Survival Stories

 

While exploring Etruscan tombs in Tuscany, my sister Constance and I stumbled upon the ancient hilltop town of Pitigliano.

 

We saw many other lovely towns…

…and picturesque villages.

But I loved this place like nowhere else in Italy.  Its story was the key to my heart.  Pitigliano had provided a rare refuge for Jews driven from Spain during the Inquisition. After the Pope and the Medicis forced Pitigliano’s Jews into the ghetto in 1600, they still accounted for twenty percent of the population.  After the war and the Holocaust, a small handful returned to care for the synagogue and to tell the story.

How small?” I asked a local. She shrugged. “Maybe five.”

The Jewish bakery was closed for the Sabbath, and the synagogue was closed because there weren’t enough Jews for a minyan.

But a shop sold matzoh and a confection called Sfratto, the Italian word for eviction.  Sfratto has a filling of honey, walnuts, and oranges, baked into a smooth-crusted loaf shaped like a police baton.   It was invented by the Jews of Pitigliano to commemorate their eviction from their homes and into the ghetto by officers using sticks to beat on their doors.  Four hundred years later, they’re still telling the story, and we’re still eating it up.

In a narrow alley across from the synagogue, I shivered to hear the haunting strains of a lone Klezmer violin drifting down from a second story window.  At first I thought it was a recording, until the music trailed off.  It had to have been played by human, or perhaps ghostly hands.

 

 

Nearby was a doorstep decked with flowers as colorful as the town’s history.  Two cats curled up in a big flowerpot, one cat a black and white mix, the other all black, but I was an English major, and I saw them as symbols of the concrete world of black and white, living in harmony with the fluid world of shadow and story.  The scene was framed by dark medieval walls backlit by the sunny valley, while the valley was alive with vineyards and olive trees…

…yet riddled with ancient tombs.


The paradox seemed to capture the essence of Pitigliano, and of all Italy.  But before I could capture it on film, the cats bolted, and I lost the moment.  Or so I thought.  That night in our apartment in Orvieto, Constance painted…

…while I wrote about Pitigliano.  I loved it for its unique history, for providing refuge when so few others would, for its tiny but stalwart population of Jews determined to protect a precious legacy, for the stories and ghosts that linger in every back alley.

Then Constance showed me her painting.  Alive with color, it conjured the fragrance of honey and walnut, the haunting strains of a lone violin. And there were my cats, just as I remembered them, a perfect balance of black and white, and shadow.

It was reassuring.  In arts or in letters, by word of mouth, or in the guise of a Jewish confection, so long as there is someone left to tell it and someone willing to listen, the story will survive.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

Beam Me Out of the Closet, Scotty!

Okay, true confession.  Only a handful of you know my closet is crammed with Star Trek gadgets like my Borg Cube piggy bank, my Star Trek sound effects keychain, and plastic pointed ears.  By the age of sixteen I had attended my first Star Trek Convention, and knew every classic Trek episode by name and by heart.  When I left for college, Star Trek stayed home.  Then life, career, and family caught up with me.

But Star Trek left its mark.  As a kid I watched a lot of junk on TV, hardly noticing the difference between good and bad writing.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I knew all the writing on Gilligan’s Island stank, but watched it anyway.  I was fourteen when I noticed that the Star Trek reruns I was watching ran the gamut in quality.  Most were fine, some shone brilliantly and others fell flat.  I began to compare and analyze each episode, from the trashy Turnabout Intruder to the exquisite City on the Edge of Forever.

Each show featured the same cast, and followed the same format.  Each began with Red Shirts, those unfortunate crewmembers doomed to a cruel and unusual death before the first commercial break.  Law of the Universe.  I could live with that.  Many resorted to technobabble to explain and/or justify that week’s dilemma and resolution.  I could live with that too.   So what made one episode a masterpiece and another an epic failure?

Strange new worlds, the aliens that populated them, killer epidemics, and intergalactic wars provided intriguing backdrops.  That was enough for the action figure collectors.  But it was the emotional complexity of the cast I found most compelling.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were all so different from each other.  What interested me was their reactions to problems, interactions with each other, and their internal struggles.

My favorite episodes were lighthearted, like The Trouble with Tribbles or A Piece of the Action.  Other favorites, like Friday’s Child or Journey to Babel, gave us comic relief in between moments of high drama.  Many episodes were thinly disguised commentary on our own society.

A few shows were obviously written by people who didn’t understand the characters or who sold them out to squeeze a plot from a limp and pale idea.  The Galileo 7  was bad writing, and character assassination, pure and simple, of poor Mr. Spock.

From the simple exercise of comparison and analysis, I learned that I love humor, and use it now in whatever I do.  I prefer character-driven fiction.  I learned how to set up a story, and build tension, and be true to my characters.

I hope you will embrace whatever series, book, or show inspired and helped make you the writer you are today, be it Star Trek, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter or The Simpsons.  Analyze it, explore it, own it!

Whatever works for you, may you live long and prosper

Was there a particular book, author, or television series that influenced or influences your writing?

The Secret Object I Keep Hidden in My Underwear Drawer

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Yes, I really do have a secret object hidden in the back of my underwear drawer.

It was in a bag earmarked for the Salvation Army, a tiny doll-sized white cotton undershirt, but I snatched it back from among the outgrown feet pajamas, baby booties, and Alice-in-Wonderland dresses.  Then I tucked it into the back of my underwear drawer.

It isn’t an heirloom or valuable in any way, except to me, because both my kids wore it as fuzzy-headed milk-scented most-beautiful-in-the-world newborns.  Once in awhile it still sees the light of day.  Not on those “hurry-up-or-we’re-going-to-be-late! mornings,” but on quiet afternoons when I’m putting away freshly folded laundry.  I can still smell the baby shampoo and feel the round little tummies that filled that shirt.

Recently I realized that no one in the world would know or care what happened to that little shirt unless…I showed it to my daughter Bea and told her about her first night home from the hospital. She was wearing the little shirt, or one just like it, while lying beside me on the bed to nurse.  By the soft moonlight shining in on us I watched her, filled with awe at the sight of this new person looking up at me like a little old wisewoman.  I marveled at her perfect little toes and her tiny feet and those exquisite fingers.  Just as I was moved to tears at the miracle of life and birth, she reached up with her tiny finger and DOINK! poked me right in the eye. Ever since then, I told Bea, she has kept me from taking myself too seriously.

I told Bea how four year old Eli rubbed her tummy and told his baby sister all she would need to know to get by in the world. “You only get to drink milk now, but when you’re big you get macaroni and cheese from a fork. You’ll learn to walk and then run, but be careful or you might fall and scrape your knee and bleed, but blood has platelets that make a scab, but don’t pick it or it’ll bleed again…”  What a warm, wise welcome into our family!

On my kitchen wall is a picture Bea drew of a paintbrush and an artist’s pallet.  Underneath she wrote,”Only the artist knows the story of her painting.”  Too true. So tell your stories to your kids, your friends or your enemies, lest they disappear when you do.

Whether you write them into your memoirs, or tell them from your mouth, let them see the light of day, feel the moisture of your breath, live in stark black beauty on a crisp white page.

One day Bea might show that tiny shirt to her children and say, “When I was a baby…” Even if it finds its way to the Salvation Army, she might say, “My mom once saved a tiny white undershirt from the rag pile and kept it in her underwear drawer.  Sometimes she took it out, and told me stories about when I was a baby…”

All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck

(Except “Mrs. Bradley Ripley Alden and Her Children” painted by Robert Walter Weir, 1852)

The Titanic Connection


What is it about the Titanic we find so compelling?  Yes, it was an epic maritime disaster, but it occurred a hundred years ago, and we already know how the story ends.  Still we line up to see the latest movie version and read the newest book, even if it means waiting through forty-two library holds.

It felt like impending disaster when my husband invited me to his soccer association dinner.  Its purpose–to thank board members’ wives and husbands for tolerating their spouses’ hours of service to the association when they could have been home cleaning out the garage.  My preferred gift would’ve been to not have to dress up and go to a fancy restaurant with a bunch of strangers.  I saw icebergs flashing before my eyes, and headed for the lifeboats.

Me:        “I don’t know if I can find a babysitter for Bea.”

Thom:   “She’s seventeen years old.”

Me:        “But it’s finals week.”

Thom:  “She can handle it.”

Me:       “I don’t want to sit for three hours in panty hose listening to strangers talk over my head in a foreign tongue.  I don’t speak Soccer.”

Thom:  “And I don’t want to be the only one there without a significant other.”

Me:       “You’re fifty-five years old.  You can handle it.”

Thom:  “I went to your family reunion.”

 

He had me.  There was no escape.  I was doomed.

Upon our arrival, someone filled my wine glass, the next best thing to a life vest.  As they kicked soccer talk up and down the table, I speculated about the other couples’ relationships—research for my next novel.  But when travel stories surfaced, my ears perked up.

An older couple was seated across from us, and the husband mentioned living in Belfast in 1956.  I jumped into the game and headed the conversation back to him.  Born in Belfast, he immigrated to the US as a young man.  His wife, who he called Lady Marion, was a second generation Finn.  She told of their travels to visit family still in Finland, and how she and John met and fell in love.  But their most interesting story was about each one’s independent link to the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.

Marion’s grandmother and her family was booked to sail on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.  When her little boy took ill, reluctantly they postponed their journey.  The Titanic sailed without them, and Marion’s grandmother lived to tell the tale.  For that, they are still thanking God today.

Meanwhile, in Belfast, John’s grandfather was a riveter who helped build the Titanic.  Everyone in Belfast, everyone in the whole country, John said, took pride and felt personally invested.  When the tragic news came, grown men cried in the streets.  John said they have never recovered from that tragedy.   He said they never would.

 

Thus the story goes on, a tragedy that has spanned the generations and left its mark upon them, he, in a way, a lingering victim and she a grateful survivor.  It seemed to me poetic justice that they had found each other.

I am so glad I didn’t jump ship that night!  I filled up my story bank, met interesting people, earned my husband’s undying gratitude for not embarrassing him in front of his friends, and made a Titanic connection.  Not just John and Marion, although I hope our paths will cross again—and they probably will at next year’s soccer dinner.

I also figured out the enduring appeal of the Titanic.  Of course, there are the larger elements of an epic story; the morbid fascination with disaster, the brush with fate, the sinking of the unsinkable, death as the ultimate equalizer between the one percent and the other ninety-nine.  But the Titanic was also a petri dish, a microcosm where the best and the worst of humanity was displayed for all the world and for all time.  So many mistakes, so much heroism, so much courage and sorrow, so much love and sacrifice, so very many little stories imbedded into one great one.

We’re not done with the Titanic.  As John said, we won’t ever be.  It is a story we need to hear again and again, in all its reincarnations.  Wouldn’t you stand in line to see them?  Or put the newest one on hold at your library?   Or maybe even write one yourself.

cNaomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Transformations.