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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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The Sisters of Water Signs

In honor my sister Carolyn’s birthday today (Happy Birthday, Car! :)), I am dedicating today’s post to a discussion of the sister characters in Water Signs.

Born under the sign sign of Cancer (another water sign), Carolyn and I share several traits, not the least of which are fierce loyalty to family and friends, emotional sensitivity, compassion for others and a drive to succeed. Five years my senior, physically speaking, she is quite different from me — standing at a stately five-feet, seven-inches, with big dark eyes, dimpled cheeks and a light-olive complexion. (I didn’t include this real-life fact in the novel, but during the summer of Flashdance, Carolyn was actually mistaken for Jennifer Beals at an upscale South Jersey Shore restaurant, where her then-boyfriend had taken her to celebrate her birthday).

With respect to academics, well — she kind of blew me away in school. Like her, I was smart and worked hard but oftentimes my best efforts would only result in achieving “Second Honors” instead of “First” in high school (although I did occasionally attain the pinnacle of quarterly Catholic school success). My sister on the other hand, never failed to make “First Honors” every grading period in high school after earning the coveted “plaque” (an elementary school phenomenon I describe at length in  Water Signs) at eighth-grade graduation; in college, she achieved a perfect 4.0 every semester and graduated at the top of her class while maintaining an active social life.

To their great credit, my parents cheered us on and acknowledged each of us as individuals, granting every child his or her just recognition for a job well done, while avoiding confidence-killing admonitions like “Your sister (brother) achieved that. Why can’t you?”

Being very much a late-bloomer, I sometimes envied Carolyn’s confidence and her easy ability to make friends. She never seemed hampered by the slings and arrows of adolescence, although she was not immune from being on the receiving end of the typical cattiness of teenage girls, or the hormonally fueled arrogance of teenage boys. In fact, although she was quite attractive, to the best of my knowledge, she did not have a steady boyfriend in high school, which I suspect was partly due to my mom’s influence. Our mother really wanted us both to get a good education and make our mark on the world before settling into marital bliss. And let’s face it: knowing that society had dramatically changed since her own carefree high school days, I am fairly certain at least some of the motivation stemmed from a desire to keep us out of “trouble”, though my mother always had the utmost faith in us.

I honor of Carolyn, I created the character of Lori Rose, newly engaged, 30 year-old sibling to Madeline who has witnessed her little sister’s heartbreaks over the years and longs for her to find happiness with the right guy. As we learn in Chapter One, Maddy’s heart has recently been broken in two by the first man she’d ever really called a boyfriend, Jake Winston (based on a real man). Among other things and for reasons having nothing to do with Madeline herself, he has beaten down her self-esteem by being overly critical of her appearance and failing to appreciate her better qualities.

Having pretended to be asleep the night Jake cruelly ends things with Maddy over the phone, the second the gut-wrenching conversation ends, Lori jumps into Maddy’s bed and, with a warm hug and these reassuring words, “I know exactly how you feel”, offers the best medicine for her sobbing sister. This is exactly how it went down in real life. And to this day I’ll never forget my sister’s kindness and compassion.

In Chapter Two, Lori’s breathless announcement  — in-between uncontrollable giggles — of Ken’s presence on the other end of the phone line, is another example of fact woven into fiction. The memory of that morning and its comedy of errors — “Ken” waiting for me at the beach while I was talking the long way to mass via the Ocean City boardwalk, then arriving home to discover “Carmen” had apprised everyone of the “new guy” I’d met — is one that will stay with me forever. Part of the upside of having a close family is that they take joy in your potential joys; part of the downside of having a close family is that it’s next to impossible to keep anything, no matter how personal, a secret for long.

In Water Signs (and in my own life), as Maddy nervously takes the call in her parents’ bedroom (where she’d mistakenly believed she’d have some privacy), it’s only a matter of seconds before her excited mother and sister appear at her side, with her mother mouthing the words, “invite him over for breakfast”.  And yes, Ken’s reaction in the book is pretty much verbatim to “Ken’s”: In my bathing suit? Are you kidding? I can’t meet your family like that!

Later on, when Maddy is under pressure to end the relationship due to Ken’s lack of a college education, Lori (like Carolyn) takes her side, encouraging her to follow her heart and disregard their mother’s misguided, though well-intentioned, opinion on the matter.

Throughout Part One, Lori remains a loyal sister, a trusted confidant and a voice of reason. Though for dramatic purposes, we don’t see much of her in Part Two until the very end, my own sister continues to be a welcome presence in my life — another great gift from God I know I can depend on.

Happy Birthday, Carolyn! May all of your wishes come true! xoxo

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