Oh, sibling rivalry. I’ve seen it up close. Fortunately, as the only daughter and a middle child…my role was the peacemaker and I didn’t have anyone to compete with (or wasn’t interested). But I did have a front row seat. It was sometimes entertaining, funny, and at times…upsetting. Where does it come from? I’m pretty sure the seeds are planted early. In this scene of my upcoming novel, Brooklyn Bitters, although subtle…you can get a sense how it started:
I spooned another helping of gumbo. It felt good to be called a girl at forty-two. As for the beautiful part, I was no Stacey with her sexy body and pretty face. My face wore the signs of too much reading; I had lines between my eyebrows and the beginnings of crow’s feet. I got my dad’s brown eyes instead of Mother’s blue, and my dark hair touched my shoulders with a touch of gray at the temple. At least, I got Ma’s high cheekbones, full lips, and slender, tall frame at five feet nine. I was best described as average. My father always called Stacey the beauty and me the athlete. Of course, I could barely manage twenty push-ups and was always on the tail-end of a one mile run, but he had tried to give me something.
Pages in the Wind deals with some difficult topics but the story has a lot of heart and it has it’s heroes. Quite a few actually. There’s the doctor, Robert, Pudge, and her love, Reid. Emily falls in love early, and the relationship is a deep one in spite of the early start. Reid is everything that Emily isn’t: fearless, confident, cocky, and at times intense. But he loves Emily and her fears that he’ll drop her as his best friend are not true. He’s exactly what he portrays and is a wonderful character in the book. This is an early passage. Reid is a prankster and gets them both in a heap of trouble. When Emily objects, he becomes offended and accuses her of not wanting to be his friend anymore. Emily convinces him that she would never feel that way. Her inner dialogue reaches far beyond her reassuring words.
Once the prank faded, all I saw was my fearless Reid. I agreed with Mr. Hemet’s lecture about the danger of putting a live snake in his house, but his warning to stay away from Reid was wrong. Wrong for me. I didn’t feel jeopardized by Reid, I felt protected. I believed someday the fearless boy would become an adult hero. If my life were threatened, he would be the one to save me.
We all need a place to feel safe. For most of us, it’s our home. After a lousy day at work or a dismal day at school, home is a beacon. But what if home doesn’t offer safety? In this passage from Pages in the Wind, eight-year old Emily, talks about her safe place – Grandma’s house:
The faint glow of the late afternoon sun touched my face as I jumped out of the car. Birch trees quivered in the breeze, and the scent of damp pine needles and cedar reminded me of Christmas. The fruit groves, giant evergreens, and fields of wild clovers and moss surrounded the old wood and stone craftsman home like an enchanted forest. I gushed with giggles and short squeals knowing the day had finally arrived. I couldn’t wait to spend a month with Grandma.
Unfortunately for little Emily, her safe place only lasts a month. In this scene, she prepares to say goodbye to Grandma, and return to San Francisco with her parents:
Early the next morning, the family gathered at the front door saying their goodbyes. I stood back, dabbing my eyes.
Grandma sat eye-level with me. “My precious bébé. We’ll be together soon. Next time I will teach you to make crepe cakes.”
My chest heaved as I caught each whimper and reined them back to talk to her. I gazed into her soft blue eyes, already thinking about next August. She had no idea why going home was killing me—I didn’t even know. “I’ll write you every day, Grandma. My hand never gets tired. I’ll draw you beautiful pictures too.” I grabbed her hand, wondering if it was too late to squeeze it twice.
Father pushed me aside. “That’s enough. Leave your grandma alone.”
I love the sibling relationship between Emily and Robert in Pages in the Wind. I think it’s especially important in an intense book. We need someone to count on. In this excerpt, the tender relationship is defined:
I heard Robert grab his keys and leave the house. I pressed my palms against my eyes to snuff out the tears. I felt happy and sad. I was happy he’d convinced me my drawings were good but sad because I knew in my heart he had chosen Harvard.
I couldn’t tell him a cockamamie story to trick him into staying. It would have benefitted me, but I couldn’t do that to him. When Father put the negatives in my head and Mother gutted me with disinterest, Robert had been there to fill my head with mirthful sonnets to breathe hope into my tired soul.
Now, I had to go it alone because my sweet brother would be moving to Boston.
She’s not a villain. She’s not even mean. Claire doesn’t neglect her duties. She educates her children and gives them cultural advantages. She decorates her daughter’s bedroom with beautiful French decor. She studies the teen magazines to make sure her child is dressed in the latest trends. But…you won’t love her. You probably won’t even like her. She’s Claire in Pages in the Wind.
In this excerpt, a neighbor compliments Emily’s artwork. Eager to get her mother’s opinion, she raises the subject. Here it is:
“Of course you can draw, dear. Anyone can draw but drawing doesn’t make you an artist. Art is extremely competitive, and most artists don’t make a decent living.”
“But I could study art in college and get better, right? I could learn how to paint and sell my paintings at shows and stuff?”
“There are other ways to use art, dear. You can study art history or become a librarian. If you want to use your hands, you can go to beauty school and become a hairdresser. There are many careers you can choose if you like art.”
I gawked at her, speechless. She delivered the verdict and the punishment at the same time. She might as well have said, “No, you have no talent, and put away your sketchpad and do my hair.”
She smiled and returned to the countertop. She picked up a can of Pledge, polishing the wood to a yellowish-brown patina. I watched her shine the teak counter to perfection, but she had thrown enough muck on me to sully a landfill. I retreated to my bedroom.
One of my favorite characters in Pages in the Wind is Doctor Lieberman. At first, an unlikely hero, he is everything you would want in a wise man. In many ways, he is the comforter in the story. When things become sad or dark, the doctor makes us feel we can find our way back from a seemingly impossible human condition. I love him. Here is an excerpt from the story, Pages in the Wind.
His glasses had slipped to the edge of his nose. He held his expression, calm but serious. “Your mother hired a team of attorneys to strategize your case. I’m here to help you.”
“But I thought she hired you to help the lawyers find excuses for why I did what I did. Aren’t those mitigating circumstances? Isn’t that what you write in those papers?”
He took a long gulp of coffee. “My intentions are clear. To retrieve your memories and find the defining moments that changed the trajectory of your life. After that, I want to help you rebuild your life. It won’t be the life you had before, but I am hopeful it will be a life you can shape into something worthwhile.”
“Oh, I see. Thank you.” I could have pushed the subject because a worthwhile life in prison seemed unlikely. But I left it alone because his words sounded encouraging, even empowering. I didn’t want to mess with that.
Doctor Lieberman poured himself another cup of coffee and unwrapped a vending machine offering. I put my head down so he couldn’t see me grin. The man never ate anything that didn’t come with a plastic sound.
The characters of Pages in the Wind are multi dimensional, like Emily’s early love, Reid Wagner. Emily fell in love with him as a child and their relationship only grew stronger and more complex. He was bold, interesting, brave. Did he live up to her ideal?
This scene illustrates how her eight year old self viewed this unforgettable boy:
“Gee Whiz! I’ve been standing here five minutes!” He plopped down next to me with his elbows on his knees, chin in his hand, staring into space. “Let’s have some fun.”
I waited for him to come up with something, wondering for the millionth time why a ten-year-old hotshot picked me to be his best friend.
Reid redefined average. His hair was a common light brown but was stick-straight until it reached below his ears, forming curls around his neck. His eyes were dark brown, almost black. His lips were full, and his front teeth slightly crooked, in an interesting way. He walked with a slight strut showing confidence and a little conceit. He could be a block away, and I would know him by his walk.
Throughout Pages in the Wind, Emily longs to have a close relationship with her mother. Psychologists often say that a cold relationship is more difficult than no relationship at all. This is how Emily feels, in reflecting on the time she spent with her mother in New York City.
For me, and I can’t speak for Robert – I wanted more. We discussed the French Revolution, the art of Cezanne and Renoir, and current events – the war in Viet Nam, the environment, and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. But we never laughed, cried, or shared anything personal. It was a bit like reading a newspaper every day but craving a love letter. I longed to talk to her about boys, and makeup, and how to make friends. So, I’m grateful for the attention and all the experiences she showered on us – but I would have preferred to snuggle on the sofa with her and watch a soap opera with a box of Kleenex and popcorn.
Pages in the Wind explores the impact of harsh criticism, especially during the formative years. Funny, how we can remember a hurtful word or put down, especially if it’s said by someone we love. In this scene, Emily joyfully sings a song as she skips around the yard. But she wakes up her father, who angrily tells her to shut up.
I felt deflated, like one of those helium balloons that flies high until one day, it’s just a blob of vinyl on the ground with all the air sucked out.