Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Beautiful

Aunt Hedda has managed to enrage everyone before we’ve even begun the Seder.

“You’ve put on weight. Do you have an announcement?” she asks me.

“No!”

“Then, don’t get fat or your husband will cheat on you.”

“You’re too old. That’s why you had a miscarriage,” she then tells my grieving aunt.

My grandmother, stooped with osteoporosis, lights the candles and begins the prayers. She is the religious sister; darker haired, taller and broad shouldered with a hooked nose. As her hands swim in circles over the flames, Aunt Hedda leads me to my grandmother’s linen closet.

“Look at this. Your grandmother is meshuganah. You’re going to be just like her. I see you line everything up. You want to live this way?”

My grandmother has folded each sheet and towel into a uniform square. She measures her linens with a ruler so that each stack is the exact height. Later we wait for salad as she picks through individual lettuce leaves, lest an insect hide within the romaine’s pleats, causing her to accidentally break the kashrut’s ban on eating insects. Aunt Hedda laughs, calls her names, but my grandmother continues to flatten each leaf. My cousins make fun of Aunt Hedda, thinking her English is bad and she won’t understand. When she walks out, my father does a spot on imitation of her, complete with affected British lilt over a heavy Israeli accent. We mock how she poses when anyone pulls out a camera. Soon we are all hurling play insults in Aunt Hedda’s nasal, high pitched bleat. I suggest that she colors her hair with Cranberry Juice Cocktail. When she returns to the table she calls us pigs because there is no charoset left and warns we will regret eating so much.

“I’m used to watching my figure. I used to be a fashion model, you know.”

“We know!” everyone says, because she tells us at every opportunity.

“I was very beautiful once.”

“Yes, it’s true,” my grandmother says, “Hedda was the most beautiful.”

When Passover ends and Aunt Hedda leaves, I drive my grandmother to the dentist. She tells me how her family escaped Slovakia, traveling at night with false passports, practicing German. In Italy, the Nazis stopped their train.

“They took us off the train. They looked at our passports and I knew they will shoot us. But then they’re arguing.”

My grandmother turns and looks out the window for a long time before she continues.

“The one German knows we are Jews. He says to kill us, and my mother with a baby in her arms. The others laugh at him. ‘Let them go. Look at this girl,’ they say about my sister,‘a Jew could never be this beautiful.’”

“Aunt Hedda?”

“Yes.”

My grandmother hasn’t turned from the window.

“Without her,” she says, “This family isn’t here.”

61 comments:

Jocelyn said...

GREAT JOB! I liked this story very much. The ending did "zing" me.

JDogg said...

I like it - You have set up the scene without doting on the details and brought out the essence of the story in the end, asking us as the reader to go back and revisit our feelings as we read the story.

zillah said...

For a self-professed marathon runner, your sprint is perfection. Thank you for sharing.

sqd said...

wow, that gave me chills!
you certainly have brought them to life on the page!

Wide Lawns said...

Thanks all. I really appreciate the feedback. What 'zinged' me about this story, what made me, I guess, want to write it was that it's true. When I heard this story for the first time, in the car, on the way to the dentist I was completely blown away and I swore that one day I would write this and do it justice. One thing that's bugging me was that I ommitted something. I want my writing to be true, and I don't even know if this matters, but my dad was in the car too and because of word constraints I had to leave him out. But I don't think it matters to the story or changes it. I just wanted to disclose that.

Wide Lawns said...

PS, JDogg, do you remember meeting her at the wedding?

Julien said...

Well, it definitely 'hit' me. I can imagine how you must've struggled to keep it under 500. There's a lot of exposition that I feel you want to get in to, but can't.

From a critical standpoint, the larger 'insults' paragraph doesn't flow quite as well as the rest of the story. I'm having difficulty finding actual fault; it just doesn't have quite the same feel. If you were on the fence about that section, go ahead and tweak, but if you like it, I think it's keepable.

Again, great story. It brings out the cliched 'don't judge a book...' moral without sounding cliched or even predictable. I look forward to more workshop stuff.

JDogg said...

I do remember her there, very much.

Pickyknitter said...

Dammit you made me teary before breakfast. About halfway thru I suspected things were going to have a moral, but you portrayal of the reveal was sharp, sharp, sharp. thank you for sharing!

Pickyknitter said...

ps. you never say your dad wasn't in the car, so it is okay by me. Or you could just change "I was driving" to "we were driving" and it is all fixed without an explaination.

Wide Lawns said...

I think when I polish it up I will add that my dad is there. I didn't say "we drove" because I thought it would raise questions with the reader that I didn't have enough words to explain.

JoeinVegas said...

Doesn't matter who else was in the car, leave out unessential elements, it's her words to you that close the story. Very well done.

mysterious_malady said...

this may sound flippant, but it is most certainly not:

dooood, get outta here.

don't change a thing.

i write poetry (i wish i could call myself a poet but i thing you need some kinda certificate before one can call oneself that) and i've come to realize that what you write the first time around is pretty appropriate because you are tapping into your feelings/emotions. editing (beyond spell check) usually tends to take something away from the piece, or so i feel. then again prose is not my forte, maybe it works differently there.

but

dooood! get outta here !

Missicat said...

Wow. Perfect.

Amy said...

I think it's very good. The story drew me right in and stung me at the end.

You're right -- adding we drove would have been too ambiguous. It would've left a loose end hanging out there.

If I have one criticism, it's that the story has the feel of pulling at the seams a bit. As if there is a lot left unsaid.

However, doing so on purpose can be an interesting writing tool, leaving the reader intrigued and a bit unsettled.

Sorry for the long-windedness... I really enjoyed the story.

Melanie said...

Masterfully done. Thank you for sharing such a touching and personal story about your family.

cbrks12 said...

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

Angela said...

That story is amazing. It pulled me in very quickly and finished leaving me a bit teary eyed. Awesome job!

Architect Critic said...

I can see a few areas where you might want to work on the composition. The story itself has a great deal of power, and draws readers in quickly. About half way through, I was coming up with all sorts of insults for Aunt Hedda. The end shut me up and broke my heart.

If you can get your grandmother and aunts to talk more about their escape, that could be an awesome book. . .

starsimplified said...

Wow! I love it just as it is. The ending was just exactly right - touched my heart.

MtnMama said...

Now I'm all choked up.

Excellent story.

Gina said...

That was beautiful

Wide Lawns said...

Architect - it's really hard to get them to talk about it, but I have gleaned a few short stories that I'd like to write. I also have a language barrier so I often have to get my dad to translate parts of the stories. My grandparents for some reason are extremely reluctant to start spewing stories. Unlike me. They aren't trying to hide anything, but I think they don't see the value in their stories.

Mel said...

Wide:

It brought back memories of my own childhood. My grandparents were refugees that were persecuted by the Nazi's of Germany. They wore their tattoos of ID numbers proudly on their arms and told stories similar to yours. Reading your reenactment brought me back over 50 years to a holiday sedar with my grandfather, a quiet man, performing the ritual meal. I'm typing with a tear in my eye. Thank you for that.
Mel

Andromanche said...

Wow--that was really cool. I have a lot of...cantankerous...family members, so I remember that wriggly feeling in the pit of your stomach when you're forcefully reminded that they're people too.

renee in seattle said...

Very, very good. What I might expect to read in a redbook short story. I think you are capable of making this so much better, but I imagine it is what it is because you are limited to 500 words.

I envision a story not about what they went through, but about your discovery of them as people now, and your slow understanding of how they are who they are because of what they went through, as you learn yourself.

Albany Jane said...

How incredibly concise - you are totally my writing American Idol.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, you never cease to amaze me with your stories. It did "HIT" me. My grandmothers family went through a similar expierance, we are Slovick, and they are Catholics but they fled their homes to excape Hitler just the same.

jm-kaye said...

Awesome job, absolutely perfect.

(good thing those Germans weren't familiar with the story of Esther.)

Living in Muddy Waters said...

If I could make one comment- you said the goal was to bring TWO people to life. I thought Hedda was more rounded out than your grandmother. It's just a small point, but one that just a sentence or two more might balance out. Other then that, I liked it a lot.

ElectricDaisy said...

I love how the ending did not feel like a Reader's Digest/chain e-mail "And that's why you never judge a book by its cover" story. It was totally natural and I really enjoyed this story. Leave out the fact that your dad was in the car - it's more simple and poignant to imagine a moment alone, driving to do a chore, between grandmother and granddaughter.
Also, I read these entries backwards, so I didn't know that this was a 500-word short story. I thought it was just a regular post, which I think is a good thing.

Jean said...

As always, a very strong piece.

But you asked for criticism...

Given your word count, it might be hard, but I think you should add a little bit more interaction between Hedda and your grandmother. Show your grandmother as not minding your Aunt, or even loving her, even though she's horrid.

You could also just say "later, as I drove grandmother to the dentist".... which would save a few words.

I feel there should be a "beat" line after "A Jew could never be this beautiful", where you have the realization that's she's talking about Aunt Hedda, to highlight "Aunt Hedda?" in its importance. It could be as simple as My breath caught. or Oh, my God. or a flash memory of Hedda as model.

I also wouldn't have your grandmother say yes -- just nod. And not looking at you is very strong, because her next words betray the emotions.

I love editing, by the way. Far more than writing.

BoB said...

I'm really impressed with the ending, very nice. I have to agree with Julien about the big paragraph in the middle. If this is an exercise in developing two characters, introducing all the additional folk is somewhat distracting. I'm not sure how to express your Aunt Hedda by her own actions, maybe with more first person dialogue?

my $0.02, ignore at your leisure

Anonymous said...

You did the story justice, I got goosebumps.

I thought you might find this link re Schindler's List interesting:

http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/exhibitions/2009/heritage/images/01.html

kerry said...

I didn't realize this was a short story until I read the "next" post. I love it! Definitely not the "Readers Digest" type- it's better!

pocketdoc said...

Awesome punch at the end, WL! Gave me goosebumps. You really drive home the point that Aunt Hedda may be more than just her idiosyncrasies and ego without actually saying it. For what it's worth, I agree with Muddy Waters--Aunt Hedda gets more face time in this story than your grandmother, and since the assignment is for two people, I'd flesh out her profile more. Your voice really comes through, though! Great job!

Anonymous said...

One of the best stories you've ever written, certainly the most powerful! I like that you said "the family isn't here" instead of "the family wouldn't be here." It's unexpected in a pretty profound way. =]

Anonymous said...

*wipes eyes*

Lovely.

~Maureen~

enthusiastic said...

how old was aunt hedda when they were escaping?

Kali said...

Beautifully crafted, Wide. What I love about your writing is how you capture the human element--I was prepared to hate Tammy, in "The Tammy Chronicles", but you made her real and 3-dimensional, without pulling punches regarding how awful she really was. Similarly, it would have been easy to despise or dismiss your aunt as difficult. But you never take the easy way out as a writer, and you don't let your readers do it either. You remind us that these are real people, not merely characters, and you do it from a place of compassion that is at once engaging and entertaining.

Well done.

le kutz said...

What a phenomenal sprint it was...as JDogg said, the story was framed without copious amounts of detail, yet still managed to put me in the scene myself. The ending? Definitely a good kind of brick to drop.

On a random note...this is my first time commenting, being one of those treacherous ghost readers ;), and what prompted me to comment was the fact that the word verification for this particular moment was gatebee and I just thought that was a such a beautiful comb. of words. Conceptual.

Keep writing WL!

Dyanne said...

This was artful, poignant, succint, and blow-my-mind good. Oh my gosh, girl; get off your duff and get an agent already. What are you waiting for? The literary world awaits you.

TK said...

Awesome, I read top down too, I'd say don't touch this one. Take the best and write it again, but leave this one alone. It's ok it's more about your aunt, because because what was said about grandma was powerful, and gram has the last word. Both are well drawn. They don't need and equal number of words, I feel it's more effective as is, it makes grandma deeper.

gmarievaughn said...

and this is why you are a great writer, m'dear :)

KT said...

Wow, that's an amazing story -- and beautifully written, as always :)

I agree with Muddy Waters, though; this is clearly Aunt Hedda's story, and if the assignment was about two people, your grandmother might need a little more 'screen time,' so to speak!

Also, VERY tiny point, but the miscarriage sentence seems to be part of the gaining weight/pregnancy conversation at first. I know it shows how she's rude to everyone, not just you, but since you've already said she's enraged everyone, it might be possible to take this sentence out and save a few words. Just my two cents, of course! :D

Misha said...

Very good. My husband's family has many stories about the Nazi's in Poland. The short succinct ones always leave me the chills.

Like this one.

Modern Philodoxos said...

i think it's perfect.

Wide Lawns said...

Wow everyone. Thank you thank you for all the help and compliments. Someone asked how old Aunt Hedda was when they escaped. I have to do the math on this one to be exact, but she was approximately 15 or 16 I'd say. 14 at the youngest.

Anonymous said...

I like it!! and I don't think it hurts the story at all that you had to leave out that your dad was in the car too.

kibrika said...

I got distracted by the sentence "thinking her English is bad and she won’t understand", I got to thinking what'll she do, since she does understand?
And it's powerful in it's true unfairness. Makes me angry, because tastes differ, I love hooked noses on many people and it's a disgusting insult that saves lives? That's just not fair.

Laurie said...

WOW. what a story!

Anonymous said...

I have to comment again - this story affected me greatly. It wrenched all manner of emotions out of me that I was still thinking about it hours after reading it.

This story touches the human soul.

~Maureen~

Julie said...

Wow...I want to tell everyone I know to read this. Unfortunately I don't know many people

Serenity said...

Now that, young lady, is how you tell a short story. It had a beginning, middle and end; it all flowed together, seamlessly. (Your transitions are wonderful...how I envy you. I SUCK at transitions.) It was interesting, it was humorous and it brought out emotion in this reader.

And there is a moral in it as well.

How the hell you managed to do all of that in such a short story only illustrates your amazing writing abilities.

You know, I'm not always impressed with bloggers who say they want to write for a living because most of them just can't write a good story. And if I don't like what they've written, I typically don't say anything at all unless they BEG me to share my opinion.

To be honest, even though I enjoy your blog, I wondered how well you would do with this.

You impressed me. Greatly. Fantastic job here.

Serenity said...

Ok, having read comments and also re-reading the "rules", I wanted to add something:

I think you did bring two people to life on this page. At the end, I remembered your grandmother and your Aunt Hedda. I did read in to it that your grandmother was calm, religious, (obviously with the way she folded linen and was so careful with each and every lettuce leaf), but maybe a bit MORE on how calm she was towards Aunt Hedda's...ways.

If it's possible..like in that paragraph where she's getting the candles lit, maybe something about how she sees all of this but merely smiles or ignores it or however it is that she reacted to Aunt Hedda saying all these things to family members. Just a little bit more will add to that zinger at the end of the story.

Also, at the very end, I agree with another commenter...just a beat between your grandmother repeating that they said no Jew could be this beautiful and you asking, "Aunt Hedda?" Like, maybe, "I cocked my head" or whatever. But a beat. Definitely.

And no, I don't think you need to mention that your dad was in the car. There are a lot of details you have to leave out in a short story and I really do agree with another commenter that it pulls the reader in when they think it's just you and your grandmother than if there were others in the car. Because then we would be wondering what Dad was thinking or feeling. It's a conversation between you two, that's all the reader needs in a short story.

My two cents....not that they're worth a whole lot.

I still think you did a bang up job on this story. And I think you write better than you know.

Beeble said...

Another lurker's first comment: The story is great.

Critically, I have to disagree with the people suggesting you put a beat in before the reveal at the end. The thing I really enjoy about your writing is how 'real' and without writerly pretense it is. If you're consciously working towards that effect, well done - if you're not, it's a great natural talent. I can't imagine a beat line in there that wouldn't read like it was deliberately placed there for timing purposes - especially not one that had anything to do with your response, because one thing you've done very well in this story is limit it to describing the two people it's about. The only people here are your Grandmother, Aunt Hedda and 'we'.

Joy said...

This. it touched me. Amazing and I have to use the word, beautiful.

Shay said...

The last line does it. Great story.

stephanie said...

Amazing story. I grew up hearing about how my grandparents escaped China during WWII and the Communist revolution, so I really love these war stories. Please continue writing them!

onthegomom said...

Wow, just wow. That was great!!

Christi Lee said...

WOW. You did an awesome job with this story. The end knocks the wind out of you. I feel happy/sad you know?

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