Thursday, April 24, 2008

Writing Prompt 44

Think of a long term marriage or partnership--yours, your parents, grandparents, that couple at church. What would one partner write to the other after death? What could be written in advance? Would it make any difference?

The Second Letter from the Dead

Introducing my first letter from the dead, I said it came out of a frustrating funeral experience. It was the "letter" from a dead husband to his wife, possibly something published in a Dear Abby or Ann Landers column that did me in. The message was Don't worry, be happy. I'm in heaven, everything's cool. That fact alone was supposed to cancel any agony the widow would experience. Her circumstances were irrelevant. Arghh.

I've always felt that memorial services were for the living; to provide us with sacred time and space to remember and honor the life of the one we lost, and to give us courage to shoulder on without him/her. I never thought that anything we did or said would make a difference to the dead, or insure them a slot in a specific beyond this realm venue. In that, I agree with Thomas Lynch who says about funerals, "the dead don't care."

My letter to a widower:

Dear Ira,

After today, take the suit to the Salvation Army. It’s seen too many buried. First your mother, then my brother, then our Samuel. Not Samuel. We needed Samuel. God forbid our child, we’d said. But God didn’t forbid. And how we tried to change God’s mind. Bring him back, God. Bring him back or give us another child. We’ll do anything. Go back to synagogue; invite Rabbi Kamenstein to dinner. Bargaining is for the living, Ira, and we both know it doesn’t work.

In this heat, your jacket will be off at graveside, so starch your shirt, there’s a can of Niagara in the back closet, top shelf. Turn the iron to cotton. Let it heat for five minutes, then spray like you’re doing my hair. Grief is for the living, Ira. I wish I’d known that. I wish I had allowed myself to wail, instead of drowning in the sherry. I know I wasn’t easy with the drinking, the nagging, cheating at Bridge. I had to win, had to have everything my way. You just let it roll like water off a duck. So Ira, do what you need to do. If you don’t want to be alone, I’ll understand. Everyone will understand. I tried to take care of you. I loved you. Maybe I never said it right.

Wear the red tie, you know it was my favorite, and take it to the cleaners, see if they can’t get the gravy stain out. Oh, and put a rose, just one on my coffin. I always liked that. What else? Make sure Ben at John’s Food King de-bones the chicken.

Things will be different, Ira. If it feels like too much, just breathe. Breathe and go through the motions and one day you might find something that makes you want to trim your beard, put on your blue cashmere vest and leave the house.

And Ira, if that something happens to be Doris Katz, you have my blessing.

Your Miriam

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I thought the price on Dr. D’s Weed Death sounded too good to be true, but at Customer Warehouse, once you throw in a couple cases of Coors and Marlboros along with those mountain climber bars and diet iced teas, the bargains get fuzzy.

To read the rest of this short story, visit Verdad Magazine.

Writing Prompt 43

Try writing a letter from a soldier (dead or alive) to someone back home.

The First Letter from the Dead

A number of years ago I went to a funeral and left furious with the platitudes the pastor preached. My frustration gave way to a written rant which, after much revising, found form in a series of seven fictional letters written by my imagined dead to those they've left behind. The letters were accepted into an anthology that never materialized. I think about them every now and then, and last week I was at another funeral, one where I felt inclined to slap the perky pastor across the face. That, and the fact I'm reading The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, has planted death in the center of my awareness. I return to my letters, whatever they might lack, as a point to begin again a dialogue about grief and living in the shadow of death.

This week, the first letter.

Hey Mom and Dad,

I know. We all knew I took a risk. But friendly fire, who would’ve thought? Gee whiz. Is that what they call irony? Dad, please don’t keep the flag all folded up in a case on the mantle. Give it to the Eagle Scouts or Union High, someone that’ll fly it.

I finally get the thousand points of light. Kaboom! I’m a thousand points of light. In a weird way, I was ready. Not that I had a death wish or anything, but you’re packing up your gear the night before and you can’t sleep and think, what if this is it? You didn’t think I understood, thought I was too young and immature, but I did. So don’t guilt yourself. And, you’ve got to stop thinking you could’ve stopped me from enlisting, that you shouldn’t have been so do the right thing all my life. I didn’t join just for the college or because of some God Bless America recruiting booth at the fairgrounds on Fourth of July. It was something else, something I don’t have words for, I was just supposed to.

Mom, now the freezer’s full of Tupperware casseroles. You’ll be eating leftovers for a year, sorry. Maybe you could defrost them all at once, have a big old potluck in the basement at Presbyterian First. Kenny and Richie could tell stories on me, like the time we took the Civic while you were at the bowling tournament, and set out for Mustang Ranch. That would loosen everyone up; maybe they’d stop acting like I was so perfect. I don’t want a halo.

Things will quiet down eventually. My newspaper obit will come off the bulletin boards to make way for the track team’s championship photo, the memorial scholarship fund will run out of money, some of the kids won’t even know who I was. You can even decide it’s okay not to be sad anymore, at least not all the time. It’s okay with me. We had our fights and stuff, but you were the best parents.

And when people shake their heads and say, “What a waste,” tell them they’re wrong.



Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing Prompt 42

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.”

-Mary Oliver

Let Oliver's words inspire yours.

You Do Not Have to Be Good

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.”

-Mary Oliver

I was given this writing prompt during my AWA training last summer. Oliver's quote is merciful, much as I imagine God. I also thought of the Psalmists, raging against their enemies, and that primal urge I have had to face and quell, to make someone who has hurt me suffer before I will offer forgiveness. So here is the shadow side given voice:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.”

But that’s what I want you to do.
I want you to be sorry, so so sorry.
I want you to crawl to my door, fall at my feet
your knees bloody, your lips cracked.
I want you to beg for mercy, beg for forgiveness.
Prove to me, every day in every action for the rest of your life
that you are agonizingly sorry––
that you are miserable, screwed down by my gaze,
aware of exactly what you did, every detail, to betray me.

You have committed the unpardonable sin, the one thing I will not forgive.
You can try though, to eek it from me,
the forgiveness that will wet your parched mouth.
I will stand and wait, a cool glass of water in my grasp.
I will stand at my door, shading my eyes with my hand.
I will watch you crawl toward me, waiting for your arrival.
You, hungering for benediction, thirsting for a blessing––
you will walk on your knees toward me, repentant for a lifetime.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Writing Prompt 41

"Bodies carry our immediate history and our heritage; they too are made of stories."
-Elizabeth J. Andrew, Writing the Sacred Journey

Write about your bodily inheritance.

Our Inheritance

“You inherited the Preimsberger butt,” my mother said to my sister and me, two girls thin as two-by-fours, flat from head to foot, except for the butt, protruding from our backsides like cantaloupe halves. She was not a Preimsberger and therefore not a contributor to our malady. The butt came from our father, and to him and his three thin sisters from his mother, who by the time she was our grandma, had enough padding to camouflage the butt. Technically she was a Tholen; a Preimsberger only by marriage, but we were never a technical family.

When I was born my father nicknamed me P.B. It was supposed to stand for Preimsberger’s Baby, but my friends determined it meant Preimsberger Butt, loudly reminding me of my ancestry every time I walked away. My sister was spared such a nickname.

Then there was the nose. The butt was nothing compared to the cursed nose, a huge eagle-y beak long as a ski slope, that made many a Preimsberger look mean: Grandpa Dick, Uncle Reiny, our father, and even Aunt Jayne who made up bedtime stories just for me about kids who could dispense buttermilk from their noses via straws. Thinking back, Aunt Jayne's stories were most likely a product of hours spent in front of the mirror theorizing that a facial feature that large should have a spectacular function.

Our father’s Preimsberger proboscis had also been broken, twice, as a teenager and reset itself with an extra lump on the ridge. For a long time I worried that I had the nose since mine was always a bit too big for my face, and because people seemed to be able to recognize from great distances that I was my father’s daughter. Somewhere during high school though, I began to worry about my oversized butt and undersized breasts more frequently than my nose, which seemed to have mutated just a bit.

The full brunt of the beak fell to my little sister, who on her thirteenth birthday set aside the ten-dollar bills in the cards from both sets of grandparents for a nose job.

Our father is six foot two inches tall; his sisters hover near five feet ten. These great heights weren’t shared with us. Instead, our mother, five foot two, and her mother, five foot three, set the tone for my sister’s and my height. A few weeks after her thirteenth birthday, my sister, determined to break five foot four used her nose job fund to buy a pair of four-inch platform sandals with cork soles.

Interestingly, she said her nose felt smaller, almost invisible when she could look down at her friends from her new height, rather than up at them across the long slope of her schnozz.