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December 23, 2010

Pamela Schoenewaldt: Rembering Dorian Road

Posted by Anonymous

PamelaSchoenwaldt.jpgThis afternoon, Pamela Schoenewaldt --- the critically acclaimed author of one play, several short stories and the forthcoming novel WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS --- remembers her childhood home in New Jersey…and shares the heartbreaking story of the best Christmas present her mother ever gave her. 

Choosing Christmas presents for my mother was so easy when I was small: a painted ash tray from art class, a trinket bought with allowance, even a tube of preserved lychee nuts. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed, “I don’t have any.” Years later, of course the process grew more nuanced. Once, she bristled at the supposed sub-text when I gave a bottle of my then-favorite perfume: Opium. Other years were more successful. But nothing prepared me; I never imagined choosing her last gift. The lung cancer diagnosed in August was so rabid, that by fall we knew she could not last much beyond Christmas.

What to give? Not lychee nuts or Opium. I was living near Naples, Italy, and she in Austin, Texas. I considered various sickroom supplies: bathrobe, soft towels, scented candles and hand creams, all those things. In the end, I decided to write what I remembered of the house where we lived between my ages of four and nine in Metuchen, New Jersey. Surely I could manage a few pages. But in my spare, white study with white tile floors, or watching from our kitchen window as a crimson-violet sunset melted the azure strip of the Mediterranean to a glimmering silver ray, memories of Dorian Road came flooding back with such piercing intensity that I filled 10 pages, single-spaced.

I remembered my mother building my first snowman with me, and summertime, making baking soda plasters for yellow jacket stings. I saw again in avid detail the living room’s long window seat that easily became a stage behind the curtains that she made. I saw the russet-brown and felt the rough nubs of the carpet, where I built castles with my little brother and once overheard our mother on the phone speaking of a young couple “living on a shoestring.” My brother’s eyes widened, and I whispered knowingly how they managed: “The shoestring is very long. It’s strung in a web over the floor, and that’s how they live on it.”

I wrote about my mother’s Christmas decorations --- a hanging, jolly Santa in pajamas with pointy shoes, exquisitely carved wooden nativity figures from Germany, a candle made of dancing angels. My mother sewed masterfully. I passed through the tangle of our troubled years to the puffy, pink bathrobe I wanted and she made, dresses, doll clothes, a cape for our theatricals and a leopard costume I still have, appliquéd Christmas stockings and table cloths, fitted slip covers for our couch. I remembered the muted labyrinth pattern I traced in the feverish days when the living room was my sick room and she bought me applesauce, ice cream, bananas mashed with cream, new library books and an Etch-a-Sketch to play with while I was propped up with pillows. Later, I fed my new baby sister on that couch and helped my mother change her. I remembered how she dressed me for snow --- layers on layers --- and then, later, her kneeling on the carpet, warming my red fingers in her hands, blowing, blowing, without the wracking cough that fractured her speech in later years.

I had a severe, capricious fourth grade teacher, and I remember coming home in tears, being held, being brought hot chocolate. Yet this tyrant had us write a story every Friday, and my mother --- not a saving sort --- saved each one. Nestled in the window seat, I read and read, calling out new words to her. She explained them all. I remembered her curled in a chair, reading art history in the afternoon. None of my friends’ mothers did that.

I wrote and wrote, and then in mid-December, sent off my little tome. In the next days, the cancer leapt ahead. She couldn’t read or focus on what my father read to her. She thanked me vaguely and apologized for not having sent anything. “Never mind, Mom,” I said, “I’ll be there in few days.” Yet in the writing of those pages, in the floods of tiny memories they unleashed, I already had received her last and best Christmas present.

And on that incredibly profound note, the Holiday Author Blogs bid you a safe and pleasant evening. But you better watch out. And you better check twice, because in honor of Christmas Eve, we’re giving readers two times the cheer again tomorrow, as Carol Cassella and Linda Lael Miller share a few of their favorite book-related holiday memories…and reflect on the importance of taking the time to make more.