My father and I build a snowman on the front lawn of the Ethel Street house that always occupied a soft spot in my heart. (Photo: Elsa Jurgis)
When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, my father liked to tell a tale about two men and an ass. Maybe it came from the Bible. Maybe it was Latvian folklore. Maybe he made it up. He was known to do that sort of thing, saying he was folk as much as anyone else. At any rate, no matter what combination the men came up with—one riding, one walking; both riding; both walking—someone always came along to criticize it. “Why own an ass if one of you has to walk?” And so on.
When I recall that tale these days, it is often in the context of my writing. You see, my stories have been criticized for eliciting too little emotion. And I suspect that if I ever wrote anything eliciting too much emotion, I would be criticized for that, too. But I always conclude that I would rather be accused of being too cold than of being too sentimental, so I do not put myself in a position to experience the latter, completely forgetting the point of my father’s story.
But even following my own logic, that makes little sense. If my response to one form of criticism (see “A Formal Feeling Comes”) is that shutting down is what people do in many of the situations—often involving war and displacement—that I portray, then I should be willing to respond to the other form, as well. Because there clearly are cases where such stressors have exactly the opposite effect. Which means that I need to risk telling stories that evoke strong sentiment. Even stories that could be considered to be sentimental.
One such story could come from the time when we were exiled in the Alps and my father had found work at a hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, he was not suited for much more than a desk job, so he fell the equivalent of several stories and, luckily, landed on a ledge. Once he recovered, he looked for other work, but there was none to be found in post-war Austria. Since my mother was still employed, the decision was made that he should study law at the University of Innsbruck instead. So he packed pen and paper into one of his few remaining possessions—a fine leather briefcase—and took a train.
During this time, I was a toddler who was rapidly outgrowing her only shoes. Since there were none to be had in our area, my mother traced my feet and sent the outlines off to my father’s nephew, who had fled to England as a teenager. By the time that my new shoes arrived, they no longer fit. So my father took his briefcase to a cobbler and had him make a pair from the leather. Much the way—less the reciprocity—that the husband and wife in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” gave up prized possessions to give each other Christmas gifts.
The closest that I ever came to writing anything along those lines was “Ethel Street,” which was about the first place in the States my family lived after leaving our sponsor. While I always recall it with great fondness, I could not get as far as the first (and only) draft until two things occurred: (1) I read James Joyce’s story “Araby,” which starts with the description of a quiet street and ends with the destruction of an idealized vision, and (2) I mentioned to my mother, then 90 years old, that the Ethel Street house was where I was the happiest and she responded with considerable amazement, saying, “That was the terrible place where the man upstairs beat his dog.”
Which gave me something cynical—and publishable—rather than sentimental. Perhaps something perceptive about how the same experience can be so different for a child and an adult. Just not the story that I had wanted to write. Or that my father would have enjoyed, because he came from a generation that thought O. Henry was a wonderful writer. Of course, he thought the same of Anton Chekhov. Who is said to have said—I cannot find the original source—something like, “If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly.” Which brings me back to that tale of the two men and the ass.
Note: My father died nearly two decades ago, but I still celebrate his birthday, which is today. Sadly, this December 17 is also the day that the cousin who sent me the shoes is being buried. One day I will succeed in writing stories with the sort of sentiment that both would have enjoyed.