Cold wind pushes against me as I walk through the canyons of lower Manhattan to the subway, tears fill my eyes, leak down my cheek.  Down the hole I go.  And wait.  Subways in the middle of the day are strange and ugly places. The smell of garbage and urine, the sound of rats scurrying under the platform, and the fine black soot that covers the rails and hovers in the air filling my nostrils and coating my lungs seem less personal in the crush of rush hour. The air is heavy with the cast off dust of commuters that have made this descent into post-modern Hades morning and evening for years.  Vertigo warns me while I straddle a tentative foot over the faded yellow line, that I am close, too close to falling into the dark ugliness that I submit to every day to carry out what has become the routine of my life.  I am almost alone.  A man in an oversized stained tan parka sits on a bench under the tile letters proclaiming this destination: Broad Street. Enter by the narrow gate, for the road to perdition is broad. These words come unbidden and startle me. I stand far enough away from him to be able to run up the stairs if he stirs, but not so far as to be rude to the poor man.  He mutters something into his dirty coat then draws his head out of his turtle’s collar and looks at me.  The J train screeches to a halt, the grimy doors open.  I take a seat opposite the man who sits on the platform bench looking at me.  I return his gaze through the smudged window.  When the doors close and the train pulls out, I am relieved to be away from him. And slightly ashamed.

copyright © 2009 J.B. McCullagh: Rose in Bloom (working title)

This is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel I am currently working on.  Working, in my case, is a rather loosely defined term.  Working includes such things as thinking, dreaming, imagining, letting the characters form in their own way, and of, course,they need to reveal themselves.  Working also includes trying out the scaffolding for these characters, their major conflicts and how the pieces and the people fit together.  Since this is my first serious attempt at novel writing I need to feel my way through, letting the many how to write books continue to gather dust on various desks and bookshelves around my house.

There are countless books on writing, some wonderful, some not so much.  Trouble with some writing books is that you have to read them.  Read them and do exercises.  Get out your pencil and papers, children, because it is time to write a theme.  Yes, Sister, we all say in weary unison. Maybe that's it.  My formal introduction to writing in the first grade was something called Theme writing.  It was all very structured and strict, guidelines had to be followed.  A beginning, a middle and an end must be part of the Theme. Punctuation and spelling mattered.  No one would dare call them stories.  Theme writing was an obstacle course that sifted the wheat from the chaff among the first grade crowd.  If you could endure that and still want to write, congratulations.  Considering I was 5 going on 6 when I started first grade, no wonder I hated it.  The stories I "wrote" before that were games and imaginings I made up for my younger sister and brother.  We would play them out and they would be 'written' as we went along, with surprises and meltdowns popping up just because someone needed a nap or had a wet diaper.  Before I went to school I would practice 'writing' in discarded notebooks of my older sibs, but I just wrote what I wanted using words I could guess at spelling.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that best 'how-to' books on writing are all the novels and works of non-fiction I have hungrily consumed these many years.  I think maybe I'm putting myself back in first grade when I set out to work on my novel by getting all jammed up in the rules.  I've got to figure out a way to shake loose all my well intentioned training and learn to trust the sounds and words that want to be on the page.  We'll see how it goes.


Grandma used to pick up threads. And hairpins.  And safety pins.  She fastened the safety pins down the front of her cardigan near the button holes.  There were buttons on her sweater, Aunt Jule would make sure of that. I think she picked up bits of thread and pins because she was raised to be thrifty, to save, to never waste.  Grandma seemed so very old to me.  The big blue veins that sat on the back of her hands were covered by thin loose skin, her wedding rings held on more by her bony knuckle than by any plumpness of her fingers.  There was thread wrapped around the rings to keep them safe below her knuckle.  In their steel grey hair these sisters used hairpins, not bobby pins.  In old family pictures  I saw they once had thick plentiful hair, like I had.  Now there scalps were visible and those wide wire hairpins had so little to hold on to that they fell, into the carpet, on to the linoleum, and stayed behind when they arose from a chair. And so they had to be picked up. When I was with them, I could feel my youth--- strong, vibrant, smooth skin, fresh faced youth. 'Bursting with life' would not have been an exaggeration from these days.   I could move freely, run and jump and play all day, ride my bike with no hands, just steering with my will and the strength of my body.  I'd get up to such a speed and then glide, the air rushing through my thick hair, the breeze on my smooth skin, the muscles in my legs strong after the exertion. Sometimes Grandma would sit next to me and take my hand in hers, my hand covered in smooth pink skin, and she would just rub the back of it.  She would hold my young hand and look at our two hands together and sigh, sometimes a tear in her eye as she patted my arm.  "So nice and round you are."

Not so many years ago, I was brushing my own mother's hair, this grandmother's daughter.  My mother had more than abundant hair--- so thick and dark all my growing up years, now silver with a lovely sheen.  She kept more hair than her own mother did, but when I brushed it, I saw the patches, her scalp exposed just in places.  She grew into a similar old age to her mother, forgetful, confused, softer.  Not as formidable as the mother of my youth, but still herself.  And, as with my grandmother, I think this condition, this senility, Alzheimer's, opened a door on her life that might have stayed closed otherwise.  As with her mother, she spoke of the past, her childhood, her youth, the events of yesterday much fresher than what she just had for lunch or the names of her family who sat at the table with her.  This doorway, the defenses crumbled, brought its own gifts along with the heartache.  She would speak of things from years before, looking to find people long dead, but not to her.  They were just there, waiting for her.  And so she had to find them.

Now I am a grandmother.  My daughter has a child, a little boy.  To hold his plump little hand, his round toes, rub his soft soft cheek against my own is more than a delight.  It is a renewal of life, and yes, of course, a reminder.  Now I am the grandmother.  The one with the stories of long ago, that seem not so long ago for me--- no, long ago was for my grandmother, but of course that is ancient history to my grandson.  My youth will be the 'good old days', my daughter's youth just parts of stories we will tell.  And we will show him pictures and tell him about his Mommy when she was a little girl and his uncles will give him piggy back rides and tell him things I didnt know about his mother, things only brothers would know.  His grandfather and I will tell him stories of growing up in New York-  in that far away place he will  see on TV in any number of cop  and lawyer shows.

I have spent my life collecting stories, listening for the history and characters of grandparents and aunts and uncles I never would meet otherwise.  I have collected these treasures by asking questions, studying photographs, listening at Christmas and Thanksgiving when the older people would join us.  I suppose I am something like my Grandmother, picking up threads so as not to waste the legacy of all those we come from.