s face held a grin and look that made Bea think of a magician that once did an assembly in her school. “Although you’re still a little small, you might have to turn your head and stretch the other arm back some,” he added. “Shall we see?”

     Bea’s father just happened to have a small ball of string in his jacket pocket (of course), and demonstrated how it was done.

     “How do you know that’s a yard?” asked Bea with small-child skepticism.

     “Hah! I tried it once and then measured the piece of string,” her father replied. “I don’t have a measuring tape on me, I don’t think,” patting his pockets to be sure, “but look, remember how I showed you once that the tiles here in the kitchen were twelve inches across? How many feet is twelve inches?”

     “One.”

     “Good. And how many feet in a yard?”

     Bea squinted in concentration. “Three?”

     “Yes ma’am. Good work. Any chance you know how many inches in a yard, then?”

     Bea squinted her eyes almost closed, trying to make a number appear in her mind. She opened her eyes and shook her head.

     Her father laughed, “That’s okay, sweetie, that’s a hard question and more math than you’ve done yet. I’ll show you on paper later, draw it out for you so you can see it. For now, though, let’s measure. See? This is how it’s done. Now take this end – hold onto the string right where my fingers were so we get it right – and put it at the corner of the tile there at your feet. Now don’t let it move.” Bea squatted down and did as instructed, being small-child-careful to be precise. She watched as her father took the other end and, laying it along the edges of the tiles, until it was a straight line, just past the corner of the (one, two, three) third tile. Bea’s eyes opened wide like she’d seen a magic trick, was waiting for the string to suddenly change into a strand of knotted, colorful scarves.

     Her Father smiled, triumphant. “See? Pretty neat, isn’t it?”

     “But it’s more than three feet….well, just a little” she hurried to add, seeing her father’s eyebrows raise and not wanting to hurt his feelings.

     “Right you are. Using a body ruler – that’s what they call it – is good for approximate measurements. You know what approximate means, right?”

     “Almost?” Bea answered, her voice raising into a question with uncertainty.

     “Yes! Almost, or more-or-less, or close enough to count. You couldn’t build kitchen cabinets that way I don’t think – we could try it though. Think your mother would mind?” Bea giggled. “Now, let’s check your body ruler.” He handed her the string and she copied what she’d watched him do. The results were a little short of three feet.

     “Try again, and this time turn your head toward the side of the hand that’s on your nose, and stretch your other hand back as far as you can.”

     This time the measurement was almost three feet.

     “Approximately,” said Bea, smiling.

     “Exactly right. Now, no matter where you are, you’ll be able to measure a yard of anything you can hold like that in your hands. Back in the olden days, women used to measure fabric that way for the clothes they made. I remember watching your grandmother do it when I was about your age.” He wound the string back into its ball and returned it to his pocket. “There’s lots of these kinds of measurements. I’ll teach you more of them if you’d like sometime.” Bea nodded enthusiastically. It felt like she and her father now shared some kind of important secret. She could hardly wait get home to show her sister.

***

     Bea hadn’t thought about that afternoon in years. But she realized she had committed all the “body ruler” measurements her father had taught her to memory and used them often. Just now, she had unwound a length of kitchen twine and, knowing from experience that to tie a pork shoulder roast of this size required about three feet of string, put the end to her nose and reached her other arm out, reaching back and turning her head to give her a bit of extra to work with, then cutting it with her kitchen shears. She bound the piece of meat into a nice, even cylinder; she recalled as she was tying the ends together that it had been her father who had also taught her a lot about knot tying. That was the summer before he left. It was a lesson that had been left unfinished, for he knew more knots than he had shown her. It had been hard for Bea to make her seven-year-old fingers work together right, but he had said it just took practice, that she had good slender knot-tying fingers and when her hands got a little bigger and stronger she could probably even enter knot-tying competitions. What a bullshitter, Bea thought to herself, shaking her head.

     But she realized she loved knowing practical things like tying knots and being able to measure things without having to first stop and scrounge in a drawer or toolbox for a ruler or tape measure. For example, she knew the span between her thumb and little finger, when she opened her palm wide, was eight inches. Handy (no pun intended) to know when picking a pie or cake pan out of the cupboard and wanting to be sure whether or not it was eight or nine inches (or ten, for that matter. She could determine an inch or two beyond her hand span).

     Bea placed the roast in the oven, wondering what more her father would have taught her if he’d stayed.