I had forgotten all about this photo. I had forgotten that I ever wore this silly little costume.
It is the day of my ballet recital. I'm perhaps 11 (or 12?) years old, still as flat-chested as Mom's ironing board. I am posing in the moments before we drove to the IBM country club in Poughkeepsie, where my elegant ballet teacher, Mildred Ruenes, a lovely red-headed lady who insisted we learn the proper French names for each ballet step, staged our recitals in the auditorium.
It's hard for me to see this part of the photo very clearly, but I think that I am wearing eye make-up and a bit of rouge and lipstick. And if that's in fact true, then my mother probably had to do a bit of "negotiating" with Dad, to get him to allow me to be made up.
I think I may still have the skirt in the attic, stuffed inside a black garbage bag along with my kids' old Halloween costumes.
I had forgotten about this flamenco costume. The turquoise and black satin ruffles. The band of turquoise sequence that edged the vest.
I had forgotten that I carried a fan, and a couple of roses. I'd forgotten, until after I saw the photo, that at one point in the dancing, I wedged a rose between my teeth. (Wait, am I imagining that part?)
I had forgotten that I performed on stage as a flamenco dancer. I had forgotten all about the fact that for one ballet recital at least, I was a flamenco dancer. I also had forgotten that once a very long time ago, my Dad went on a business trip and came home bringing me a set of castanets as a souvenir. Long ago I lost those castanets.
Why is all of this rushing back to me now? And how does it all fit in here?
If someone had asked me, before rediscovering this photo, why it is I've spent 16 YEARS writing a story about a nun who turns into a flamenco dancer, I would never have mentioned any of these facts. For as I say, I'd forgotten all of that.
And who knows how they played into my psyche as I became drawn into writing "Castenata," the BIZARRE TALE OF THE NUN WHO TURNS INTO A FLAMENCO DANCER.
Lately, though, I've been thinking about all of this "personal flamenco history," in part because, in my classroom lately, I have been talking to my students about the "narrative selves" that produce stories. An author can have any number of narrators, or "narrative selves."
In my short story class at SUNY Albany -- which I teach in part as a creative writing class, encouraging the students to respond to stories with their own original stories -- we have been immersed in an examination of narrative point of view: why do writers pick the first-person in which to write? Why do they settle on the "omniscient" or all-knowing narrator?
I bring up these issues in order to make the students think about the relationship between author and narrator. I tell them that writers are often working through deeply-embedded psychological conflicts when they write. Conflicts that they can hardly pinpoint. Conflicts that emerge out of their own life stories. Often writers are not always aware of the deep motivations that prompt them to write what they write.
But lately, as I have been writing Castenata and Sister Mysteries, I have begun to understand what has been fueling the "narrative drive" of these stories. I've got a handle on the "binary" impulses that are at work beneath the story of the nun who is also a seductive flamenco dancer.
The question I have is this: what do I do with this understanding. Do I explain to the reader that the father I grew up with, a loving man, was also impossibly strict? Do I tell the reader that this father wouldn't let me wear nylon stockings when all the other girls were wearing them? Do I say that he wouldn't even let me wear red lipstick in the Christmas pageant when I was in third grade because he thought I was too young for makeup?
Do I write a scene in which my mother is standing between my dad and me, trying to negotiate on my behalf so that I could wear that lipstick -- so that I wouldn't be a laughing stock in front of the other kids?
Do I write another scene in which my dad is lecturing me at the dinner table, or perhaps in the living room, telling me that he is afraid of me becoming "embroiled" in a relationship with my high school boyfriend? Do I show how deeply resentful I was of his lectures? Do I show how much I hated his use of that word, embroiled?
Do I say that when Dad used that word (frequently!) I would see myself lying on a platter like one of Mom's roast chickens?
Do I say that Dad pressed such fierce restrictions on my sense of myself as a sexual being that, even as I tried to rebel as a teenager and a young adult, that I was caught in a deeply repressed sense of myself as a woman?
I'll forgo any more details on that. And no, there won't be any scenes.
Instead, I will tell the reader this: that as an even younger child -- much younger than the one who appeared in the flamenco photo -- I was a little girl who wanted desperately to be...
I was only about four or five years old. I wanted so badly to be a nun that my Grandfather Claude, for whom I am named, and whose English was thickly accented by Italian, used to trail me around his house calling me “Seester.”
I am not sure what I remember anymore. But I am sure that this photo captured an important moment, one that settled deep into the brew of subconscious images that have now driven me to do a bunch of rather bizarre writing about a nun, and the Virgin Mary.
Maybe my desire to be a nun -- and my desire to tell the story about Sister Renata -- sprang up in part from this moment.
Also feeding that rich brew of images, no doubt, was the fact that Pop (my grandfather Claude) "named" me SEESTER. Maybe I think that I am the nun, Sister Renata, because way back in my childhood, Pop christened me and his name was Claude, and I was named for him.
Grandpa Claude and my Grandma Mish (short for Michelina) -- with whom I lived for a while as a child -- used to refer to all nuns, except for me, that is, as “crows.”
To me, it is so curious, this business of story-telling. It is so curious and so complicated, how all these deeply-buried childhood memories come together in the psyche to create a story. I am fascinated by how the mind works to produce the complex thing that we call a story, out of the rich brew of mental material that we refer to as memory.
The first sentence I ever wrote in the original version of Sister Mysteries is this:
"She is a mystery to me, my sister." This line is famous for my husband and me. We both love saying this opening sentence out loud, even though the line has long since been discarded from the book that I am writing.
But NOW I believe that the line fits, if only in a revised form.
"It is a mystery to me, my story."
Like all writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, I have so many stories inside me that I could tell.
I could tell all the stories about my father's "repressing" my sexuality.
I could tell all the stories about my rebellion against my father's strict ways.
I could tell all the stories about the way the nuns treated me, and how they treated my brother, Rick.
One nun accused me of throwing away my orange in the lunchroom garbage can. I remember that day. I remember the way the nun came through the lunchroom casually asking, "Who brought an orange for lunch today?"
I remember raising my hand like the very good girl I was.
And then I remember the nuns forcing us to line us up in the basement lunchroom of St. Anthony's, as if we were prisoners, and standing there, terrified. One mean-looking nun paraded in front of us with the discarded remains of the orange in a soggy piece of wax paper, asking, "OK WHICH ONE OF YOU THREW THIS ORANGE AWAY?
Nun stories are very scary stories. And I could tell a few.
But the only nun story I really want to tell is the murder mystery that pairs Sister Renata and Antonie, and how I believe I lived back in 1883, and how I was falsely accused of murder by my lecherous cousin Antonie.
One more story before we finish.
It's the real story of me behind bars.
I am three years old. I am desperately ill with pneumonia. I am hospitalized in a crib with metal bars that feel square between my small fingers.
I am screaming for my mother. I am desperate to have her come and take me home.
My mother is not there. My mother is home taking care of my little sister Karen, who is a baby, and my older brother, who is about 4.
When she finally comes to visit me, she feeds me from a plate of mashed peas. She puts the spoon between the bars.
I hate mashed peas. But I eat them, because my mom is feeding me.
My mother holds my hand as I fall asleep. But as soon as she tries to extricate her hand from mine, because it's time to go home, I wake up. I scream because i don't want her to leave me.
This may be the most important story in the rich brew of memories that produced the nun story.
This is the one story that I think mind find its way into a scene.
Because there is more to this story. Much more.