Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October, 2012

Although there is an Oz movie waiting in the wings (a 2013 release) and the fabulous series of Oz related books by Gregory Maguire, there is my take on the tale. Despite the fact that it was sitting with the publishers of Wicked…at the same time, it arrived after the fact and was not considered for publication by Regan Books (a division of Harper Collins). Nonetheless, I present the opening of my book, written as a first person memoir by Dorothy Gale…as if she were a real person.

ONE

Once upon a time I believed I would live forever. Or at least that’s what I thought until Doc Candib set the record straight when he ushered me into his private office and asked me to take a seat in a high-back chair covered in faded green leather. There was a tired, old grandfather clock solemnly standing in the corner; its pendulum moved ever so slowly, and the gears moaned softly as the hour hand tried to keep up with the mischievous minute hand.

The room was filled with the rancorous odor of despair. It hung in the air above our heads like an ominous cloud. Doc Candib wouldn’t look me in the eye. He busied himself with some papers on his desk, shuffling them like tarot cards. Try as he did to mask his somber expression with an aura of nonchalance, I could see right through his ruse. I watched him as he nervously rubbed his fingers together and bit down on his lower lip. He opened his mouth to talk; yet instead of making words, he uttered a string of unintelligible sounds.

“Do you have something to tell me?” I finally asked at length. “Is that why you called me into your office?”

He let out a long sigh that enveloped me with a blanket of concern. Bad news is never easy to deliver.

“I’m sorry,” he intoned in his trademark raspy voice. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are seriously ill.”

“Is that all? I’ve been seriously ill before.”

“This time it’s different.”

“How different?”

“Short of a miracle, I don’t believe you will survive this illness.”

“Are you trying to tell me I’m going to die?”

Without saying a word his eyes said it all.

“How long do I have?” I asked.  I wasn’t afraid to learn the truth.

“It all depends,” he whispered.

“Depends on what?”

“On how much fight you have in you. Yet I must warn you. cancer is a formidable adversary.”

“I can’t argue with you on that point, but cancer has met its match in me. I won’t die without a fight.”

“Many of my patients prefer to surrender rather than fight.”

I laughed. “I won’t be held hostage by death.”

I guess I disarmed poor Doc Candib because he finally smiled and shook his head in bewilderment. “I’m not surprised to hear you say that. You have so much courage.”

“I guess I do, and now I’m going to have to call upon every ounce of it to wring out the last drop of life’s sweet nectar.”

“I have no doubt you’ll do that,” he said smiling, yet just as quickly turned serious to ask me what I was going to do with the little time I had remaining.

“What am I going to do?” I repeated as much for my benefit as for Dr. Candib’s.

I guess inspiration was in the air because I caught a whiff of it and replied spontaneously.

“I think I’m going to write a book. Yes/ That’s what I’m going to do. I am going to write a wonderful book!”

“A book?” Two little bridges of doubt formed over Doc Candib’s furrowed brow. “What kind of book will you write?”

“I’m going to write my life story,” I pronounced with powerful conviction. “Not because I’m famous or even accomplished, but because I believe every life is a story and every story should come to life.”

“You never cease to amaze me, Dorothy. Most people in your situation would stop living, and here you are with an ambitious plan. You’ll have to promise me I’ll be one of the first to read your book when you finish.”

“It’s a promise,” I said. “And by the way, thank you,” I added.

“How can you thank me when I just told you you’re going to die?” he stammered.

“I wanted to live forever. That’s true. But now I realize you have to die first to do that. The simple caterpillar knows that it has to die before it can become a butterfly. It just takes us humans a little longer to catch on to that simple wisdom.”

Doc Candib showed me to the door. He gave me a hug that touched the little girl inside of me. And although I can’t swear to it, I do believe I saw the grandfather clock wink at me.

Instead of going straight home, I took a detour and went to a stationery shop on the corner of St. Marks and Rogers Avenue. I bought a ream of bond paper, a pink eraser, two typing ribbons and half a dozen pencils.

Although it had been raining when I left Doc Candib’s, the sun was dancing in the sky when I stepped out of the stationers and there was a rainbow crowning all of Brooklyn. That was sign enough for me that I was doing the right thing! I might have been handed a death-sentence, but I had no intention of letting death beat me at the game of life. I was too headstrong to ever allow that to happen. Besides, I had a book to write!

I joined a few of the local children in a game of hopscotch and ring-around-the-rosy before heading to Herkimer Street. As I walked the streets I had called home for nearly three decades, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was I wanted to say in my book.

Then it dawned on me. I wanted to examine my life to see where I had been. I wanted to recall all the wonderful people who had showered me with their benevolence when I was in need of a hand to hold. Yet at the same time I wanted to reflect on the darker periods in my life and remember some of those less than wonderful people who had pelted me with their ferocity when I was lost and lonely.

I didn’t set straight away to write my life story. I had to sort it all out in my heart first. That’s why I spent a week taking long walks in the park and having warm talks with friends and family. I traveled back in time assembling the myriad pieces of my life. It wasn’t until the pieces fell into a colorful mosaic that I knew what I wanted to say and where I wanted to begin.

So begin I will by telling you something about my father, Bernard Cassidy. Oh, how his eyes sparkled like polished emeralds! He had a captivating smile and his breath smelled of peppermint, I think. Or was it licorice? Gone. I can only see Poppa through my heart, not my weak and tired eyes, because his image blows across my mind with the speed of a cyclone.

Poppa was the youngest of four sons born to Kevin Cassidy and Mary Scott of Dunshaughlin. He was the runt of the litter. But, as if to compensate for his diminutive height, God blessed him with broad shoulders. He had a slender waist, midnight hair, a bronze complexion, a regal-looking nose and muscular legs that were the hallmarks of the long line of Scotts who preceded him. His three older brothers, Philip, James and Nicholas, favored the Cassidy side of the family. They were Irish tall, which meant they were long and lanky. They also had arched eyebrows, cleft chins and thick heads of hair the color of a roaring fire.

Kevin was a dirt-poor farmer who held the deed to a fickle piece of land once belonging to his father, a man who had died during a cholera plague that raced through the countryside killing about one in seven. When Kevin passed away, a year to the day after he had buried his wife, he deeded the lion’s share of the farm to his son, Philip. Instead of giving the remaining parcel of land to James, the next in line, he got a horse, two cows and a double bed all because he had the good sense to marry a local girl whose father had made sure she had some land to call her own. Nicholas, who was only eleven months Poppa’s senior, inherited a small peat bog that had been worked by the Scott family for more than two hundred years. Poor Poppa got stuck with a piece of Cassidy land that had never been farmed because, as local legend had it, the devil had buried rocks there the size of leprechauns. Poppa, who knew the legend but refused to believe it, had a change of heart once he took a plow to the ground and realized the size of the devil’s rocks had been underestimated.

Poppa was the wisest of the Cassidy sons, however, because he was smart enough to fall in love with Ellen Morgan, the daughter of Anna and James Morgan, who, though were tenth-generation Irish, were still considered newcomers because their ancestors originally hailed from Wales.

Momma was a lithesome beauty with skin the color of fresh cream and hair the color of a midsummer night’s sky. She had deep ocean-blue eyes and lips that were full and lush. Her cheeks and nose were chiseled to perfection. She had a contagious laugh, too.

Momma and Poppa grew up on different sides of the lake, but fortune saw to it that they would meet young and form a friendship that would blossom into a full-fledged love in the springtime of their youth. They first kissed underneath a spreading yew that was supposed to have been the home of an impish Celtic spirit who liked to meddle in affairs of the heart.

Ellen Morgan was a lover. She loved her mother, her father, her brothers and her sisters. She loved her husband and married him despite the fact that she was sentencing herself to a life of poverty. Lastly, she adored her children.

With all that love being broadcast in so many different directions, there was still a large chunk of it left over to lavish on life. No shadow of gloom was ever able to obliterate the sun that shone through her magnificent soul. Hardships there were a plenty, and some bitter disappointments, too. yet, there was no barrier that Momma couldn’t whittle down to size by the sheer power of her love.

Poppa was also a lover and a dreamer. He spent many of his waking hours constructing castles in his head to compensate for the rock-solid Ireland that seemed to keep his spirit earthbound.

Believing there was little chance of making a living working such a small piece of land, Poppa seriously began to consider following the golden sun to America. To him America was a land that cherished life, liberty and the pursuit of personal happiness. It was an ideal place for a lover and a dreamer.

One day, as the story goes, Poppa had spent the morning coaxing large rocks out of a selfish earth and the afternoon transporting them across a field. He was going to pile the rocks one on top of the other to build a knee-high wall that was destined to last until doomsday.

It had been a long day. And even though the sun was slipping below the horizon, Poppa still had one last wagonload of rocks to move before he could head home for supper.

Poppa wiped the sweat from his brow before giving his mule a gentle swat with a brittle switch.

“Just one more trip, Lonny” Poppa murmured. “Just one more trip and we’ll call it a day.”

Lonny looked up at Poppa with a defiant expression on her face and refused to move. For some reason known only to Lonny herself, she suddenly decided she had pulled one too many loads of rock that balmy June afternoon to suit her. She wasn’t going to complete another journey no matter how sweetly Poppa cajoled.

Poppa was exhausted and not in a mood to tolerate the antics of a temperamental mule. He didn’t like the work any more than Lonny did, but a job was a job and Poppa had to complete it if he was to ever get the field ready for planting.

“Get up you silly old fool!” Poppa cried out in anguish as he menacingly waved the switch in front of Lonny’s hoary face. “Just this one last load and then I promise I won’t ask you to carry another rock until Monday morning.”

Lonny shook her head and brayed mournfully. It mattered little to Lonny that she would be given off the Sabbath Day because there was always another Monday and Tuesday, and. . . No. Lonny would hear no more of it. Better, it seemed, to give up her wizened spirit and die. And that’s exactly what she did with a final bray that sallied forth across the face of the earth.

Poppa broke the switch over his knee and threw the pieces to the ground. He kicked the earth and started swearing. He shook his fist at Lonny and then stormed off to his crumbling cottage.

He pushed open the door and almost ripped it from its hinges. “I was not meant to live the life of a mule,” Poppa railed to Momma. “I can’t do it anymore. I have to find a better life for you and the children.”

Momma stopped nursing little Thomas. She gently placed him in his cradle near the hearth and asked Richard and Conor to care for their little brother.

She took Poppa by the hand and walked with him down to the creek by the back of the house. Momma sat on a rock and let her feet dangle in the cool water. She made room on the rock for her troubled husband. At first Poppa stubbornly refused to sit down. He wasn’t going to let Momma placate him so easily. He wanted to revel in his anger.

“You aren’t happy, Bernard,” Momma said directly. “I’ve been knowin’ that for some time now. So, if it’s America where you think you’ll be happy, then it’s America where you should be taking us.”

Poppa’s eyes lit up. He took Momma in his arms and covered her face with kisses. “Are you meanin’ what you say or are you only sayin’ what you think I want to hear?”

“Does it really matter, Bernard? If you’re not happy here, how can I ever dream of being happy?”

That was all Poppa needed to hear. Without the slightest hesitation he gave his parcel of land to his eldest brother, sold his meager possessions and booked passage on a ship bound for America. With some burlap bags filled with clothes, the family Bible, and a few small possessions, Bernard and Ellen Cassidy left their ancestral home for a new one across the sea.

Poppa slapped his brothers on the their backs and made light of a departure that was to be forever. Momma, though, had a difficult time saying good-bye to Ireland. She was leaving behind a mother, three sisters, two brothers, a dozen aunts and uncles, ten nephews and nieces, a score of cousins, and Toto, her ever-faithful dog.

I remember Momma talking about the thirteen-day crossing. She said her stomach rolled with the waves, and when the vessel heaved, she heaved. Poppa, on the other hand, supposedly took to the sea with a reckless abandon, the salt air filling him with a rekindled spirit.

“We’re comin’, America!” he bellowed to King Neptune. “Get ready for Bernard Cassidy! Make room for me at the top, for if you don’t make room for me I’ll have to climb over you because I’m not going to lick any man’s boots. Ever!”

Unfortunately, no sooner had Poppa set foot in the land of his dreams than he was overcome with terminal homesickness. The hardships that had been the bane of his existence in Ireland took on a mellower tone once he was miles away in a city that was as forbidding as it was foreboding.

“I fear I’ve made a terrible mistake,” he confided to Momma less than a month after they had settled down. “This land is not meant for people. A man could die of overcrowding in this god-forsaken city.”

I can’t say for certainty what Poppa really expected life to be like in America, but Momma told me his dreams never came true. His prospects of making a great fortune in the land of opportunity dimmed with each passing day. Of all the work that was available to immigrants like Poppa—wainwright, white smith, cart man—he settled on a most ironic occupation. For ten hours a day, six days a week, Poppa worked paving the streets of ManhattanIsland.

Most of his life had been spent taking rocks out of the earth, and there he was planting them right back in! All day long Poppa would place granite stones next to each other and carefully, tap, tap, tap them into place. Side by side. Row after row.

“If only these bricks could be bricks of gold,” Poppa was often fond of saying, “then I’d be building a yellow brick road to paradise.”

Meanwhile, Momma did her best to make a good life for Poppa and their sons in the land they now called home. It wasn’t an easy task, because while Richard and Conor were hearty and robust youngsters, Thomas, who was only a babe when Poppa and Momma sailed to America, was in poor health. And even though Thomas was sickly when he was being nursed in Ireland, Poppa blamed it all on their unhealthy living conditions.

With a fourth child on the way Momma didn’t have the energy to argue with Poppa about moving. She hardly had the stamina necessary to tend to Thomas. As Momma’s energy waned, Thomas grew weaker and weaker. Two months before I was born, Thomas died peacefully in his sleep. I heard Momma took Thomas’ death with the fortitude of a woman who was born with an incontrovertible faith in God. Poppa, on the other hand, was utterly devastated by the tragedy. It was the coup de grâce to an already enervated spirit.

Poppa took to brooding. His once-famous Irish grin was concealed by a mournful expression and his sparkling eyes lost their luster. And his Irish temper, which he had always been able to keep under control, soared as the mercury in the thermometer threatened to explode.

The heat and humidity that gripped New York City that summer held the inhabitants of ManhattanIsland prisoners. It turned the cobblestone streets into frying pans and the brick tenements into ovens. While Poppa labored under the oppressive heat paving the streets and Momma endured the hardships of her pregnancy, Richard and Conor often found relief from the weather by cooling off at the slips in the East River. They were just two of a throng of boys who would remove their clothing and frolic in the foul-smelling water that lapped the barnacle-covered sloops anchored in the harbor.

Richard and Conor took delight in the fact that Momma was going to present them with another sibling. Having just lost a little brother, they had hopes of another one, replacing him with another boy, yet they considered the other possible outcome—a little sister—with a degree of keen interest and unexpressed delight.

I’ve been told that this is how things transpired: On the morning of August 12, 1878, the day I decided to make my earthly debut, an army of dark, threatening clouds moved in over lower Manhattan. By noon the sun was completely obliterated and the thick hot air that had blanketed the city began to turn cold. At six o’clock the heavens opened up and there was a Noah-like deluge that was accompanied by lightning and gale-force winds. Momma was having a difficult time with her labor. Her groans reminded Poppa of the long ocean crossing that had brought his family to an island of misery.

“If you die, Ellen Cassidy,” Poppa yelled between Momma’s plaintive cries, “I swear on St. Patrick’s grave that I’ll stop loving you.”

“It was your love that got me into this predicament in the first place, Bernard Cassidy, so don’t go makin’ any promises you can’t keep!” Momma replied.

Poppa couldn’t help but smile. “My love for you is so great that I’m thinking of taking you home once you’re back on your feet again.”

“Praise be Jesus, Bernard, don’t even talk like that in jest. I’d surely die if I had to cross that cursed ocean one more time. The only way you’ll see me back in Ireland is if you send my body back in a box, and even in that case I think I’d throw a mighty fuss.”

Then, as the story goes, Momma let out with a cry. “By the grace of Almighty God, Bernard, unless you plan on bringing this child into the world all by yourself, you’ll go fetch Mrs. Gage.”

Poppa ran out into the stormy night with only a threadbare shirt on his back to fetch Mrs. Gage, one of the neighborhood midwives. He was soaked to the bone by the time he arrived at her front door. Mrs. Gage took one look at Poppa and let out with a roaring string of unladylike expletives. “Not now, Mr. Cassidy! Tell me your wife hasn’t gone into labor on this cursed night!”

“Her innocent babe doesn’t know what the weather is doin’, so don’t hold it against my dear wife. A deal is a deal.”

“You’re absolutely right, Mr. Cassidy, so before I complete my end of the bargain, you’ll recall there’s a two-dollar fee for my services.”

Poppa’s eyes bulged. The veins in his neck throbbed as his blood pressure rose dangerously high.

“You must be mistaken, Mrs. Gage. I only recall you telling me it would cost a dollar.”

“I charge a dollar when I don’t have to risk a death of cold to bring a child into this cruel world. When heaven’s floodgates open, my fee is two dollars.”

“Well, I don’t have two dollars, Mrs. Gage. And if you think for a minute I’m going to leave here without you in tow, you don’t know Bernard Cassidy.”

“Is that supposed to be a threat?” she countered.

“Oh, please, Mrs. Gage, won’t you show some mercy?”

“Mercy is what you get from a nun, Mr. Cassidy. They live long, holy lives for Jesus. I have expenses. They don’t. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you give me the dollar we agreed upon before I knew your wife was going to choose to have her child on a night like this, I’ll let you pay me the other dollar when the sun shines upon you.”

Mrs. Gage waited for Poppa to hand her the money. “Well, Mr. Cassidy, have you suddenly been struck deaf and dumb?”

Feeling the fool, Poppa lowered his head and mumbled, “I don’t even have a dollar. I had to use it to bury my angel, Thomas.”

When Poppa lifted his head, it was tears, not rain, pouring down his cheeks. Mrs. Gage seemed unmoved. She had earned, and some would have said rightly, a reputation for being cold and heartless. A widow with five children to support, she had experienced her own share of misfortune. Poppa’s tears, though, did the trick. But I’m told that since she didn’t want Poppa telling anyone she had a soft spot in her heart, she grabbed her umbrella, launched herself out into the rain and protested every puddle-soaking step of the way as loudly as she could.

“You’ll pay me the two dollars if I have to take you to court,” she howled over and over again even though Poppa wasn’t listening.

By the time the two of them arrived at the house, a small crowd of nettlesome neighbors had gathered outside.

“Momma’s going to die,” Richard wailed as Poppa burst through the crowd.

“I’ll hear none of that,” Poppa roared. “Your mother has too much sense to die when she’s in so much pain.”

Mrs. Gage barked some commands to the women who had come to Momma’s aid. Poppa paced nervously in the adjoining room. With each of Momma’s laborious screams that resounded in our small hovel, Poppa’s voice in humble supplication rose in decibel and octave, too, until finally Momma’s screeching abruptly stopped and I let out with the cry of life.

“It’s a girl, Mr. Cassidy,” Mrs. Gage called out after an eternity of silence.

Poppa’s heart leapt for joy. “We’re going to name her Dorothy in your honor,” he told her.

“If you think that’s going to lower my fee, Mr. Cassidy,” Mrs. Gage said sweetly, “you’ve said the magic word. But I will be expectin’ you to pay me that dollar before you ever think of bringing another child into this world.”

Momma was on the mend soon enough. Poppa, though, developed a cold that seized him and wouldn’t let go. By the time of my first birthday he had developed a cough that alarmed Momma. She rubbed pastes on his chest, forced him to swallow fish oil, gave him herb tea, and coddled him as best she could. None of her potions seemed to work. His strength waned with each passing day. Where once-upon-a-time he could lay a street load of bricks in a shift, he was so enervated by the time of my second birthday that he was not able to do half that much.

“The men are starting to grumble, Bernard,” his foreman told him one morning. “They say you do less work, but still you take home the same wage they do.”

“I’m doin’ my best, Mr. Whaley.”

“You’ve got to do better than that, or else I’ll have to discharge you.”

“I have four mouths to feed,” he implored. “You can’t let me go.”

Mr. Whaley’s face registered genuine concern. “My heart is in sympathy with you, Bernard, but business is business.”

Momma took the news stoically. “We’ll manage, Bernard. Somehow we’ll manage. We’ll just have to burn less coal and eat smaller meals.”

“We can always find some loose coal in the street, Ellen,” he argued, “but with two growing boys, there’s no way you can expect them to eat smaller meals. If any plate is to get smaller, it will be mine.”

Momma wouldn’t hear of it. “You already look like a scarecrow, Bernard Cassidy. Lose any more weight, people won’t see you walkin’ down the street!”

I’ve heard that it was shortly after this that Poppa went real gaunt and his coughing intensified. He complained of having a chill he couldn’t shake, his appetite dwindled, he slept fitfully at night, and his breathing became labored. By the time of my third birthday, Poppa began showing up late for work and leaving early. That’s when Mr. Whaley could no longer look the other way; he had no choice but to let Poppa go. It was the beginning of the end.

Bernard Cassidy, a man who was once strong enough to haul rocks three times his weight, took to his bed on a Saturday in October. He was given the Last Rites of the Catholic Church on a Tuesday in November. A week later Poppa was dead. Momma told me he died with great dignity.

There was no money for an elaborate funeral. Poppa’s frail body, dressed in a secondhand suit, was placed in a pine box donated by Mr. Whaley. Hard hearted Mrs. Gage turned out to be the most generous of all; she gave Momma the deed to a plot in HolyCrossCemetery in Brooklyn.

Not wanting little Thomas to remain forever in a pauper’s grave in Manhattan, Momma sold the brooch Poppa had given her on their wedding day and used the money to have Thomas’ body reinterred in Holy Cross with Poppa.

I had never been to a cemetery before. Irrespective of what Richard and Conor hinted at, it didn’t seem like such a bad place. In fact, I was captivated by its magical quality. I thought I had entered a fairyland filled with tiny little granite and marble houses. I kept waiting for a little man or woman to pop open a door and invite me in for tea.

With my mind so preoccupied with fanciful thoughts, I had no idea Poppa and Thomas were in the boxes that were being lowered into the ground. Instead, my attention was focused on the gravestones and the strange shapes the clouds made in the azure sky above. When the priest intoned a final blessing on Poppa’s immortal soul, Momma stood very still. I can still recall the tears streaming down her face.

“Where’s Poppa?” I suddenly wanted to know.

Momma took a deep breath. Clutching my hand tightly, she said, “He’s gone to heaven to be with Thomas and the rest of the angels.”

“Please,” I said, “Can we go, too?”

“In time,” she said sadly in a voice just above a whisper, “in time we’ll all be in heaven with the angels.”

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »