Locked in at 10: the Seeds of Writing
So, this is about the fifth or sixth month of a serious or partial lockdown, and many people are frustrated. It is obvious in the faster than even normal driving, in the decrease of smiles and waves as people walk and run in the park or park like streets, for I walk/run with my four legged companion, Puga, in two parts and one parklike setting. As far I am concerned, this brings back memories and comparisons with the times I was locked in as a child in the 1950’s.
So that you can fully appreciate the situation, I will start with a little personal history. In 1956 my mother and stepfather immigrated from Belgium to the United States. Both were from the Soviet Union: my mother, a survivor of one of Stalin’s first camps, having been taken by the Nazis to work in Germany; my stepfather, a Soviet soldier, a prisoner of war of the Nazis who managed to escape and ended up in as an allied soldier in the US 3rd army. I was born in Belgium ten days after my mother and father crossed the frontier, but that story is for another time.
We were poor with my stepfather, a mechanical engineer in the Soviet Union, forced to work in the coal mines. Yet, unlike so many post WWII immigrants, we fit in. We lived in little houses among the Belgians. We had Belgian friends, and I had wonderful Belgian ‘uncles and aunts’ who not only taught me French but made me into a Francophile with books, like the whole series from La Comtesse de Segur, and movies. Though it was made in America, I saw ‘Desiree’ in French, accompanied by a well educated ‘old maid’ nurse, who was our landlady and lived next door, one with whom I spent much time and who taught me how to behave and eat in the most proper, early twentieth century, manner.
When we wound up in Detroit but moved to New Jersey in less than two months, I was just about to turn nine. For the first time in my life, we were in an apartment. It was not bad because I did not have to use a bucket or go outside to a toilet as the apartment had a bathroom, but I did not have a garden. School was great. I skipped a grade thanks to Ms. Davis, my teacher, my American old maid, who hauled me out of fourth grade because of my math. By the end of fifth grade, though my English was still not native, thanks to her, I was first in spelling and full of American history.
The summer of ’57 was unexpectedly hard. My parents both worked in factories, as my stepfather, my ‘papa’ — the best of fathers, did not have the proper papers to prove that he was a mechanical engineer, and my mother had not gone beyond the second grade because Stalin had sent her at nine to a camp with her family as an ‘enemy of the people’. As I was an only child and summer daytime care was full of what my parents considered ‘wild’ children, I was left at home, alone.
I had books, lots of books, volumes in English, in French, in Russian. I had a key. The only garden in the area where we were was the small backyard behind our six-apartment building. Obviously, when I became tired reading, I went down to play and met the other children in front of the building.
When my parents came home, the landlords told them that a ‘big’ girl like me (I was really physically much bigger than my age) should not be playing outside and, if I was caught doing it, they would have to move. Though not in the best part of Passaic, New Jersey, our little Jackson street, was much better than the areas were most of the Eastern European immigrants settled. My parents did not want to lose the apartment. So, the next day they locked me in when they went to work. Ah, yes, I was also without television, as papa did not like what television did to children and took the cable with him when he left the house.
LOCKDOWN……I read and read and read, mostly history books, but also books on mythology and biographies. I remember being enthralled by one on Mozart, whose Jupiter Symphony was the first record I asked for. I perused the encyclopedic part of my ‘nouveau petit Larousse’, which I am looking at right now. I danced to music from the vinyl discs I put on and daydreamed. Those daydreams were fed not only by history but by magazines such as ‘Life’ and ‘Paris Match’, which my mother’s best friend, a Belgian with a Russian husband, had her sister send from France. Frustrated, I ate and drank, lots of garbage, so I ballooned. And, no, we had no phone. There were no contacts of any kind from eight to past five.
But something miraculous happened when I turned ten that fall. My parents got me an Olympia typewriter!!!
The next summer, locked in again, but having learned to type quite well, I did something: I turned one daydream into a full-blown story.
The novel, for it is a novel, is entitled Against her Will. The heroine is a princess whose father, the king, is not good to his poor subjects, and Louise, for that is her name, puts on a mask and rides her horse in the night to right the wrongs! Some of you, of my generation or close to it, are wondering what it reminds you of. Yes, Zorro! I was allowed to watch some television when my parents were home. We all watched the news, and, in addition to some Million Dollar Movies, I was hooked on Zorro.
That summer went by quickly because I really had to think. A story has to have a beginning and an end, a plot. It also needs some romance. So, yes, both were cooked up, but the romance was not with a prince charming, a royal, yes, but let me keep you in suspense. I intend to work on this novel and bring it out, for it changed my life.
My parents did not lock me in the year after that. There was no need to do it. I had things to do and did not want to go to play outside. I was not even interested in being with children of my age. I lived in Ancient Rome and Greece, in Egypt, my imagination taking over after reading about these places. And, sometimes, that imagination carried over into what I did in school. I wrote the junior high school play of the year: Wilsonfin. Yes, it was a funny undersea version of our Woodrow Wilson School.
Oh, and I had taken care of my ‘ballooning’. At 12, I went on a diet, one I developed myself because the one given by our doctor was certainly not working. I went down from 164 to a 112 pounds. I stopped eating and drinking junk and started doing yoga based on a program on whatever was New York’s tv channel 5. And my papa went looking for a house with a garden in a good place. So, in 1962, at 14, I wound up in Passaic Park, the high-end part of the city, because he had finally found a house that we could afford, a wonderful, dilapidated Queen Anne we restored ourselves. Even I got to paint the first coat of the wall of my bedroom.
At Mount Holyoke, where I went to college, I wrote something for a garden play and also a dorm staged musical version of Pushkin’s Gypsies. Later, at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs at Fairleigh Dickinson University, I started a newsletter, Aegis.
But no, I did not become I writer. Reading and imagination had drawn me into the real world, to the world of diplomacy and the United Nations which took me to the high and low places on our planet, sometimes close to those who decide and benefit from those decisions and sometimes close to those who suffer from their consequences.
However, whatever I did, I always wrote. I wrote about school, about world conferences, about people working in development, about multicultural relationships. I wrote for myself so that I could see whether we, humans, are evolving or not. I wrote with the slight hope that some in future generations might have a different glimpse into some realities of the second half of the twentieth century as well as thoughts on the first decades of the twenty first century.
The first book to see the light of day, Choices, about an American woman working for a UN system agency in Africa came out a year ago. Because of some constraints, I could not go to France for my usual over two weeks in Provence and on the coast, so I turned my energy to having what I wrote become available to others. Mangoes and Blood, about a very unusual hostage situation, followed. Before they Cut the Ivy, based on Mount Holyoke came next. A Question of Seduction, Eros and Agape, an international intercultural romance, popped out in the middle of the lockdown. Others will be coming.
Incredibly, constraints, lockdowns, challenges can lead to frustration or flowering. The vast majority of all kinds of seeds, after all, do start in the ground. This was true in my case. However, I hope that, by writing about it, this lockdown does the same for you.