Monday, March 31, 2014

Connecting Generations with Generations

In order to give my first chapter book, Playing Hooky, more authenticity, I included pics of the "real faces and actual places" that inspired it.  Photos of my mom and dad, baba and zedo, and my brother and uncle were easy to come by.  All I had to do was open the dresser drawers in the spare room and wade through the thousands that have yet to be organized and most likely never will be.

But since I didn't have photos of a few of the places, I decided to return to my childhood stomping grounds to see it they still actually existed.  And they did.  I visited the church and school, the community center and the creek, and the bakery that has survived over 60 years in a neighborhood that's been dying for close to a quarter century.

A few weeks later, my daughter, Joy, and her family came from out-of-town for a short stay.  My grandchildren, Brady and Brenna, were bored so I asked them if they'd be interested in seeing where my mom and dad were born.  After stopping at the Blue Bonnet Bakery for the best-tasting donuts and mimi coffee cakes ever made in the entire world, and taking them on an abbreviated tour of the Stay Tune Distillery which was once the John Munhall Neighborhood House and driving down the path to the infamous creek where my brother nearly lost an eye, it was time for a trek up Hayes Lane, a short, curvy Ravine Street offshoot.

Strange as it may seem, although I'd spent practically all of my pre-teen years roaming Ravine Street in Munhall, PA, I'd never ventured up Hayes Lane before.  During my extensive research, I applied for a copy of my mother and father's marriage license, and lo and behold I found  my maternal grandparents' address with house number included. I also discovered that in the 1930's my dad's family had lived on the lane as well.

My daughter was leary about driving up the narrow road since it was perfectly clear to both of us that only one car at a time could go up or down and there wasn't much space to move aside to allow for somebody to pass.  But I was so excited, she had no choice but to continue on.  At the top of the hill the road came to a dead end.  Brady, Brenna, and I jumped out and began searching for 1042.  Joy stayed in the car in case we had to make a quick getaway.

Midway down the lane I spied the sad-looking house bearing the #1042 with bags of old Christmas decorations and tons of empty beer cans stacked high on the dilapidated front porch.  With my two brave grandkids right behind me, I walked up and rang the doorbell, waited a few minutes and rang it again. Just as we were about to leave, the door opened and a scruffy, unshaven man probably around 70 stood staring me in the face.  I told him my name and asked if he knew who'd lived in his house previously.  He said he'd been born and raised in that house and his family had lived in it since the early thirties.  I gave him our family surname and he immediately rattled off the names of my baba, zedo, mom and uncle.  Then he pointed to the house three doors down and on the left.  "That was their house," he said. I asked him if he knew my dad's family.  He nodded and pointed up the lane where three or four lots stood empty.  "Those houses burned down years ago," he said.  "But I believe one of those was where your father's family lived."  Naturally I was disappointed to hear that, but was eager to see where my mom, and their great-grandmother was born.  The three of us raced down the hill.

For some reason, the address number on my parents' marriage license was incorrect.  It should have read #1032. Even after all those years, the house of our ancestors carried itself in a stately manner.  It's a two story structure built high up with a pair of steps I'm positive my zedo built with his own hands. It has a  front porch that extends the width of the house, and from what I could see, a back porch, too.  From the looks of it, nobody was home.  I told the kids that the next time they visited we'd certainly be back and hopefully gain entrance into the place that remembers our family's history.

By this time, Joy had driven down to where we were standing.  As we got in the car, Brady began telling his mother all about what we had learned.  When I asked him what he thought of our historical tour, my eleven year old grandson said it was cool.  However my eight year old granddaughter wasn't nearly as impressed. But that's okay because as she gets older connections with those who have gone before us will become increasingly more meaningful to her.

They have certainly become more meaningful to me.  And I intend to keep searching as far back as I can go.  This journey has stirred up such strong emotions in me that have both allowed me to release some of my deeply-buried anxiety and helped strengthen my bonds with the people that mean everything to me.

I advice all of you to retrace your steps back in time and connect with your own families.  It is definitely worth your time.

Monday, March 24, 2014

When Royalty Visits

I've cleaned the house, bathed the dog, and curled my hair.  Yesterday I roasted a turkey, sliced it and am now letting the white meat soak in its own juices.  This morning I'll make a chocolate cream pie and be sure to have a variety of beverages in the refrigerator from which to choose.  Although it's rather cold outside, the sun is shining brilliantly.  Even Mother Nature cooperates when royalty visits.

Prince William and his wife, Kate, are too busy with the new baby to come by any time soon.  And, no, Mr.and Mrs. Obama aren't making an appearance today.  I'm sure none of the gubernatorial candidates in PA will show up either since they're diligently crafting their pie-in-the-sky promises for the upcoming election.

But the folks mentioned above don't hold a candle to the elitists who will grace my humble home today with their presence.  Having my first-born grandson, Brady, and my only-born granddaughter, Brenna come and stay for a day or two is an honor my hubby and I breathlessly hope for and ardently embrace.  I suspect all grandparents feel the same way, yet there are those who either seldomly or tragically never realize such an honor.  For you who are members of this sad group, you have my deepest sympathies.

I've drawn up a tentative agenda of activities for Prince Brady and Princess Brenna.  They include breakfast at Pamela's, a hole-in-the-wall Strip District eatery, that is famous for its unmatched pancakes and crepes. Afterwards they have the option to try out the newly-opened tube sledding track at Kerber's Dairy, a local attraction noted for its ice cream delights as well.

Another choice on my agenda is for them to accompany me to a few of my old childhood haunts.
While doing research for my first ever chapter book, Playing Hooky, which hopefully will be ready for publication next month, I recently went back to my hometown to talk with people I hadn't seen in sixty years and to the places I still remember with great fondness.  Believe it or not, even though change is inevitable, most of what I heard and saw was remarkably untouched by the hands of time.

Taking my grandchildren to these "holy icons" of my past, would mean a great deal to me, and give Brady and Brenna a greater understanding of their royal heritage.  They need to know that they were born into a family whose history is rich in deep commitment to each other and to their religious beliefs.  I also want them to realize that the generations that came before possessed an outstanding work ethic that led them out of the Great Depression whole and unscathed.  By showing them that the men in our family unselfishly fought for our country in World War II, and that my dad died in the steel mills that supplied our forces with the necessary tanks and artillery to ensure a positive national outcome, I hope to impress upon them the fact that they come from a royal line of true heroes.

If we actually do everything on my list, there won't be much time for anything else.  But I believe that it will be time well-spent for both the young and the old, and will have provided all with a wealth of memories fit for royalty.

My hope is that from their visit, Prince Brady and Princess Brenna will wear their family crowns with pride. And, even more importantly, as they mature, that they will emulate those kingly qualities their ancestors reflected throughout their lives.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Yes, You CAN Go Back!

Last week I made a journey back in time.  While doing research for a new book, it became necessary to visit my home town.  Although I drive through the place of my birth quite often, I've never actually stopped in any of my old stomping grounds.  But last Friday I did just that and am so very glad I did.

The John Munhall Neighborhood House was our town's community center where everybody gathered to learn, laugh, and love.  It was a place where everybody knew each other by name and most likely was related to in some way.  As a kid, I learned to tap dance, make fudge, do somersaults, master the game of chess, and a gazillion other things.  It was there that I made my first real friends and had the first crush of my life. My mom learned to sew there, my dad made us a kitchen set and cornices for the house there, my uncle Paul was the woodshop instructor there. It was from there that many families left for a week they'd spend together at summer camp.

Today the JMNH is an antiquated building that shows its age and no longer opens its doors to children. I parked in what was once the playground area and began snapping photos of all the familiar outdoor areas.
As I was about to leave, a woman approached me with a smile and an extended hand.  She said she was the owner and wanted to know if she could assist me in any way.

After telling Lee Ann Sommerfeld that I was born and raised in Munhall, and that I had spent all of my childhood  in the building she now owned, and was writing a book using the area as a backdrop for my story, she invited me in to have a look around.

Upon entering the huge wooden doors, I suddenly became six-years-old again.  I could see and hear the faces of people that were so instrumental in my growth and development. Once inside, I began telling Lee Ann about every room in her facility, what it was used for, and what changes had been made since I last walked out of those same wooden doors.  Lee Ann was already aware of some of its history, but was amazed at what I'd told her that she hadn't heard before.

Lee Ann Sommerfeld is the chief, cook, and bottle-washer of the Stay Tuned Distillery.  Yes, I said distillery.
She and Eric make whiskey and gin.  How appropriate I thought, being a place where families gathered to learn, laugh, and love, to a place where beverages are made for families who gather to learn, laugh, and love.

What struck me most was how committed Lee Ann is to keeping the JMNH structure as close to what it was in its hayday than changing it to something totally different. Even though she is too young to have enjoyed the experiences I had there, she seems to understand the importance this old relic had in the lives of our community and believes it deserves to be refurbished rather than reinvented.

As I prepared to take my leave, Lee Ann invited me to visit again if for no other reason than to say hi. Walking back to my car, I felt my heart both heavy and exhilirated at the same time.  Heavy because I missed those happy days with folks that are no longer with me, and exhilirated because I got a chance to relive those happy days and meet a person who embraces the mission to keep the JMNH alive.

Yes, you CAN go back!  And take good advice from one who did, not only CAN you go back, but you definitely SHOULD!

For further info.on the Stay Tuned Distillery, contact Lee Ann at: and

Monday, March 10, 2014

Writers Are A Rare Breed

Every now and again writers hit what seems to be a brick wall and can't find a way to get passed it.  Even the best of them run out of ideas and are stymied by their inability to move forward.  My first children's chapter book flowed onto paper like a swollen creek after the Spring rains.  The story literally wrote itself.

But now that I'm working on the second one of the series, things aren't going as smoothly.  I outlined my thoughts and, in the beginning, writing chapters one and two came off without a hitch.  But then I experienced a conflict with my outline and took another road.  That seemed to resolve the slow-down for the moment. Then, lo and behold, it happened again when I tried to start chapter five.

I call this start and stop issue, "sputtering."  To see if this was a phenomenon particular to myself, I contacted my good friend, Mimi Barbour, a gifted author of Romance novels.  She assured me that every writer sputters from time to time and not to worry.

But Mimi's advise didn't end there.  She encouraged me to talk about the story with other writers and family. She said that doing so would yield a plethora of ideas that could be used immediately and even have a few left over for future projects.

Mimi also suggested that by working backwards from the end of the story oftentimes facilitates the writing and identifies paths that otherwise might not have emerged.

Lastly, Mimi offered to help by asking for a synopsis of my book to-date.  She's willing to read it and tax her brain for possible suggestions that might lead to a happy conclusion.

Writers like Mimi are a rare breed.  They are hardworking, creative individuals who love to tell stories for the pleasure and education of others. But they are just as giving when it comes to helping new authors get going in the business and are their biggest supporters.

Last Friday I was approached by a nana who told me of her nine-year-old daughter's love for writing.  She asked if I could spare some time to look at the child's work and offer any advise regarding her budding talent.  I read Amanda's stories and told the girl that the best way to become a good author was to write constantly.  I also pointed her in the direction of IlluStory A+ found online or in bookstores that would allow her to complete a book from beginning to end resulting in a hardcover edition.  Seeing her efforts materialized in that manner would be a great confidence builder.  Finally I gave her one of my children's books to solidify a writer-to-writer connection.

Professionals like Mimi Barbour make me proud to be a writer. My hope is that I will reach her status someday and that I will continue to reach out to others that share our passion for the printed word.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Tooth Fairy Files Bankruptcy

Liam, one of my six precocious grandsons, lost his first tooth yesterday,  According to his squeamish mother, while in the bathtub fiddling with the tooth that was holding on by a hair, the sucker finally let go.  Liam was ecstatic; his mother, ready to puke. But I'll save her story for another Monday.

After showing everybody in the family not only the tooth, but the cavernous hole that remained, he diligently placed it under his pillow.  By 8:30p.m. Liam was fast asleep and the tooth fairy made her way through the heavens to claim and pay up for yet another coveted acquisition.

I wonder if any of these toothless kids ever think for one minute about what the fairy actually does with all the rotten teeth she collects from virtually every household in the world!

Liam awakened unusually earlier today and, of course, lifted his pillow with reckless abandon.  Lo and behold! Two crisp one dollar bills were there for the taking.  Without any thought as to whether or not such a steep price for one measley tooth could have devastating consequences for the generous tooth fairy, Liam ran through the house shouting joyously that he was now a rich man!  Brings to mind another famous person in storytelling lore by the name of Ebenezer!

In 1949 I lost my first tooth.  I can't say I remember exactly what the circumstances were, but I do know what the tooth fairy paid me.  Ten cents, a mere pitance compared to today's standards.  That's an increase of 2000% over 65 years!  At this rate, the poor tooth fairy will undoubtedly have to file for bankruptcy within the next day or two.  She'll now be penniless, her home in foreclosure, and find herself out on the streets without promise or pension. After all the years bringing surprise and happiness to so many youngsters, the tooth fairy will be alone and broke.

Will anybody give a damn?  Actually there are two entities that will be concerned.  Namely, the IRS and the children who have yet to experience the lost of their first tooth.

The government will be looking into the tooth fairy's tax filings for over the past 100 years or so.  Since I'm quite sure she's never even heard of the April 15th deadline, chances are her fines are going to be in the millions plus a stint in the pokey!  Not paying taxes is a crime, tooth fairy, and if you do the crime, you'll have to do the time!

And as far as the kids go, lifting their pillows only to discover the absence of any sort of monetary gain for such an irreplaceable keepsake, their belief in the legendary fairy will be dashed forever!  Sadly, Liam's two younger brothers will never experience the joy of being rich courtesy of the infamously bankrupt tooth fairy.

Bah humbub, tooth fairy!  Oh, sorry, that's the other guy!