Happy Purim!

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Since Purim begins this Saturday night, I thought I’d feature a Purim-themed excerpt. Chapter 3, “Happy Purim,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next, takes place on 4 March 1939 (also a Saturday). It’s interspersed with public domain photos of illuminated Megillot (scrolls of the Book of Esther) and a few vintage photographs. Sadly, it’s very hard to find vintage greeting cards for any Jewish holiday except Rosh Hashanah.

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That evening, Sparky reached into Cinni’s closet for her Purim costume, a Gypsy outfit she’d put together with Cinni’s help.  The dress was peacock-green, with long, flowing sleeves, a floor-length skirt, and a modest neckline.  To transform it from just an ordinary but fancy dress into a real costume, Sparky wrapped herself in a deep blue silk scarf, wrapped her hair in a dark orange velvet scarf, and exchanged her French hook ruby earrings for huge gold hoops she’d picked up at an indoor flea market last month.

“Now why are you perfectly okay with wearing a costume for this holiday, but you felt wrong for wearing a Halloween costume?” Cinni asked. “It’s exactly the same, just for a different holiday.”

“They’re completely different holidays,” Sparky said. “Purim is a Jewish holiday, and Halloween is a pagan holiday.  They’re celebrated for totally different reasons, and have completely different origins.  There are no Purim costumes with stuff like pumpkins, bats, spiders, and witches.  Even the treats we give out are different.”

“So you’re going trick-or-treating after you do your thing at synagogue?”

“We don’t trick-or-treat.  We exchange gift baskets with stuff like money and hamentaschen.  None of the gift baskets have stuff like chocolate bars, caramels, and whatever else you got on Halloween.”

“You get treats for doing nothing?”

“It ain’t nothing.  You wouldn’t get treats unless you were a member of the synagogue, or we knew you.  It ain’t a mitzvah to give Gentiles mishloach manot, but we’ll give you one ‘cause we love you so much.”

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Sparky finished changing into her costume and headed downstairs to join her family.  Cinni sat at the top of the stairs and watched them heading off to synagogue.  Mr. and Mrs. Small were dressed rather boringly, as an Army officer and flapper.  Cinni wondered where Mr. Small had found the vintage military uniform with all the medals and insignia.  He’d been too young to serve in the Great War, and since it was an American uniform, it obviously hadn’t belonged to any of his ancestors or older relatives.  Gary, just turned fifteen, was dressed just as boringly, as a sailor.

Of all their costumes, Cinni liked best Sparky’s Gypsy costume and Barry’s toreador costume.  It reminded her of Rudolph Valentino’s suit of lights in Blood and Sand, in one of the vintage movie advertisements of her namesake which she’d collected over the years.  If Barry were this beautiful from a distance, she could only imagine how much more dashing he’d look when he came back later tonight and she’d be able to see him up-close and from the front.

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Cinni spent the next few hours listening to the radio and reading movie magazines, ignoring her small pile of homework.  She almost always saved homework for the very last moment, as many times as her mother begged her to do it immediately instead of the night or morning before.  Only the Nobodies liked homework and did it right away.

Cinni didn’t have particularly hard homework, nothing more than a few worksheets with math problems or vocabulary lists in English, French, Italian, and Portuguese.  This was nothing that needed lots of time to complete, like a twenty-page research paper or complicated trigonometry problems.  Life should be about having fun, particularly now that the wolf had been chased away from the door.  She’d had enough hard times in the first few years of the decade, hardships enough to last for the rest of her life.

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Near the time the Smalls were expected to come home, Cinni left her amusements and went downstairs to wait on the davenport.  Lucinda was on one of the other cushions, bent over the spring dresses she’d begun making for her nieces and daughter several weeks ago.  Every year, Lucinda made the girls special spring dresses from repurposed materials found around the house.  Last year, they’d been made from quilts, and this year, they were being fashioned from curtains.

The materials in prior years had included pillowcases, lightweight blankets, bedsheets, silk shawls from London, scarves from Los Angeles, pillow shams, satin bonnets from Amsterdam, and cloth shower curtains.  Before the Stock Market Crash, the family’s spring wardrobe had come from expensive catalogues and upscale department stores.  It amazed Cinni how Lucinda could be frugal and ingenious in this way, but otherwise waste so much money on fancy house embellishments and overpriced clothes for herself.

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“You want a change of scenery from that boring little sewing room?” Cinni asked. “It musta been hard to lug that big old sewing machine here.”

Lucinda sighed. “How can I concentrate in there anymore, now that I have a roommate?  Samantha shows no signs of moving out, though I don’t know how she can bear to sleep on that little cot.  Your father told her she could share the attic with you and Sparky, but she likes my sewing room more.  Maybe she thinks she’s being some holy Christian martyr by depriving herself of a real bed.”

“Martyr, nothing!” Urma shouted from across the room. “My girl ain’t gonna share her sleeping quarters with some Yid!  Bad enough we have to share living quarters with five of ‘em indefinitely.  If she were younger, I’d insist she sleep in the bed Mortez and I got.  But a sewing room cot is still a bed, however pathetic.”

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“I’m going to need my sewing room back eventually.  I can handle a few days of being displaced, but I can’t keep sewing in other rooms, without any privacy.  Perhaps you and your daughter don’t understand that room is my castle, my special place all my own in this house.  I’ve always been happy to live with my dear sister’s family, but it’s nice to have a small room all my own, where I can go to be alone with my thoughts and not be bothered or distracted by anyone or anything else.”

“It’s true,” Cinni says. “Aunt Lucinda is constantly holed up in that precious sewing room of hers.  It’s her special place, and not very nice to intrude upon it.  I hope Sam ain’t gonna steal nothing from it, though it ain’t like Aunt Lucinda generally sews with fancy stuff like golden thread and silk cloth.”

“Stealing is against the Bible!” Urma thundered “My girl would never steal anything!  And why do you have such awful grammar?  I don’t want words like ‘ain’t’ and double negatives to rub off on my girl.  That’s not how proper, civilized people speak.”

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“It’s how my niece talks,” Lucinda said protectively, putting her arm around Cinni. “Most of the people in this neighborhood talk like that, even the rich people.  We live in a very strange neighborhood.  It’s hardly a crime to not speak the King’s English.  Cinni’s not hurting anyone by saying ‘ain’t’ or using double negatives most of the time.  She does use proper English sometimes, so it’s not like she’s ignorant of the existence of more refined grammar.  It’s the same way with how she speaks Russian with her father’s mother, and how my sister and I speak Polish with our parents.  You speak differently depending upon your audience.”

Urma screamed and made a hex sign. “You mean to say I’m not only sharing living space with five Yids, but also with sub-human Slavs?  I had no idea Mortez’s friend had a Pollack wife and was part Russian.”

“Yes, my sister and I are almost entirely of Polish blood, and damn proud of it.  Our maiden name is Radulski, and our birth names are Łucja and Katarzyna.  We’ve been in this country for a very long time, since the early days of Polish immigration.  H.G.’s mother is Russian, and he was born in St. Petersburg.  Since he came to America when he was only twelve, he doesn’t have a Russian accent anymore.”

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Urma was weeping. “I don’t want to live in this house anymore.  This is such a nightmare Mortez sprung on me.  I want to go back to D.C.  My sister Ursula would take us in, even if she’s got seven kids.  There’d only be eleven people in her home, as compared to seventeen here.”

“Well, it’s too late to move now,” Mortez spoke up softly. “I’m already looking for jobs here, and I’ve gotten attached to this city in the last few days.  It’s much less crowded and fast-paced than Washington.  Don’t make me move when I’ve barely started to get settled into a new place.  I’m happy here so far, and I wasn’t very happy in Washington.  This is one issue you can’t push me around regarding.  We’re staying in Atlantic City.”

Urma growled and stalked out of the room.

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“Why do you let your wife railroad over you so much?” Cinni asked after she was positive Urma was well out of earshot. “She’s even worse than the wives in Laurel and Hardy’s movies.  That’s just make-believe, and those wives ain’t really bullies or mean.  Your wife is a whole different type of henpecker.”

“She is who she is.  I can’t change that.  Sometimes we fall in love with a person with a really bad character flaw, and we have to ignore it because we love the person so much otherwise.”

“That’s more than just a character flaw like always being late or being a bad cook.  She’s outright mean, and a religious fanatic.”

“I agree, but I can’t do anything about it.  She wasn’t a fanatic when we were growing up.  That only happened after Samantha was born.  An intolerant fanatic wouldn’t have had a child out of wedlock, let alone gotten in the family way at just fifteen.”

“You can say ‘pregnant’ around me, Mr. Smart.  I ain’t some little glass flower who’s never heard that word before.  No matter what my mom thinks, I don’t consider words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘uterus’ dirty.  There are some words I refuse to say or write, but I don’t mind the milder, more basic words for adult things.”

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Mortez stared at her. “Aren’t you a young spitfire.  You remind me a bit of what Urma was like before that damned Minister Hodges corrupted her mind against reality and normalcy.  By the way, you don’t have to call me Mr. Smart.  My wife and I prefer to be called by our first names, even if it’s not considered proper etiquette.  It just feels so strange to go by titles when we’re not even thirty yet.  My father is Mr. Smart, but I’m just Mortez.”

“So, can I ask where your first name came from?  I’ve never heard that name before.  It sounds a little Spanish, but you can’t be Spanish with a last name like Smart.”

“My parents are of German descent, but not completely knowledgeable about the language.  They wanted to call me Moritz, but misremembered the name.  It was too late by the time they realized they’d made an embarrassing mistake.”

“That’s kinda like my name.  I know my name isn’t spelt properly, but I’m so used to the way my mom spelt it, the so-called real spelling looks odd to me.  The pronunciation is a lot more obvious with my so-called misspelling.  I’m glad my daddy’s mom didn’t get her way and name me Alexa, ‘cause that’d be too confusing in my circle of friends.  We already have an Alexandria Kate, and we couldn’t both have the same nicknames.” Cinni leapt up at the sound of the doorbell.

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To Cinni’s great delight, Barry was the first person behind the door.  He looked just as beautiful in the suit of lights as she suspected he would.  Best of all, he had a big smile for her, and what she almost thought were a special look in his eyes.

“This is yours,” Barry said, extending a large basket. “I’ve never given mishloach manot to Gentiles before, but everyone in your family deserves one for being so good to us.  Without your father, we’d still be in Europe, with God knows what kind of future.”

Cinni returned the smile and eagerly took the basket.  She headed back to the davenport with it, and delightedly discovered oranges, hamentaschen, saltwater taffy, gumdrops, chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of grape pop, and five silver dollars.

“I packed that one just for you,” Barry said, smiling at her again. “I know what a sweet tooth you have.  You’d never be happy with the mishloach manot we made for your parents and siblings.”

“Thank you very much.  You’re really swell to be so nice to someone your kid sister’s age.  I still can’t believe you let me be a guest of honor at your bar mitzvah.”

“I don’t care how young you are.  You’re a nice girl, and that’s all that matters.”

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Cinni looked through the contents of the basket over and over again, daydreaming about being old enough for a boyfriend in a few years and doing boy-girl things with Barry.  Forget about her fantasy crush on John.  Almost every girl in town had a crush on John, and at eighteen, he was far too old for her.  Even if Cinni were eighteen herself, she’d still think the age difference were too large, never mind that her belovèd father had been twenty-five to her mother’s eighteen at their wedding.  That was different and special, and had happened in another generation besides.  But Barry wasn’t that much older than she was.  Their age difference was large enough to be exciting, but not so large it would be inappropriate once their ages leveled out a bit more.  Only time could tell if her dream would come true someday.

“Happy Purim, Barry,” she said with a smile.

IWSG—The perils of second-guessing

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Every first Wednesday of the month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group share worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. I had one post written and scheduled, but decided to save those thoughts for a planned series of posts I’ll probably do in May.

I’m sorry to admit I was second-guessing certain things recently, based on some feedback I’d gotten, mostly about my dear Cinnimin Rebecca Filliard Kevorkian. I was looking at certain things and wondering if I should take that out or tone it down even further than it already was, if such and such a line or action would make my Cinni come across the wrong way.

Then I realized, everyone else who’s “met” Cinni over the years has loved her, and thought she’s a great character, very funny, full of sass, spunk, straight-shooting, attitude, go-gettingness, personality. They understood what makes her tick. Not everyone has to like all of our characters equally, or at all. It just means they’re not our target audience. I’ve never wanted to write characters like the Five Little Peppers, who are always unnaturally, unrealistically happy, good, helpful, sweet, loving, and cheerful, the kind of people who’d join hands and sing “Kumbaya.”

I can’t help thinking back to the time I wrote that shameful, short-lived third version of the opening of my first Max’s House book, based on feedback from people who really were trying to be helpful. I felt so dirty, forced, and fake while I was writing it, and reading it back over made me feel even more violated and phony. I was so much happier after I crafted the fourth version of the opening.

The problem was that that wasn’t how I write, either generally or in my Atlantic City books in particular. It was the way someone else wanted me to write, and it came across as so fake and goofy. It also made my darling Max seem like some simpering, mushy fool instead of the cocky little bastard I love so much, this guy who styles himself as catnip to women, a huge ladies’ man, a younger, blonde version of Clark Gable or Gary Cooper.

It’s like telling someone s/he should’ve put the tree on the left instead of right side of a painting, or made the elephant blue instead of pink, based on your own tastes and reactions. Great! Then you can do a painting like that if you like the idea so much!

I’m already used to my writing style not immediately clicking with some people. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to explain I write third-person omniscient, and that I as the narrator am stating something the current focus character wouldn’t know.

Radically changing a well-established character is the same as suddenly radically changing our overall writing style. It won’t feel natural or believable, and you won’t be writing your own story anymore. If you can’t recognize your own characters, there’s a serious problem.

When Cinni met Levy

Lost and Found Blogfest

The Love Lost and Found Blogfest is hosted by Arlee Bird of Tossing it Out and Guilie Castilol-Oriard of A Quiet Laughter, and co-hosted by Elizabeth Seckman, Yolanda Renee, Denise Covey. and Alex J. Cavanaugh. Participants share a poem, story, essay, or song about love lost or found.

This scene takes place on 5 May 1942, as young soulmates Levon Kevorkian and Cinnimin Filliard meet for the first time. Cinni has just seen her on-again, off-again, no-longer-so-secret interfaith boyfriend Barry kissing his boring new girlfriend, and she’s shut him out of her heart for good.

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From across the room, Levon’s eyes latched onto Cinnimin on the davenport, and his heart fluttered.  This pretty American girl obviously wasn’t Armenian, but he had a strange, uncanny feeling she was someone special.  Perhaps his parents and grandfather had been driven out of Turkey, and he and his siblings had come to America, just so he could meet this girl.

“Tiffany, can you introduce me to the one with curly hair?”

“What?  I doubt she wants to meet a brand-new immigrant.  And why Cinnimin?  How about my cousin or their other friend?”

“I can’t explain, but I sense something really special about her, and she’s got a more natural beauty than the other girls.”

Tiffany looked over at the three girls commiserating on the davenport.  Though both Elaine and Violet were spoken for, Cinnimin was still single, as far as she knew, and didn’t seem to have a crush on anyone special at the moment.  It couldn’t hurt to at least introduce her to Levon.

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“Cinnimin, this is Levon Kevorkian, one of my guests.  He asked to meet you.”

Cinnimin glanced at the boy with the foreign name and noticed he had a very sincere face. “Do you speak English?”

Levon’s tongue was like lead.  He tried to nod, but found his head immobilized too.

“Yes, boy?  You wanna talk to me?  I don’t read minds.”

He managed to open his mouth, but nothing came out, too paralyzed by intimidation by this pretty American girl.

“Well, can you speak English or not?”

Levon finally found his tongue, praying his basic English wouldn’t fail him and he wouldn’t accidentally blabber in Armenian or Bulgarian. “You are extremely beautiful.  I can tell you have an extremely beautiful mind too.”

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Violet and Elaine burst into giggles.

“Oh, so you do speak English.” Cinnimin glared at Violet and Elaine. “Please excuse my friends.  They’re not as mature as I am.  Violet in particular has very poor taste in boys.” She smiled at him. “You’re cute.  Can I call you Levy?”

“My family calls me Levoush.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound very American.  If you’re here to stay, you need a proper American nickname.  What’s your middle name?”

“Mandarias.”

Cinnimin grimaced. “That sounds even more foreign.  Please, can I just call you Levy?”

“You don’t like my name?  I have very nice, traditional Armenian name, and I didn’t think it sounded too foreign.  You have strange name I never heard.”

“My mother named me after her favorite spice, but she couldn’t spell it properly.  I’m so used to writing my name that way, the so-called correct spelling just looks wrong to me.”

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Tarchin is the Armenian form of her name,” Tiffany provided from the background.

Levon ventured a shy smile at Cinnimin. “When we add tarchin to our food, we say it’s like adding love to the food.”

“You’re pretty eloquent,” Cinnimin said, feeling his dark eyes burning a hole in her soul. “But everyone needs a nickname.  Don’t you think Levy is a cute nickname?”

Levon finally nodded, hoping “eloquent” was a positive word.  Now that the ice was broken, he figured it couldn’t hurt to ask a slightly personal question.

“You have boyfriend?”

Cinnimin jumped up, her heart racing. “I’m sorry, I must leave.”

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WeWriWa—Special Christmas present

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This scene comes right after last week’s, on Christmas 1939, as young Cinnimin Filliard starts opening her presents. Her overly indulgent father has bought her an extremely special, grownup gift meant to last her for several more years to come.

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Cinni went right for her plumply-stuffed stocking and shook out the contents.  Just as she’d requested, she’d gotten lots of candy, oranges, a red yo-yo, money, a few Chinese puzzles, and upscale costume jewelry.

“Care to open this?” Mr. Filliard set a long blue parcel in her lap.

Cinni peeled back the wrapping paper and beheld a box stamped with the logo for Elzinga Furs, a store she often window-shopped at in van Meter Plaza.  When she pulled off the lid and layer of white tissue paper, her eyes filled with the sight of a leopard fur coat.

“My first real fur!  Is this really all mine, to wear till it doesn’t fit me anymore?”

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Vintage leopard fur from a 1946 Seventeen magazine, close enough to 1939 to have a similar style

Mr. Filliard made sure to get the coat in a somewhat larger size, so it’ll keep his pet child warm in the winter for as long as possible, and with enough extra material to grow into. He’s enclosed a special letter, reflecting on how much she’s growing up and inviting her to the New York World’s Fair for her birthday in August. Though Cinni knows her father’s heart was weakened by rheumatic fever in 1937, she’s in such denial about his declining health, she doesn’t realize that trip to New York is meant as a goodbye present, and that the fur coat has to be bigger than her actual size because her father won’t be there to upgrade her coat every year.

The original reason for Mr. Filliard’s declining health and eventual 1940 death was some totally ridiculous, made-up disease only a preteen with an overactive imagination could think up. When I began my radical rewrites and restructurings of these four prequel books in 2011, I started looking for a similar but real disease which could kill the victim slowly. Pretty quickly, I hit upon rheumatic fever, which was responsible for legendary comedian Lou Costello’s premature death of a weakened heart.

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Tomorrow’s post will celebrate the 120th anniversary of the first public showing of movies to a paying audience. There are obviously a number of films which were made before 1895, but the difference is that they were more experimental and not meant for public consumption.

P.S.: Happy 30th anniversary to Simon and Yasmin LeBon! They’re one of my favorite famous couples, not just because they’ve been married so long and aged so well, but because they’re proof real soulmates find their way back to one another even if they’ve been apart. They initially broke up because Yasmin didn’t want to have premarital sex, but it was obviously meant to be if they got back together.

WeWriWa—Christmas 1939

If you celebrate Chanukah, may you have a joyous conclusion to the holiday!

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing from the Christmas chapter of the book formerly known as The Very Next. It opens in March 1939 and ends in the first moments of 1940.

Prior to this scene, at Christmas Eve services, Cinni raised a riot with a 10-page newsletter she put together with the help of some older friends, trying to expose the truth about her frenemy Adeline’s father and her family’s antagonistic houseguest Urma Smart belonging to the Klan. Since the people in the most damning pictures were all under hoods, no one believed her except her adoring father and Urma’s henpecked husband Mortez. That prior scene ended with Mortez promising Cinni her family’s Christmas wouldn’t be ruined by his fanatic wife and daughter.

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On Christmas morning, Cinni threw on her red flannel robe with white snowflakes and stepped into her red ballet slippers.  Sparky briefly stirred, then went back to sleep.  As disappointed as it made Cinni, Sparky and her brothers had no desire to receive Christmas presents, even though they’d given Cinni’s family presents.

Sure enough, Urma and Sam awaited in the living room, but Cinni ignored them.  The sight of the tree was enough to distract her from the two demons in her home.  It always looked so much nicer on Christmas morning, strung with colored tinsel garlands; brightly-colored glass bulbs; little birds’ nests; strings of popcorn and dried cranberries; miniature musical instruments; little wreaths on delicate ribbon strings; silver, gold, and bronze stars; pinecones; candy canes; and gingerbread people.  Her parents had never allowed lit candles on the tree, as was traditional on both sides of their families, for fear of a fire starting or anyone suffering burns or hot wax drips.  Underneath the tree were the train and miniature village Cinni loved setting up with M.J. every year, along with the crèche Cinni barely paid attention to.  This was the most beat-up crèche Cinni could imagine, with missing heads and hands, chips all over, and discolored hay, but it was her family’s crèche.

German Nativity scene, made about 1920, Copyright Hewa. This bears a striking resemblance to the real-life beat-up Nativity scene which inspired the Filliards,’ though this is obviously in much better condition!

This beaten-up Nativity scene doesn’t escape the eyes of Urma, who’s about to let everyone know what she thinks of this unlikely heirloom!