Friday, August 23, 2013

The Pieces Come Together

In a previous post I mentioned that I’d written a first draft of a memoir. And that I had put it on the shelf…there to remain until either I felt the inspiration to begin a rewrite or until someone in the future would someday stumble across and dispose of it. It’s been some time now and I’m still not inclined to start a rewrite, but it has bothered me off and on that my memoir had no title. A book with no title is just not right, even if it’s only a first draft. And it’s untidy. I am a habitual list maker and all my lists have titles…you know…like ‘grocery list’, ‘things to do list’, ‘tasks for today list’, and so on. I usually don’t capitalize the titles and sometimes I feel guilty about that. Anyway, without a title how do you know what the written words are about? A title is what ‘hooks’ potential readers. Yes, I know my memoir will not be read but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s sitting there on a shelf incomplete without a title!

A couple of months ago I was talking with Maribel’s son Brian about my early college days when I remembered a writing assignment we were given in a literature appreciation class. We were told to write a brief story about an early childhood memory, and to write it as if the child was telling the story. Before I left that classroom an image came to me that I knew would be my subject.

As a young boy I didn’t like Sunday afternoons. Sunday afternoons meant two things…chicken for dinner and visiting grandparents. You could smell the aroma of cooked chicken everywhere on the streets, and see families all dressed up in their Sunday clothes getting into the family car to visit relatives. I liked the chicken part, but visiting grandparents was a pain because it stopped our gang from getting together and playing games like ‘kick the can.’ Whoever wasn’t visiting grandparents had to sit around waiting for the other guys to get back home. A whole afternoon was wasted! This is what I chose to write about, and did it in the form a short poem. I wondered if there was any chance of getting a copy of the poem. I knew it had been published in the university's annual literary magazine, but I had forgotten all but a few lines, so I sent an email to the university library; gave them my name, the title and approximate year (1975) and within two hours received a scanned copy of my poem. Immediately after reading it I knew that my memoir had a title........

Chicken Sunday Afternoons

Chicken Sunday afternoons always happen when
            the dumb sun is up about there
an’ the trees an’ houses an’ cement are bright all over
an’ they ain’t doin’ nothin
an’ the dirt in the gutter ain’t doin nothin but eatin fried chicken smell
an’ it don’t wanna be touched.
Baldy’s house ain’t doin nothin either cause Baldy ain’t home
(what’s the big deal about visiting gramma and grampa on Sunday?).
Ed’s parents got company an’ he has to sit there so he can’t come out.
Pinky is home but don’t feel like doin nothin (who cares about him anyway?)
an’ the whole world (which is this block)
Don’t feel like doin nothin.
I wish the dumb sun would
            go down
Cause then Baldy would come home
An’ Ed could come out
An’ we can play kick the can.
I don’t like Chicken Sunday afternoons
cause it’s kinda sad when the whole world (which is this block)
is bright and empty an’ don’t feel like doin nothin.
Night time is better cause ….HEY!... BALDY!... ED!... YOU GUYS

I was surprised at the reception the poem received. The professor liked it and shared it with other teachers and soon I was being congratulated for providing a description and giving a name to what apparently many people had experienced as a kid. “Yeah…chicken Sunday afternoons…that’s what they were” was a comment I heard often. As mentioned the poem was published in the university's annual literary magazine and I was asked to do a reading for a literary group.

Okay, so my memoir had a title, and I typed it onto the cover. It looks like this:

Chicken Sunday Afternoons

A memoir

By Tom Filipowicz

Do you see the problem? There’s a big white space between the words ‘memoir’ and ‘By’. There is no graphic. What kind of a book has no graphic on the cover? Maybe even more so than the title, the graphic is what ‘hooks’ potential readers. Walk through any book store and you’ll see all kinds of cool, grab-your-attention graphics. Mine has a big white space and I couldn’t come up with one single good idea to fill it.

In Chiclayo during the course of the year many institutions such as the Cultural Center, City Hall, banks, hotels and outdoor artisan events sponsor arts and grafts exhibits. At several of these exhibitions I saw paintings on display by an artist named Rubên Saavedra Corbeñas. I don’t know anything about art…I either like something or I don’t and have a difficult time explaining why. I liked what I saw in Rubèn’s work and a question occurred to me. Could he provide the graphic I’m missing…more specifically, could he paint Chicken Sunday Afternoons? Having gotten his phone number from the Chiclayo Cultural Center curator we phoned Rubèn who agreed to meet us for lunch the next day.

During lunch I described to Rubèn an image in my mind of a small boy sitting on the curb in front of his house on a bright Sunday afternoon, patiently waiting for his friends to return. I showed him a photo of the street and my house. Rubèn, who is in his early 20’s asked many questions. What was the boy thinking and feeling, what were his social and economic conditions, what was his life like as he grew and how did he view himself in later life? I responded that the boy was born into a poor family; that he had a tough road to travel and would not have anything given to him along the way, but ultimately carved out a good life for himself; a story not uncommon for many people born in poor conditions in that time period between the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. 

Some weeks later Rubèn phoned and invited us to his studio in Tumàn to view what he had done with the painting thus far. I was struck by the divergent subject matter and interpretation of the more than 30 paintings on his studio walls.

And then one recent day my painting was ready. To anyone not familiar with the imagery in the painting it probably would not be worth a second glance. To me it speaks volumes of my early years. It is Chicken Sunday Afternoon, but it’s also my mother sending me to Lindners grocery store with 25 cents to buy sandwich meat. It’s the street where horse drawn wagons delivered milk and ice for our ice box; where we rode our bikes and played games. It’s the street where the dreaded polio quarantine signs would appear on the front doors of houses in the summer, and the house where Eugene; one of our gang died of the disease in 1948. The boy on the curb is me but he’s also Eddie K. and Eddie T., Baldy, Eugene, Pinky, Ray, Danny and others. It’s all the things that each of us took from that neighborhood and from each other as we left our youthful innocence behind us and went our separate ways.

Adding the boy as an old man to the painting was not my idea but I love the concept and now understand why Rubèn asked those probing questions. The boy didn’t often think about his future but did occasionally wonder what life would be like when he grew up. The old man knows what lies down that road and wishes he could cross that street and prepare the boy for both the triumphs and tragedies he’ll face, but of course he can’t do that.

The memoir has a title, and it has a graphic. And I have a painting mounted on the office wall above this computer that, when I pause to look at it, fills me with memories and makes me feel good.

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