This summer I promised myself that I would scan the complete manuscript of my novel Feisty Women as it had been written on a word processor and not on a computer. I am about half way through. My goal is to send out query letters to agents and editors and yet, every day, time zips by and it hasn't been done. Teaching, coordinating the youth program at church, fb and emails, submitting grant proposals, editing an anthology....all these things must get done and by late afternoon, I am tired of the screen. I have no excuses. I always admonish the participants in my writing classes that time can be and must be found if progress is to be made. I share the story of writing another novel in 15 minutes a day while employed as a nanny. Take my own advice! Here is the first chapter of a novel I feel is a parable of what is possible. An elderly woman takes in a younger woman and eventually her home is filled with people of all ages. Her insights as her relationships grow enable her to recognize her failings with her own children. Take a read at this preview and let me know what you think....
By Wendy Brown-Baez
Chapter One: Dreaming
Every day I watched from my window. Before I knew who they were, I watched them walk by in the street, women who walked past my window almost daily. I noticed their beauty, their grace, their youthful stride. Not that they were more beautiful than other women. It was something else, a purposefulness that was also full of tenderness. I wanted to meet them and yet felt afraid, ashamed almost.
In contrast to their youth and loveliness, I was old and ugly. My skin dried and blotched with age marks, warts, skin tags and the dried salt of tears. My thin hair wispy on my shrunken head made my ears stand out like flaps. My bony hands and shoulders and pouches under my eyes. My fragility compared to their vitality. My thin body could no longer support me in the dance of life was carrying me inevitably toward the dance of death.
Those girls, those women walked--no, strode, danced, trotted, almost flew through the streams of people, the sunlight glancing off their jewelry like sparkling fireworks going off before my eyes. Those girls, those women--who still had firm breasts and rounded hips, thighs rippling in jeans, hearty feet in boots, and brilliantly colored scarves! Those women bedazzled me, in my brief glimpse into their world as they passed by my window, tugging along a small straggling child, yanking sharply the leash of a furry dog, carrying sacks of groceries, shaking their heads, smiling at no one in particular, pleased with themselves, pleased with life. And I, old, ugly, misshapen, strapped into this horrible stiff metal and leather contraption with wheels, hands uselessly folded in my lap, eyes dimming and limbs stiffening, rejoiced in their beauty. I was not jealous. I yearned to reach out and caress them as you would an inspiring work of art. I did not know their names yet, so I gave them names: Passion, Grace, Faith and Delight. I yearned to speak with them, to hear the music of their voices, to enfold them in the peaceful harmony of the measured tread of time.
How could I know it was my longing to be heart to speak aloud the multitude of memories that swelled up in me day by day, swelled unspoken and unheard, memories, stories, treasures of a long-lived life. I yearned to invite them in to my own small fragile world. "A cup of tea?" I would ask. "Or do you girls drink coffee? Cookies? Chocolate chip or ginger snaps? My teeth are too brittle for them. I bought them for you. They used to be my favorite. Or perhaps the pumpkin bread or the strawberry tarts would be better." Not the same as homemade. I used to bake quite well but these would have to be fetched from the bakery...
And so my mind would ramble on, dozing in my chair by the window, dreaming of tea parties, and laughter and friendship.
A light touch on my shoulder. "Mrs. L Mrs. L." It was Felicia, the paid care-taker, 2-9 shift. Her brown plump face was expressionless, impassive as she wheeled me around to a small card table set for two, the long formal dining room unused for many years. Sometimes we ate in the kitchen, but too often it reminded me of my inability to cook or bake, which I had loved to do. The joy of braiding the challah every Friday night and baking sweet cakes and pastries. I wondered if Felicia was worried about her husband again. He beat her sometimes, I knew. Even for a blurry eyed old woman, I could see the bruises. On those days, she was unusually quiet, brooding perhaps about leaving him. Or him leaving her. I did not know, she didn't confide in me. Our relationship was strictly business.
“What’s for dinner?' I croaked, my voice harsh from disuse. I shuddered to hear myself asking the same inane question every night.
“Chicken breasts and mashed potatoes, Mrs. L," Felicia explained, carefully spooning the gravy liberally to drown what I assumed would be instant mashed potatoes again. I sighed, remembering baked potatoes, fried potatoes with meat, french fries crisp and hot, potato latkes, and I longed to say to her, ”You lazy girl! Do you give your family instant potatoes?" But I knew it was hard for her. She had kids and an unruly husband and she didn't need to be scolded by me over the potatoes. So I bowed my head to say Grace.
I insisted on saying Grace always. If you're not grateful, you don't deserve to eat.
Felicia cheered up and started to chatter to me. She was usually cheerful and pretty friendly, just a bit stupid and cowed under by men and the system of things, poverty and lack of education. I liked to hear the sound of her Spanish accent. I wished my brain was young and flexible again and she could teach me Spanish. But I didn't grow up around Spanish speaking people and none of it sticks with me.
My mind wandered from dinner to my window watching that afternoon, before I dozed off. I saw “Faith" today, looking more serious than usual, her face turned to the ground, hands deep in her coat pockets. It was a wool coat, I believe. A navy wool coat or was it brown? And a bright red scarf under all that long hair. Faith looked sad, Faith needed a friend.
"Mrs. L-desert tonight? I make tapioca, just the way you like it'"
Felicia used that voice that meant I was a stupid old lady lost in a dream world. I glared at her, but she was already standing up to gather up the plates and silverware. But I did love the way she made tapioca, whipping the egg whites and serving it with fruit and whipped cream. I forgave her the potatoes.
"Yes, Felicia, I would love some." Somehow my tone was always formal, although this woman must undress me and dress me in my pajamas, help me on and off the toilet, hear unladylike burps and farts. By nine, when she was ready to go, I was in bed.
The longest shift, the night shift, came in quietly. Natalie was a quiet person, her presence comforting when I was sleepy and annoying when I was wakeful. Every night she read to me. She spent the most hours in my home, but paid me the least amount of attention except when I was sleepless and restless. She calmed me with hot tea, foot rubs, and sometimes songs.
Some nights I longed for a ride through the park on a horse carriage, like my husband and I did every summer on our anniversary. Or to go out on the town, passing lighted bars and cafes where the sounds of laughter and music and smells of liquor and smoke wafted through the door when someone came out. When we arrived at our favorite place to dance, The Silver Moon, we found it filled with women in brilliant evening gowns and men in dark suits and bow ties. The sounds of glasses clinking and laughter flowed around the band playing a rhumba while couples moved on the smoothly polished circular floor. We took our places among them, graceful and sure of ourselves.
Sometimes my body felt like a straitjacket, gnarled and bony and useless. I suffered because I could no longer dance, could no longer stay awake until dawn, my husband's hand on my back with secure strength to lead me and guide me through the crowds of friendly and sometimes flirtatious men and friendly and sometimes snide women. All that was left was a memory.
©Wendy Brown-Baez 2013