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Character Study: Madeline Rose in Water Signs

In previous posts, I’ve described Water Signs as a literal, metaphorical and spiritual journey for its two main characters, Madeline Rose and Kenneth Lockheart. And since I alluded to Madeline’s weight issues in my last post, I figured they merited a larger discussion in my next update.

When Chapter One opens, readers get an inkling of Madeline’s motivations, fears and insecurities via her conversation with her good friend Carmen (based on a real-life friend), as the girls cruise down the Atlantic City Expressway bound for Ocean City, New Jersey. She’s just been through a traumatic break-up with her first boyfriend, who’s been harshly critical and judgmental due to his own personal issues (a topic I discussed — along with the theme of forgiveness — in the post, Maddy’s Men). The dialogue centers around Maddy’s lingering hang-ups about her appearance, which Carmen quickly attempts to dispel.

From the outset, I strove to highlight the preponderance of loving, supportive and protective people in Maddy’s life, from family members to female friends — while drawing a sharp contrast between her and the other characters — beginning with Carmen in Chapter One:

“I know,” Carmen agreed. “But believe me; I miss my retail days in New York. Macy’s was tough, mostly due to a Type-A personality boss, but I met a lot of cool people. Counseling clients at New You Nutrition and Weight Loss isn’t exactly a dream job.”

“Isn’t it satisfying to help someone get into shape?” Madeline pursued.

“Only the people who are really serious about it,” Carmen replied. “But most clients just make up excuses and waste their money so they can claim to be doing something about their figure. And the company doesn’t mind because they’re raking in the dough. Not that the program isn’t good, it is. But not even the best weight loss plan on earth will work for someone who isn’t committed to it.”

“You should tell them you owe your skinny frame to New You, and not an inherited fast metabolism!” Madeline suggested, laughingly.

“Yeah, maybe I should!” Carmen agreed. “You look good, Maddy, by the way. I can tell you’ve lost some weight.”

“Yes, I’m trying!” Madeline patted her tummy. “All the walking and swimming I’ve been doing is paying off. And I’m being really careful about everything I put in my mouth. Just a few more pounds and I’ll be all set.”

“Now, don’t go off the deep end,” Carmen warned, suddenly becoming serious. “You are such a pretty girl and you look great. So just remember that, ok? You are beautiful the way you are right now.” Knowing her good friend was still reeling from a painful break-up a few months ago, Carmen wanted this to be a fun weekend for all of them.

“Apparently Jake didn’t think so,” Madeline noted quietly.

“Jake’s an ass!” Carmen shot back, her fiery Latin temper flaring. “Who the hell was he to criticize you? It’s obvious you weren’t dating him for his good looks. He should have been grateful to have a cute girl like you on his arm, instead of acting like a complete jerk and dumping you over the phone. At least be a man and face things head on. What a wuss!”

Partly due to her seemingly unconquerable belief in her own inferiority where men are concerned, Maddy initially reacts harshly to Carmen’s announcement of their impending dates later that evening — although there’s another glaring fact that adds insult to injury. This is also an instance where I employed a bit of foreshadowing just prior to the introduction of Ken:

“Well, while we’re on the subject, I have to confess something.”

Uh-oh. Knowing Carmen, it wasn’t good news.

“What?” Madeline asked defensively, bracing herself for the answer.

“Mary Ellen is trying to get these guys to bring a friend along for you—”

“Aw, Carmen!” she protested.

“Look, I don’t even know if the guy will make it, but you have to start somewhere. These men are successful in business and they’re really cute. We’ll all just go out and have some fun. It’ll be great, you’ll see!”

“Do you even know anything about them?”

“Well, I know they have some kind of import/export business in Atlantic City. And I think they’re from Iran or someplace in the Middle East.”

Fabulous.

Maddy’s type was definitely the masculine, clean-cut all-American guy either in uniform, or out of the pages of Football Digest or GQ; while she had an appreciation for other cultures, she had no desire to date someone from another country—European, Middle Eastern or otherwise. As was her usual reaction to distressing news, she sat in silence.

A little while later, I took a few paragraphs to describe the girls’ contrasting appearances, as well as the dichotomy between Madeline’s self-image and reality, in addition to another bit of foreshadowing:

The girls headed upstairs to get ready. It was already after 6 p.m. and they were planning to go out to eat before heading to the Key Largo dance club just over the causeway in Somers Point. At the Point Diner a little while later, Madeline watched in awe as Carmen devoured a burger and fries, while she carefully stuck to grilled chicken and salad. In spite of her slim figure, Carmen often ate starchy, fattening foods, none of which ever affected her thin frame. It was a luxury Maddy had never enjoyed.

But she looked adorable in a cute white summer outfit consisting of a long, sequined white top over tight leggings, cinched at the waist. She’d pulled her flowing auburn hair back into a loose ponytail, held with a rhinestone clip, and her favorite comfy silver pumps, in anticipation of dancing the night away. Carmen looked stunning in a black linen dress and high-heeled sandals, her dark hair falling straight just below her shoulders. Little did Maddy know at the time, but she would find herself sitting in the very same booth a few hours later, under very different circumstances.

Astute readers will understand that, given Madeline’s overly critical and distorted self-image, the fact that Ken is first attracted to her stunning Latin girlfriend — going so far as to purchase a long-stemmed rose and present it to her on the dance floor — sets the foundation for the conflict to ensue in the budding, unexpected relationship that develops between her and the handsome former US Navy sailor.

Lost in the music, Madeline never saw it coming, but suddenly she looked up to see a hand holding a long-stemmed rose in front of Carmen; a little red devil was attached to it. Then Maddy caught a glimpse of the rose’s buyer and her heart skipped a beat—too bad he was interested in her friend. It seemed so unfair since Carmen already had a date for the evening, unbeknownst to this handsome stranger. But despite her disappointment, Madeline laughed right along as Carmen accepted the gesture and began to dance with her new suitor.

And of course, it’s only when Carmen’s date for the evening finally arrives at the club that Maddy even gets the opportunity to hang out with Ken in the first place — when something inside compels her to extend the invitation, much to her own astonishment:

“Maddy,” Carmen asked again, “What are you going to do?”

Feeling strangely emboldened, Madeline announced, “I’m not going with all of you. I’m staying here and hanging out with Ken!” Then turning to him, she asked softly, “Is that ok with you?”

“Yes, that’s fine with me,” he agreed, giving her a high-five. Maybe the night’s not lost after all, he surmised. She’s seems truly adorable. It won’t hurt to spend a few hours getting to know her.

“Ok, but you better be nice to her,” Carmen warned Ken as she stepped into the back seat of her entourage’s Lincoln Continental.

In spite of her insecurities, Maddy demonstrates even more confident self-assertion when her newly designated date for the evening can’t stop haranguing her over what he considers to be Carmen’s dishonorable actions:

“You know I have to say I really don’t understand your friend. Why would she lead me on like that when she knew she had a date? And did you see those guys? I mean, I spent four years of my life defending this country from people like that and she and her anorexic friend run off with them?”

“Hey Ken, calm down! I agree with you about Iran, but that doesn’t mean those guys are like their crazy government. And you have to know Carmen; she’s just a free spirit. No one tells her what to do. I’m just glad they didn’t bring a friend for me, ‘cause long hair and grunge is definitely unappealing.”

“Well she still shouldn’t have accepted my rose,” he stated emphatically.

Maddy had enough. Cute as he was, she had no desire to talk about Carmen all night; watching Nick-At-Nite at home was sounding better and better. Overcoming her usual hesitance around guys, she spoke up. “Look, Ken, you’re here with me now. Either we’re gonna dance and have a good time, or I’m outta here! What’s it gonna be?”

Pleasantly surprised by her feistiness, he took her by the hand and exclaimed, “Well, let’s dance!”

By the way, this entire chapter is pretty faithful to real life, down to the little red devil attached to the rose; Maddy’s amazement at Ken’s foresight in bringing along a clean shirt to change into; Ken’s initial anger about Carmen leaving the scene with another guy; and his marveling at Maddy’s “tiny” hands. Even the conversation in bold above is absolutely true, and like Maddy, I surprised myself with my own comfort level around this guy; I seemed to have no qualms at all about telling him in no uncertain terms exactly how I felt. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long as the relationship progressed, as I will detail in another post.

Once Ken and Maddy break the ice with a dance, the rest of the evening unfolds effortlessly. Their light-hearted conversation reveals many similarities, including their shared birthday (which, as I’ve noted before is an example of creative license; the real guy and me are both Pisces, but our birthdays are about two weeks apart), Catholic upbringing and status as “the baby” in their respective families. However, Maddy’s insecurities flare up again upon learning more about this intriguing new suitor, unbeknownst to him:

Under the cover of magnificent moonlight enhanced by the muted sounds of music emanating from inside the club, Ken and Maddy chatted for hours. He shared funny and sad stories of his time in the military as she eagerly listened, fascinated by his life experience. At 25, she’d never even left her hometown, let alone traveled the world. Except for a Caribbean cruise with a few college girlfriends after graduation and some assorted family trips to places like Disneyworld and Chicago, she’d lived a pretty uneventful life. Heck, Maddy had even commuted to a university minutes from her house because she hadn’t felt quite ready to leave the nest. At the same age, Ken had enlisted to serve in foreign lands.

She also noticed something admirable and attractive in him—an inner spark, a desire to make something of himself. He was determined to rise above his roots in a sleepy Shore town and accomplish much greater things than his older brothers, all of whom seemed content to work in a local pizza shop.

From the get-go, Ken exposes himself as an entirely different kind of man from Jake, which ironically heightens Madeline’s insecurity. After two years of constant berating about her weight, her choice of dress and even her bust size, it’s a shock to the system (albeit a pleasant one) to be with a man who’s constantly complimenting her. Although he’s quite sincere, she cannot seem to reconcile his glowing impression of her with the unattractive one residing deep within her own psyche.

And her inability to clearly articulate her feelings — coupled with Ken’s deeply held thoughts of inferiority in the face of Madeline’s highly accomplished family —  will help to destroy their relationship the first time around.

More on Madeline in the next post.

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The Food of Water Signs: Regional Brands

In attempting to evoke a palpable experience of the culture and atmosphere of the Philly, Southeastern Pennsylvania, and South Jersey areas, I purposely peppered Part One of Water Signs with references to popular brands enjoyed by residents of the Delaware Valley. Complemented by the addition of ethnic favorites like Italian wedding cookies, provolone cheese and tomato pie, this was highly effective in drawing readers into Ken and Maddy’s world.

In Chapter 9, Maddy tends to a recuperating Ken, who has injured his leg in a work accident (something that did happen in real life, although many of the events of this chapter have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes). It’s here where I first introduce readers to some Philly-area favorites:

“Thank you, sweetheart!”

Ken had awakened to find Madeline busily setting up a tray table with a turkey and cheese hoagie from Wawa, a pickle and a bag of Herr’s potato chips. He looked adorably groggy as he rubbed his eyes and sat up on the couch.

“Damn!” He laughed. “How long have I been out? And what smells so good?”

Placing the tray in front of him, Maddy smiled. “Hmm, well I’d say at least an hour and a half, to answer your first question. As for the second, I am attempting to make my Mom’s mussels marinara sauce for you. There’s plenty, so you can have some tonight for dinner and freeze the rest. I’m also leaving you chicken cutlets and a pan of eggplant parm. Wouldn’t want you to starve or anything, just ‘cause you have a bad leg.” Her tone was playful as she unscrewed the lid to a cold bottle of Turkey Hill iced tea.

Pictured: The beach in Ocean City, New Jersey.

If there’s one thing I really wish we had in South Florida, it is Wawa convenience stores. A cut above similar retail chains like 7-11, Wawa offers fresh homemade soups, salads and sandwiches, as well as various pots of steaming hot flavored and regular coffees, soft pretzels, Tastykakes and other on-the-run refreshment. Oh and yes, in Philly we call them hoagies, not subs.

Lancaster-based Turkey Hill products are also sorely missed.  Whenever I go north for a visit, my parents’ refrigerator is always stocked with fresh-brewed Turkey Hill iced tea and lemonade, and the freezer with their fabulous ice-cream featuring team flavors for the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies. As for Herr’s potato chips, they’ve been on the Philly scene for as long as I can remember, just like soft pretzels and another area favorite, water ice (known to the rest of the county as Italian ices), as mentioned in the beginning of Chapter 7:

“Here you go sweetheart,” Ken said with a smile, handing Maddy a small cup of one of her favorite treats—lemon water ice.

“Ooh, it’s even got little pieces of lemon in it, awesome!” she enthused, taking a spoonful into her mouth. They were sitting on a green-painted wooden bench, facing the ocean.

“You know, I really could have splurged on a large, Madeline Rose,” he remarked, giving her a playful nudge. Then, just as she was about to speak, added, “Oh, I know, I know. We have to watch our calories!” He was teasing of course, but Maddy took slight offense.

“Hey, just ‘cause you don’t understand what it was like to be the ‘chubby girl’ in school, don’t make fun of me! I wish I didn’t have to be so careful, but I was never one of those naturally thin girls like Carmen who can eat whatever she wants and not even have to exercise. It’s just the way it is.”

As she spoke, her eyes followed the graceful trail of a seagull as it rode the evening air currents. Ken lodged his plastic spoon back into his slushy cherry flavored concoction, and then turned her shoulders so she was looking squarely at him.

That scene is reminiscent of countless hours spent sitting on a bench on the boardwalk — either alone or in the company of family and friends — enjoying a cold water ice while gazing at the ocean. I can picture the seagulls, the waves and the colorful umbrellas dotting the sand even as I type this. It was so easy to place Ken and Maddy into various situations like this, regardless of whether or not the real Ken and I had actually done the same thing back in the day.

In a future post, I will delve into a character study of Madeline, complete with all of her insecurities including excessive worry about her weight, as evidenced in the dialogue above. I’ll also take a look at some of the real places that provide the settings for much of the interaction between the characters such as Frisanco’s Restaurant (now out of business), Taj Mahal Casino, The Ship Inn, Acapulco Grill (which no longer exists), Arturo’s Restaurant and The Boca Resort and Club.

We’ll also explore the use of popular music to help keep readers abreast of the current year throughout a long, 16-year journey; the development of technology to denote the progression of time; and more comparisons between fact and fiction.

Stay tuned!

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The Food of Water Signs: Provolone Cheese & Tomato Pie

In Water Signs as in life, regional foods were an integral enhancement to every celebration and sporting event. My mom was the party planner extraordinaire, the hostess with the mostess — the family organizer and Philly sports fanatic who would create well-thought-out or impromptu gatherings centering around every milestone. Whether it was a First Holy Communion, the Flyers in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Phillies in the World Series or the Eagles confronting an NFC Division rival, Mom made sure there was plenty of great food to complement the occasion.

Good thing too, because as anyone who’s been a lifelong Philly sports fan can attest, more often than not, the food is the only thing left to celebrate after the clock runs out. A certain January in 1981 comes to mind when — off of the high of beating the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game (an event I was lucky enough to attend in person with brother Paul and sister Carolyn…brrr!), the Eagles completely collapsed under pressure, losing to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV, 27-10.  The 1981 NFC Championship that preceded the Super Bowl letdown is recounted in vivid detail by Maddy during a scene in which she and Ken have dinner with her mother and Aunt Maria in Ocean City, New Jersey.

In Chapter Six, Ken and Maddy share a picnic on the beach featuring Italian wedding cookies, provolone cheese from South Philly and tomato pie — all of which are popular delicacies in the Southeastern PA/Philly/South Jersey area. Every Christmas, my mom used to drive down to the 9th Street Market in South Philly specifically to buy provolone, along with other things not typically done as well in the suburbs. Sometimes this entailed standing in line for hours, but in the end, it was so worth it when said provolone was accompanied by roasted peppers and fresh Italian bread (yum!) as a prelude to a fabulous meal. Now, that’s what I call Italian soul food!

Tomato Pie: Wildly popular in the Philly suburbs, Philly and South Jersey, but still an unknown phenomenon north of Trenton.

Last September, I was invited to speak at the Hawthorne Writers Group by my good friend, Don Smith. After some collaboration about the event, we decided it would be fun to include a few of the foods mentioned in Water Signs as refreshments. At the time, I was visiting my parents in Newtown Square, PA so baking the Italian wedding cookies was an easy proposition. However, I felt it would be best to actually purchase tomato pie somewhere in and around Hawthorne (which is located just 22 miles from Manhattan in North Jersey), rather than schlep it in the car for the 2 1/2 hour ride. It never occurred to me that this delicious variation of pizza had not yet been discovered  in Central and/or Northern New Jersey.

But when I went online to find some bakeries and pizza places in the Hawthorne area and began to make calls, you might have thought I was inquiring about some obscure, exotic foodstuff known only to a select group of elite chefs. Most of my conversations went something like this:

Hello, do you have tomato pie?”

“Uh, what? Tomato pie? Never heard of it. What’s that?”

“Well, it’s kind of like pizza, except it has a special kind of dough with tomato sauce and grated cheese sprinkled on top.”

“Uh, no we don’t have that, but we do have the best New Yawk style pizza around!”

“No, I am looking for tomato pie, not New York style pizza.”

“Sorry lady, can’t help you!”

In the end, I ordered two tomato pies from Genuardi’s Supermarket, which I managed to keep fresh and uneaten during the trek north. And both the wedding cookies and the tomato pies were a big hit with the crowd — almost as big a hit as Wilbert Montgomery’s touchdown run against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. :)

Next Post: Regional brands including Wawa, Tastykake and Herr’s.

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More Sisters of Water Signs

“On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, we we walk in a dream. On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, life will be peaches and cream.”

I paid homage to my sister Carolyn in my last post on the occasion of her birthday, but Water Signs also features another generation of close sisters: Monica and Maria, based on my mom and my Aunt Marie (who’s name really was Maria, although everyone called her Marie).

From the time I was a little girl, I always admired the relationship between Mom and Aunt ReRe (as I affectionately referred to her), which was as close a bond as I’ve seen between siblings. Like Carolyn and me, Mom and her younger sister were also opposites, physically speaking: At 5’5″, my active mother maintains an impressive figure, even after giving birth to five children. Aunt Marie, on the other hand was — in her own words — “pleasantly plump”, although height-wise, I believe she and my mom were about the same.

Both are and were attractive women  with sweet, beautiful and completely different faces. Whereas my blonde mother’s face shape is angular, frosted-haired Aunt Re Re’s was round. Mom has thin lips, Aunt Re Re had full ones — but both shared an unwavering commitment to the application of lipstick as the final touch of make-up before leaving the house. (A funny side note I will definitely incorporate into a future book: as a kid, I couldn’t get over how Aunt Marie could expertly apply make-up without ever using a mirror. She’d just laugh and tell me “Dar, I know my face!”).

In terms of personality, this passage from Chapter Four sums it up nicely:

“But though there were physical contrasts between the two sisters, each shared common traits of generosity, gregariousness, unselfishness, and — oh yes — an almost irrational love and over protectiveness when it came to their children.”

In that same chapter, Maddy muses to herself how blessed it is indeed to be so loved and cared for by these women. Certainly as a mature adult, I’ve made enough friends and acquaintances over the years to know that very few are so fortunate. I not only grew up with a mother who loved me, cared for me, and enjoyed spending time with me, I also had an aunt who loved me as if I was her child, too. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for that.

But as I am sure my sister Carolyn and cousin Annie will attest, when you’re young, it’s tough at times to fully appreciate such expressions of love and devotion.

When I sat down to write Water Signs, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my dear Aunt Marie, who’s been in heaven now for just over six years. Although she was actually more involved in my life during the “Jake Winston” courtship, caring for my wonderful Uncle Merle (may God rest his gentle soul), and running a business demanded pretty much all of her time when “Ken” came into the picture. So I decided to alter reality a bit.

In real life, my mom’s good friend Marion was actually staying at the Ocean City house with us when “Ken” picked me up for our first official date. A wonderful woman in her own right, Marion was a femme fatale, a sharp dresser, a quintessential female — in short, a northern version of Tennessee Williams famous character, Blanch Du Bois. Like Aunt Marie, Marion has also gone on to the next life, but she lives on in my memory. She also inspired an unforgettable line in the book, which is uttered by Aunt Maria, just as Ken and Madeline are about to depart for Atlantic City:

“Drive nicely, Ken. You’re carrying precious cargo.”

And just like Maddy, I was completely embarrassed, though I never admitted it to my date, figuring (as Maddy does)  that there was nothing wrong with him knowing exactly how important my safety and well-being were to my family. Looking back, I’m fairly certain “Ken” was at least a little nervous, having recently been exposed to the entire boisterous clan over breakfast the morning after meeting me. And though I tried not show it, I most definitely had butterflies (more on that in another post).

In the early parts of the book, as the relationship between Ken and Maddy progresses, Aunt Maria becomes even more of a friend, confidant and support system, much like Lori. I even managed to pay homage to our younger years, when the two sisters would pile their respective kids (Mom’s five and Re Re’s two) in the car and set off on new excursions.

Much of these remembrances I incorporated into the story through the use of flashback. Thus, one evening when Ken is having dinner with Maddy, Monica and Maria, the conversation turns nostalgic as the characters discuss one of my very favorite childhood memories involving an intense summer heat wave and the Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey:

“Ken seemed to get a kick out them, particularly the one about a hot and humid day in August, 1973, when she and Maddy’s mother had decided to take all of the kids to Great Adventure. About midway through the Safari — where even the lazy, sleeping animals seemed to have been affected by the intense heat — the air-conditioning had broken down in the car. As a woman who was often “roasting” even on the most bitter-cold winter days, Aunt Maria had insisted on rolling the windows down, only to have the park ranger scold them over the P.A. system. Good thing he had, though, because right after that a mob of baboons descended on them, apparently for the sole purpose of “christening” Monica’s brand-new, white station wagon.

“And of course, having insisted on wearing her cute new sandals instead of practical sneakers to the park, Aunt Maria had ended up in First-Aid with blisters all over her feet. After throwing the shoes away, she’d stolen her teenage son’s hockey socks so she could walk around in comfort — but not before they’d wasted most of the day waiting for someone to help her.”

Fun times for sure! And just like Madeline in the book, as a six year-old child who absolutely loved amusement park rides, I only managed to experience two of them with my mom that day when all was said and done. Still, it’s a great memory.

As for the sisters’ shared love of Atlantic City casinos and intrepid hunt for “hot” machines, that is straight out of real life too, though these days, Mom spends more time at the new Harrah’s in Chester than she does at any of the offerings on the famous boardwalk. Oh and she’s constantly imploring my aunt for some heavenly assistance, though if God indeed allows such intercession, Aunt Re Re has yet to respond with a huge jackpot. I’m thinking she’s too busy regaling other loved ones on the other side of the veil with her side-splitting stories and infectious laughter to take time out for such mundane things. She’s on to much bigger and better experiences now.

So here’s to loving mothers, fond memories and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood. And someday when I get to heaven, I sure hope Aunt Marie tells me how happy she was with my portrayal of her.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Three

Today’s installment draws a comparison/contrast between Water Signs’ main male character, Ken Lockheart, and Dr. Joseph Rose, the two most important men in heroine Madeline Rose’s life. As I’ve noted in previous posts, both are representations of The American Dream, though generations apart, and both are based on real people who impacted my life to varying degrees.

Dr. Rose (based on my father) is the offspring of immigrants, and a member of that generation that falls in-between The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. While he himself had been too young too have served during World War II, like my own dad, he certainly knew of those — including close family members and neighborhood friends — who had. Some of these noble men made the ultimate sacrifice, while others were fortunate enough to have returned home safely after honorably fighting for the cause of freedom.

My father did serve in the US Army during the Korean War, although this real-life fact is not obviously noted in the novel. Nevertheless, I grew up in a home that respected the US Military and celebrated traditional American values, quintessential holidays (Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc),  and the right of the individual to pursue any path he or she might desire, whether it entail a career in medicine, law, journalism, engineering, graphic arts or countless other noble fields in which one could put their talents and abilities to their best use.

Although my dad was a practicing surgeon, he never imposed his dream on his children. Like my mom, his fervent desire was for each of us to create the life and career of our own choosing. And though his work schedule necessitated an upbringing in which my mother did the heavy lifting in terms of administering discipline, teaching values and prayers, helping with homework, providing transportation to and from extracurricular activities, planning family outings and parties, and otherwise managing all of the duties associated with raising five children (including one with a handicap),  when my dad did arrive home, he was completely engaged in the family. (I will devote a separate post to my mom and her character, Monica Rose, both of whom are quite deserving of their own analysis)

Thus, our dinner (when he was able to make it home in time) conversations always centered on what we learned in school that day, what was going on in our lives and yes — what we wanted to be when we grew up. My response as a young child to that last question typically vacillated between: “I’m going to be a novelist!” or “I’m going to be a journalist!” To which my dad would always follow-up with approval and encouragement (Good thing, too, because although I was an excellent student, my obvious strengths were English and the humanities; math and science were a daily struggle and almost always marked the difference between the achievement of First or Second Honors in high school).

Another aspect of my father I didn’t fully appreciate until old enough to understand the pressures of the medical world (including the pervasive, sometimes devastating impact of trial lawyers and government) was that no matter how tough the day had been, he always came through the front door whistling. More often than not, he’d greet my mother with a cheery, “Che fai, Rosie?” and a kiss upon arriving in the kitchen, where she’d normally be preparing dinner. As a small child, I remember running to the foyer to greet him, where he’d always scoop me up and say, “How ya doing Little Lady?!”

All of these remembrances had their most profound significance in hindsight; I’m not exactly sure why it is so difficult to fully appreciate the gifts you’ve been given (e.g. a stable, loving family) when you’re young. But as I matured and met other peers in high school, college and far-beyond, I began to realize my good fortune of being born into a family that — while far from perfect — had almost been ideal compared with the familial circumstances of others.

Which brings me back to the character of Ken Lockheart. In Chapter Two of Water Signs,  Ken completely throws Madeline off-guard by actually following up on his 3 a.m. promise of meeting her at the beach in Ocean City — a declaration made under the influence of an alcohol-induced buzz. He’d driven her back to her car in the nightclub parking lot, after the couple had gone out for breakfast at a local Jersey diner, and stated his intentions with conviction. Without the benefit of pen or paper, Maddy wrongly concludes that while cute, entertaining and interesting, this guy is far from serious about her. Part of this stems from her own insecurity, and part from her inability to let go of a previous hurtful relationship, both of which are explored in the novel in great detail.

After returning home from church much later that same day, Madeline gets the shock of her life when her sister announces that Ken is on the phone, wondering where she’s been all this time, as he’s been waiting patiently for her at the beach as promised. This ultimately results in the extension of an invitation to breakfast with the family, suggested by Madeline’s mother, Monica. After a brief bout with nervousness, Ken accepts the offer and enthusiastically joins in the conversation around the table, amazed by the way in which the Rose family relates to each other. He’s also blown away by their accomplishments, from Dr. Rose to Maddy’s attorney-siblings Greg and Lori, and absent brothers Damian (a pathologist in Nashville) and Louis (the Down’s brother who was working in PA that weekend, staying with family friends).

Later at the beach, he’s even more amazed by how the Rose family welcomes him into their circle, and by Madeline’s ability to express herself intelligently in bursts of enthusiasm and passion on everything from politics to pop culture to sports. I recall conversations from real life in which “Ken” would share his admiration of the way in which my family members ate together, amid sometimes boisterous but always engaging conversation on a variety of topics. With some puzzlement, I’d asked him why this was such a big deal. Didn’t his family participate in the same kinds of activities?

His response was something along the lines of “not the way your family does.” It was a telling example of another seemingly unimportant detail of my upbringing, and one of the first reminders that not everyone I’d meet would share the same kind of family experiences.

In a later chapter, Maddy (as did I) learns of the troubled relationship between Ken and his father, instigated by Ken’s admirable decision to enlist in the US Navy to serve his country, earn money for college and to avoid, in his own words, “turning into a surfer bum.” During an evening spent perusing photo albums from his years in the service, a teary-eyed Ken admits to her that — unlike his supportive mother — his father never once visited him when he was on leave, nor wrote him one letter, although he did show up for the ceremony marking the successful completion of his son’s time in the Navy.

As with real life, “Ken” goes on to simultaneously complete his college degree and find success in the corporate world.

In the novel, I explore the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation through several characters. In this particular case, recalling the tension between Ken’s human counterpart and his father afforded me the opportunity to start with a real-life element and carry it through the entire work of fiction.

Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day of that same year, “Ken” had spent several days hanging out with my family and me at our home in Pennsylvania. I clearly remember his emotional dilemma on New Year’s Day, wanting to call his parents, yet dreading having to speak to his father — an issue he shared openly with me. After listening for a while, I suggested that he follow through with the call, mostly for his own sake, as it was clearly causing inner turmoil. Further, by doing so, he’d take the high-road, demonstrating respect without actually conceding that his dad was correct in his unfair criticisms of his son. Ken subsequently took the advice and they had a cordial conversation.

Both of these incidents served as starting points to chronicle the evolution of the troubled father-son relationship between Ken and Carl Lockheart. By the book’s end, Carl has developed a healthy respect for his youngest son’s decision to embark upon a dramatically different path than the blue-collar, union card-carrying one he’d initially envisioned for his offspring.

Having spent several years apart from Ken mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically, Madeline is thrilled to discover this incredible father-son milestone when circumstances conspire to bring him and his family back into her life. In a purely fictional chapter, she finally meets Kenny’s parents when she joins him for Mother’s Day dinner at their home, where, among other things, they enjoy a round of karaoke (inspired by my own karaoke experiences with friends at a friendly, Pompano Beach bar). This scene is but one of many examples of coming “full-circle” in the novel, and one of my favorites in terms of the writing process. Unlike me, Madeline has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, which is one of the countless qualities that Ken finds so intoxicating about her.

When I first met “Ken”, the similarities between him and my father were not obvious to me; only in hindsight have I been able to fully see and appreciate them. From overcoming difficult obstacles on the way to achieving success, to possessing an incredibly attractive, genuine love of God, country and family, there are many ways in which Ken and Dr. Rose mirror each other. Yet, perhaps the most significant of these is their shared love for Madeline — one as the man who brought her into the world, and the other as the man for whom she forever alters his.

Coming soon: More paths to reconciliation, and fact versus fiction.

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Filed under Professional Experience, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal