Although I've been writing and publishing for fifty years, I'm always thrilled when a new book is launched. THE RED SCARF, published just this week, is the sequel to THE HAT. And its sequel, THE NECKLACE, is in process on my computer, and should be finished soon. The three novels follow Kate Brady from the age of eighteen to eighty and reflect my keen interest in the lives of women.
We are wives, widows, daughters, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts; we run houses and businesses; we nurture babies and organize neighborhoods; we take care of parents; we garden and run for Congress; we listen and console. Writing has revealed these fulfilling, frustrating, satisfying roles to me as I've tried to understand and celebrate the gloriously complicated lives of women for my own and my readers' discovery.
So when I'm asked at readings where I get my ideas, my answer is always the same--namely, from my conscious and unconscious life as a woman.
Beginning when I was a girl of twelve.
"Why won't Mom ever talk about our father?" I asked my older brother. Kenny was at the advanced age of seventeen to my twelve; tall and street-smart, he could drive a car and work after school and figure skate at the Elysium and yell at our mother. I had already asked him questions about sex, but the answer I sought now seemed more dangerous.
"All she ever told me was he died of pneumonia."
"Pneumonia? That's a good one. He died of murder. They were murdered"
"They? What do you mean they?"
"Uncle Addie was killed with him. You can read all about it in the newspapers downtown in the library."
Constructed of elaborately carved stone and as imposing as a King's palace, the Cleveland Public Library is so huge you have to climb a steep flight of wide stone stairs just to reach the bank of heavy carved doors. Breathless with its grandeur I push them open; inside, the air feels as cool as marble and the light seems shined up, like silver.
I approach the woman sitting at the circular desk. I am twelve years old. She is writing something. I wait. Finally she looks up. She has gray hair and a thin mouth. Her glasses are down on her nose. "Yes?"
I clear my throat. "Old newspapers?" Asking this tight-lipped stranger for my mother's secret makes my heart pound.
"Basement. Take the elevator or the stairs through that door," she says, pointing.
I ring for the elevator. Strange stairwells scare me.
Waiting, I see a scattering of men and women in the rooms off the marble hallway and people standing in line with their books at the check-out counter. The elevator arrives silently and I step inside. I am alone in there. I push "B." It is a short ride down that stops with a bump. The doors open. The light is different down here; browner, softer, like old sepia photographs. I see a man down the hall sitting behind a counter. It is so quiet I hear my own breathing. I feel hot. I'm actually sweating. I take off my coat and walk toward him. The man is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a maroon sweater under his jacket. He looks up at me. His skin is as pale as if he sleeps down here. There is a drop of moisture hanging on the end of his nose.
"Yes?" he says, wiping his nose with a crumpled up handkerchief.
I am mute, afraid of his next question: Does your mother know you're here? I look around. Behind me two men and a woman are scattered among the four or five long wooden tables, their heads bent over newspapers. The woman is writing something on a yellow pad. One of the men has red hair. The other man looks old. My mother isn't here. I breathe. I turn back to the man. Of course she isn't here.
I clear my throat. "Where are the newspapers?" I ask in a small voice.
"Fill this out." He hands me a sheet of paper from a pile on the counter.
REQUEST FORM is printed across the top in big letters. There is a list of questions asking for your name, address, telephone number, the newspapers requested, and their dates. And at the bottom, REASON FOR REQUEST. What can I say? My mother's secret? I'm looking for my father? I stand there.
The man takes off his glasses. "Sit down over there and fill it out," he orders, nodding at the tables.
I walk over to a table against the wall. My footsteps sound too loud. The air smells of dust and paper and something else--damp shrouds. There are small windows overhead like gun slits yielding a slanted winter light. I hear the scraping of my chair as I sit down. I take out my pencil and write down my name, address and telephone number. My brother had said they were killed on my second birthday and I fill in the date.
I am calmer now: this isn't so bad. Chewing on my pencil I stare at REASON FOR REQUEST. Then I write, with a pounding heart, School Project.
My hands are sweating. I get up and hand the form to the man. He puts on his glasses and looks at it while I stand there with a tight heart. I am sure he is staring at my pathetic lie. I wait for him to say school project? What school project? Get out of here with your lies!
He gets up and without a word disappears behind two swinging doors. I stand there. The quiet rings in my ears. He is calling my mother. He is calling the police. I'll be arrested and sent to reform school for lying in the library. I want to run out of there but my legs don't seem to move.
He comes back through the doors with a pile of newspapers mounted on sticks and puts them on one of the tables. I follow him,
"Thank you," I manage.
I take off my coat and sit down. The Cleveland Plain Dealer is on top of the pile. There is a picture on the front page of a handsome young man with full lips, dark hair and deep-set eyes. It is captioned, Louis Rosen ambushed and murdered in double killing.
But that's my daddy! That's him! Dead of murder! But he's so alive in the picture! The tilt of his chin and the shine in his eyes have a kind of energy. I can feel it. I run my finger over the picture expecting heat. Staring, I see that my brother looks just like him and to my surprise tears sting my eyes. I thought I looked like my daddy. I was sure of it. The four of us were squared off--my mother and brother are blue-eyed and fair-skinned, we are dark-eyed brunettes. But wait--there I am, too, in a picture of my mother holding a small child. I look like my baby pictures. My mother's face is softer, younger.
I decide to steal the page with my daddy's picture. I want to take it home. But I hear the sound of a scraping chair as someone behind me gets up, and I'm afraid the tearing will make too much noise. I look at the man at the desk. He looks back. Doesn't he ever go to the bathroom or anything?
I look around. Except for the man at the desk, I'm alone. I have no idea how long I have been sitting here, reading. There is no clock on the wall. My throat hurts as if I've been yelling or crying. I need air. I wish I could go back to my pre-newspaper innocence before I viewed the corpses.
Turning to the front page of The Cleveland News the papers rustling in the quiet room, I see an artist's sketch of two men shooting at a couple of figures sprawled on the ground. The caption reads:
Louis Rosen and Adolph Adelson lay in Rosen's driveway, riddled with knife wounds and bullets.
I don't want to steal my father's picture anymore. I don't want to be his daughter anymore, either. I want him to be dead of pneumonia where it is easier to love him.
* * *
Since that time so long ago, my family's drama has continued to resonate in my life and my work. In writing THE RED SCARF the plot was driven, the characters inspired, and themes were discovered from my own story. Which bestowed not only catharsis, but a novel that I am proud of.