Tag Archives: US Navy

Memorial Day Tribute: The Ken Character in Water Signs

As someone who was raised with a genuine appreciation and respect for the US Military and traditional, conservative values, Memorial Day was always about so much more than just backyard barbecues, although my parents typically hosted one every year. And once we’d gotten an in-ground pool when I was twelve (the realization of a fervent childhood dream for a Pisces child who loved being in the water all summer long), outdoor grilling and socializing with family and friends became that much more enjoyable.

But growing up with parents who constantly espoused the concepts of freedom, capitalism, strong national defense and love of America, as well as having numerous relatives who’d paid the ultimate price in World War II, I was fully aware of the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make on our behalf. Gratitude for their courage and willingness to serve at great personal peril has always remained with me, along with pride for people like my Uncle Dan, who was an Admiral in the US Navy and one of the most devout, honorable men I have ever known.There is a passing reference to him in Water Signs, in the scene between Madeline and Monica, in which Madeline’s mother implores her daughter about the importance of education.

And of course, the hero of the story, Ken, is a US Navy veteran, just like his real-life counterpart. Although by the time readers meet him, his service has already taken place, his love for America shines through in word and action. In Chapter One, in reaction to Carmen running off with her Iranian date, he notes with palpable exasperation, “I spent four years of my life defending this country from people like him and she and her girlfriend run off with them?”

Of course, Maddy is quick to remind him of the distinction between the Iranian people and their tyrannical rulers.

In another scene later in the novel, as Ken and Maddy are enjoying a romantic beach picnic in Ventnor, Maddy ruminates about what others might be doing at the very moment on the other side of the ocean (something I’d often thought of during my visits to the sand and surf):

“…well, I’ve actually gotten to see what many of them were up to firsthand, during my Navy days. Unfortunately, not all of it was good.”

“We’re very blessed to live in this country, aren’t we?”

“Yes, we are,” he agreed, kissing her forehead.

The character of Ken also embodies love of God, country and family, which is revealed through his actions in addition to his words. Whether professionally or personally, commitment is of the utmost importance to him; therefore, he’s not above working menial jobs such as Taj Mahal parking valet and electric company meter-reader on his way to bigger and better things. And no matter the task, he throws himself into it diligently.

When he mistakenly believes Maddy is over him, he follows through with his marriage to Erin and valiantly fights for it as the years go by, in spite of his wife’s superficial obsessions and his lingering feelings for his former love. It is only after exhausting every possibility of reconciliation that he ultimately chooses divorce, and it is only after the legalities of the dissolution of marriage are finalized that he even entertains the idea of meeting up with Madeline, following a thirteen-year estrangement.  Once reunited, the pair still takes it slowly, preferring to reacquaint themselves with one another spiritually, mentally and emotionally before consummating their new and improved relationship. All the while, being a good father to his two children remains his top priority.

On the night of their engagement, as the happy couple is cruising down A1A along the Atlantic Ocean, a specially made CD is playing in the car which contains many of Madeline’s favorite love songs. One in particular, Song for You by Chicago, represents the comprehensive celebration and description of her perfect love, Kenny:

…it resonated with Maddy in the same way Chicago’s ballad, Song for You, always had. Whenever anyone would ask her about her ideal mate, she’d invariably tell them to play the famous rock band’s classic song: it not only summed up her sentiments perfectly, it extolled them with an accompanying, beautiful melody.

In Sea to Shining Sea, Ken will continue to evolve as a stalwart, passionate defender of freedom; a faithful, ever-loving husband; and a devoted, affectionate father. Along with Madeline, he will face incredibly trying challenges, including the loss of his executive position and the birth of a son with Down syndrome. But through it all, in spite of moments of human weakness, he will rely upon his faith and uphold his duty to God, country and family, in the true spirit of a US Military veteran.

This Memorial Day, I honor our men and women in uniform, who nobly and courageously fight for our freedom. God bless them one and all, and may He also provide solace and comfort to their loved ones. Words cannot thank them enough for everything they do. They make me proud to be an American and represent the very best of all of us.

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The Mother Characters in Water Signs

In honor of Mother’s Day weekend, I dedicate this post to an analysis of the moms in Water Signs, Monica Rose and Paula Lockheart.

The character of Monica is based on my own mother, for whom I am more grateful to God with every passing day. The older I get, the more I realize how rare and precious it is to have had the experience of growing up with a mother who was dedicated to her children’s emotional needs, educational success, spiritual foundation and moral upbringing. While there is no perfect human and certainly no perfect mother (as is evident in my novel), my siblings and I never had to doubt her love and dedication.

This is a remarkable woman who, at the age of 28, gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome (her second child) and in response to highly suspect and astonishingly cruel medical advice (i.e. put the “stigma” in an institution), promptly ordered the attending physician to “stay away from me and stay away from my baby”.  Then with her characteristic strength and determination, she devoted herself (with the support of her husband and family) to Ralph’s development, tenacious in her desire to see him reach his full potential. She also had the faith and courage to give birth to three more children — my sister Carolyn, my brother Paul and me, ultimately raising all five of us (brother Mark is the first-born) with the same amount of love, care and attention.

Paula Lockheart in the novel is based on a woman I’ve never actually met, but knew about through her son. Based on my remembrances of conversations we’d had, I created her be to be the warm, supportive and loving parental presence in Ken’s life — and a counterbalance to the aloofness of his father (although their relationship is renewed by novel’s end).

Ken and Madeline’s mothers are both strong influences in their lives, possibly due to that fact they they are the “babies” of their families, though in Ken’s case, much of that also stems from his innate passion for life, and his willingness to do whatever necessary to create a new and different existence for himself than the one laid out for him by his father and pursued obediently by his three older brothers.

When the story opens, we learn that two of the adult Rose children — Greg and Lori — are simultaneously leaving the nest to start their own families, following in the footsteps of youngest son Damian, who’d already taken a wife and settled into another state. Madeline has just been through a horrific break-up with a guy, and has relied on the ones closest to her for strength and comfort to work through the stages of grief.

As a mother, Monica wants nothing more than for her offspring to find happiness with the right spouses, yet at the same time she experiences the bittersweet reality of the children to whom she’s dedicated her life, leaving the nest. And when her “baby” Maddy appears to be moving too quickly with the new man who has entered the picture, it’s almost too much to bear. Yes, she wants her daughter to be happy. And no, she doesn’t want to let go just yet. So while outwardly, Ken’s lack of a college degree is the initial objection she expresses to her daughter’s suitor, deep within, the real struggle has to do with the acceptance of a new phase of life — one that involves adjusting to a home with fewer offspring occupants.

This is the portrayal I attempted to make when basing Monica on my own mother. Some have stated their intense dislike for the character, at least after reading that portion of the book, but my intention was not to place blame or hold onto resentment. Was my mom wrong to pressure me to end things based on such an inconsequential criteria? Yes. But it’s not that simple. While I couldn’t grasp it at the time, years later, I understood her motivations. She’d watched me over the years experience all kinds of hurts — from mean kids in grade school who teased me about my weight to stupid teen-aged boys in high school who were, well, stupid teen-aged boys.

My mother silently witnessed my first boyfriend says things like, “Yes, you do look kind of bloated today,” and prayed hard for the relationship to mercifully end. She never interfered, but would often tell me I was worthy of so much more than he was capable of offering. And the protective “Mama Bear” in her often stated in no uncertain terms, her utter disgust with the man known as Jake in the novel. So it’s only natural she’d want to shield me from further pain.

[Perhaps looking back, my mother’s intuition was also telling her that something wasn’t quite right with this new guy; perhaps she sensed he would eventually break my heart. Who knows? Even after everything that’s transpired, I still question his motives and wonder about his sincerity, although I prefer to believe that, in the moment at least, he meant the things he said].

But just as with Monica and Maddy, in the aftermath of my initial break-up with “Ken”, my mom also saw my downward spiral. Unlike in the book where Maddy at least has a full-time job to keep her busy, at the time I couldn’t seem to get any career traction and had been doing temp work as a result of a challenging economy. Having “Ken” in my life was a breath of fresh air, as he always made me feel good about myself and seemed to think that everything I did was wonderful. Once that was gone, I’d temporarily lost my own zest for living. So just like Maddy, the activities that previously had given me joy, i.e. dancing, had completely lost their appeal. And like the character based on me, I accepted my mother’s genuine, heartfelt apology.

As for Ken, Paula remains the one person he can turn to when he needs advice and a comforting presence. While she prays for father and son to eventually mend their differences, Paula manages to walk the line between being a good mother to her son and a supportive wife to her husband. She’s able to see both sides of the coin, though she thoroughly admires and respects her son for making the difficult choice to join the Navy and forge new territory in the Lockheart family. When Ken is torn between the two women he loves, she never tells him what to do; only listens and promises to be there for him whenever he needs her. And when father and son at last come to a new understanding and embark upon a revitalized relationship, it’s her fondest wish come true.

I will delve more into the motherly relationships in terms of the theme of reconciliation in another post, but will end by noting that as an author, in order for your characters to experience a joyous renewal of their relationships, you must take them through some of the lows of human behavior. Otherwise, what’s the point? When I borrowed from real life in retelling the story of my mother’s influence on my relationship with “Ken”, it was not done to hurt her, nor to tell the world I had a bad mother. Rather, it was created as a testament to the power of love, understanding and forgiveness.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for my mother, the one person who has always loved me unconditionally. I am also incredibly thankful for her continued good health and presence in my life. I know how blessed I am, and I thank her from the bottom of my heart for being a woman of faith and character, a worthy role-model and most of all, an endless source of emotional support through all of life’s ups and downs. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

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Guidelines for Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Five

Reconciliation between Water Signs’ two main characters, Madeline Rose and Kenneth Lockheart

As mentioned previously, when the story unfolds in 1992, the character of Madeline Rose is still somewhat naive and insecure, in spite of having grown into an attractive young woman of 25. She’s just endured an incredibly painful breakup with her first boyfriend, and is reeling from the ramifications, in spite of the realization it was all for the best. Indeed, as the story progresses, readers learn via flashbacks and conversations among characters that Jake Winston’s abrupt exit from Madeline’s life — while clumsy and cruel — is also a tremendous relief to those who love her.

Unfortunately, having occurred on the heels of a difficult adolescence wherein dates were as scarce as 80-degree days in the middle of January in Pennsylvania, it wreaks havoc with her ability to see herself as a vital, attractive and smart young woman who is worthy of the good things in life.

When a twist of fate leads to a shared late-summer evening at a Somers Point, New Jersey nightclub with a fun-loving, intelligent and handsome former US Navy sailor  — who also happens to be her exact same age — it never occurs to Madeline that the meeting will progress beyond a few laughs and couple of dances. Ken’s impressive self-sufficiency and  life experience are simultaneously a source of pride and conflict. On one hand, she’s genuinely thrilled to know of someone who’s overcome obstacles and admirably served his country; on the other, she cannot help but draw an unfair comparison between this new guy and her ex-boyfriend.

Will he, like Jake before him, resent her for not having to endure the same family and financial challenges? Worse, will he view her as someone whose physical appearance, while acceptable, still needs some improvement?

Of course, the fact that Ken initially makes overtures to her exotic, statuesque friend Carmen (with the purchase and presentation of a long-stemmed rose) lays the foundation for her erroneous belief that he is simply marking time by agreeing to hang out with her. While to readers it should become fairly obvious rather quickly that the US Navy vet is truly charmed by his unlikely date for the evening, thanks to Madeline’s inability to let go of the recent past, she cannot quite accept that reality. Thus, several hours later, she’s amazed that he actually followed through with his promise to meet her at the beach.

For his part, Ken is quite enamored of his new romantic interest, and her wonderful, welcoming family. However, due to Madeline’s inability to adequately express herself, he’s puzzled by her reaction to his sincere compliments and genuine desire to someday make her his wife. He’s also intrigued by her innocence, and hopelessly enticed by the very real possibility of becoming her “first” and only.

But Ken is not without his own insecurities, the most insurmountable of which are his feelings of not being good enough for the daughter of a successful neurosurgeon — a situation that is only exacerbated when Maddy abruptly ends the relationship because of maternal pressure. Seems Mrs. Rose, although she finds Ken to be a likable and mannerly young man, cannot get over the fact that he’s not yet completed his college degree.

Monica’s pride in her own father’s accomplishment of having graduated from Temple Pharmacy School in 1919 (during a time when such an achievement by immigrants was nearly unheard of), becomes a source of heretofore nonexistent contention between mother and youngest child. Further, with the rest of her brood either married or on their way to the altar, the sticking point of a college education appears to be the only way to slow down a relationship that is moving much too fast for her liking.

Though she has the blessing of the rest of her family — including Dr. Rose — to continue the relationship, Madeline’s utter distaste for conflict, particularly between her two parents, along with her own seemingly insurmountable insecurities, conspire to lead her to a series of very unfortunate actions. Among the pain and hurt she unintentionally inflicts upon Ken are her decisions to back out of being his date for a work party and a wedding, and ending the relationship with a Dear John letter.

And although the pair reunites shortly thereafter, Madeline’s inability to communicate the motivations behind her actions, ultimately leads to more heartbreak. Perhaps unconsciously, Ken decides to inflict the same sort of heartbreak upon her when he stands her up for a much-anticipated ski date; months later, a phone call out of the blue adds insult to injury when he reveals he’s relocated to Florida.

Several more months down the road, after a series of regular phone calls from Ken, during which he encourages and at times, implores her to join him, Madeline finally makes her shocking (to those who know and love her) and bold move to The Sunshine State, simultaneously wanting to be with Ken and frustrated with life “up north”. She cannot seem to gain traction either in a fulfilling career or a loving relationship (though she’s certainly given the dating scene plenty of tries); further, it has become increasingly difficult to watch her siblings’ lives progress even as her own remains stagnant.

What she doesn’t bargain for is the discovery that Ken’s “platonic” roommate is actually his betrothed — a suspicion that’s confirmed by an in-person visit to her apartment not long after her arrival in South Florida. A humiliated, angry and devastated Maddy nevertheless takes the high road when Ken asks her point-blank how she feels about the news; in an Oscar-worthy performance, she leads him to believe she’s moved on.

Thus when the two characters unexpectedly reunite well over a decade later, there is much to discuss, forgive and reconcile before they can renew and revitalize their relationship into something that far surpasses anything they’d experienced before. Both have grown and matured to the point where honest communication leads to genuine understanding and full release of the mistakes of the past. All is forgiven, and all that matters to them now is the present moment.

Coming soon: the mother-daughter bond, and the theme of reconciliation.

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Literary Techniques Used In Water Signs

Taking a digression from the discussion of the themes of Water Signs, I wanted to share some of the literary techniques I employed to help bring the story to life. As someone who believes good fiction should engage the reader to the point where he or she loses all concept of space and time, it was important to me that my book have the same all-consuming effect. Thus, I used several different techniques to create a “mental vacation” for the reader and underscore the points I was trying to make through plot and characters.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Italics – A significant factor in Madeline’s personal development is learning how to effectively confront people and circumstances when warranted. Throughout most of the novel, this is a daunting challenge for her. To denote this element of her personality and allow readers a window into her real thoughts and motivations, I employed italics. One of the most dramatic examples occurs in Chapter 19, when Ken forthrightly asks her how the news of his engagement makes her feel. Unlike Ken, readers get the truthful answer, immediately followed by her articulation of a lie she deems honorable and necessary under the circumstances:

How the hell do you think I feel Kenny? You were the one calling and crying on the phone for nearly two years about how much you loved me and missed me; the one who practically begged me to move here in the first place; and the one who kept your live-in girlfriend a secret until there was no turning back! How the hell do you think I feel after uprooting my entire life, hurting my family and having to face the consequences of a misinformed decision alone? How could you deceive me like that? Is this some sort of payback for hurting you?

“Hey, I think it’s great!” she replied brightly. “Congratulations! I’ve been dating a lot myself since I got here. Believe me; I have my own things going on!”

Look for this technique throughout the novel.

MusicWater Signs spans sixteen years in the lives of its two main characters — 1992-2008. In order to help readers identify with the changing time period throughout the story, and relate more deeply to Ken and Madeline’s world, particular songs and artists are mentioned. Some of these were chosen specifically for their relevance to real life, while others either fit the narrative at a particular juncture perfectly, or reflect the characters’ Philly-area roots.

For example, in Chapter One, Ken and Maddy’s first slow dance takes place to Elton John’s The One, which debuted during the summer of 1992 and immediately became one of my favorites.

In Chapter Three, as the two characters are driving to Atlantic City — site of their first official date — in Ken’s black Acura (another detail taken from real life), Maddy asks him to stop switching the radio dials when Jon Secada’s Just Another Day starts blaring through the speakers. That’s also a page (no pun intended) out of real life, with the song being a 1992 hit with both the characters and their living, breathing counterparts.

In Chapter 23, Madeline performs her own unique rendition of the song, On My Own, from Les Miserables, for her dance studio’s local production. As I’ve mentioned before, singing beautifully and powerfully was something I’ve always wished I could do, but alas was not in God’s plan for me. Thus I took some creative license as an author and infused the character based on me with that very talent. I chose this particular song for two reasons: 1.) to dramatically underscore the melancholy circumstances of Madeline’s life at this point in the book; and 2.) to pay homage to my very favorite Broadway show.  However, like Madeline I am also a ballroom dancer, and I did participate in a Fred Astaire showcase in Boca Raton, as part of a group tango!

In Chapter 30, The Spinners’ Then Came You, not only retells the love story between the two main characters, but also recalls their native metropolitan Philadelphia origins.

Sports – In Water Signs as in real life, professional sports play a significant role. When crafting the novel, I endeavored to recreate the culture of the Philadelphia/South Jersey area (site of Part One) and South Florida (site of Part Two) via the incorporation of real-life sporting events. Much of this occurs as a remembrance uttered by a character over a breakfast or dinner conversation, such as when Maddy relates her experience as a young teenager at the 1980 World Series, and at the 1981 NFC Championship Game when her beloved Eagles beat the Cowboys, 20-7. Both of these are an example of art imitating life, as is Dr. Rose’s passionate devotion to the Phillies.

Food – As part of bringing regional culture and tradition to both a new and familiar audience, much of the activity in Water Signs revolves around popular foods and delicacies. Maddy and Ken’s beach picnic, for example, features provolone cheese from South Philly, homemade Italian wedding cookies and “tomato pie” (a special pizza-like creation first introduced to the area by a South Philly bakery in the 1900s).

Humorous Side Note: When I spoke at the Hawthorne Writers Group last fall in North Jersey (about 20 miles from Manhattan), I thought it would be fun to bring wedding cookies (baked by yours truly) and tomato pie. Although I knew the latter was mainly found in South Jersey, I’d assumed it had finally made its way north, for the simple fact that it is absolutely scrumptious. After several fruitless calls to North Jersey bakeries and pizza shops,  I realized the Philly-area delicacy was nowhere to be found anywhere north of Trenton. So I ordered it from a local suburban place near my parents’ home and transported it by car. Thankfully, it survived the 2 1/2 hour trek unscathed (and uneaten). 🙂

Technology – One of the most enjoyable aspects of tracing the progression from 1992 to 2008 was referencing the various technology used by my characters. When the story opens, “car phones” are the latest rage, as evidenced by an excited Lori happily showing off the one that came with her brand-new Pontiac Bonneville (an actual event borrowed from reality) to her younger sister and her new beau. As the plot progresses, Madeline notes the heretofore unknown and excessive use of cell phones and pagers in South Florida (circa 1995). By the time we arrive near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, she is employed as a content manager for a company that specializes in online marketing for the hospitality industry, a fictional career based on the fact that I did indeed work as a content writer for a Boca Raton-based company, creating e-proposals for major hotel chains.

JuxtapositionWater Signs is about the journey, not the destination. Therefore, readers know the ending from the moment they read the prologue, demanding a compelling narrative on the part of the author to keep them turning the pages. In addition to the other methods mentioned, the use of juxtaposition was a great help in building suspense, beginning in Chapter One. It opens with Madeline and Carmen crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge and then speeding down the Atlantic City Expressway, their conversation informing readers of their backgrounds, motivations and plans for the evening ahead. Before long, the chapter shifts to a back-and-forth narrative that alternates between the girls’ arrival at the club to Kenny’s reluctant preparation in front of the mirror for a night of drinking and dancing (which also serves as his initial introduction to readers). This technique continues throughout the novel, with most chapters picking right up where the previous one left off.

Branding – Another method through which the culture and traditions of Philly, South Jersey and South Florida come alive for readers is branding. In Part One, I make several references to familiar retail chains and brands throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Jersey Shore including Wawa convenience stores, Tastykake commercial baked goods; water ice (known to the rest of the country as flavored Italian ices); soft pretzels, Herr’s potato chips and Turkey Hill ice cream. In Part Two, Maddy gets stood up by the character of Mark Donnelly, who was supposed to take her to Sunfest (an unfortunate incident taken from my own experience AND an annual festival held in West Palm Beach); several chapters later, she and Ken reunite over lunch at The Samba Room, a popular restaurant chain in South Florida.

Side Note: I did once work in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where I also shared a few lunches with former co-workers at this particular Samba Room location, thus the inspiration for using it as the setting for Madeline and Ken’s long-awaited meeting.

Water Imagery – Aside from obviously paying homage to the book’s title, the use of water imagery also evokes a dream-like quality within the narrative, and supports the interwoven concepts of renewal and reconciliation. On a basic level, the coastal locations of the story, the characters’ shared Pisces sign and Ken’s US Navy service contribute to Water Signs’ “escapist” quality, conjuring up images of beach-inspired beauty, majestic ocean waves, colorful fish swimming beneath the sea’s surface and American heroes serving their country on awe-inspiring aircraft carriers.

But on a much deeper level, water is a symbol of rebirth in traditional religious customs and spiritual practices. It is also a symbol of the emotions, which play a significant role in character development, particularly for Maddy. She suffers for years with panic and anxiety disorder — a gross distortion of the emotions that negatively impacts the physical body — without actually knowing what it is — until she reads the packaging for the medication prescribed by her doctor. Prior to her unusual cure by a psychic, the only time she finds relief from her sometimes frightening symptoms is when she’s immersed in water, whether swimming in a pool, riding a wave in the ocean or standing under the pulsating refreshment of a hot shower.

Ken, although not a co-sufferer with this affliction, often heads to the beach or to the Deerfield Fishing Pier when life seems overwhelming. In Part Two, when rocked by Maddy’s unexpected arrival in Florida — blissfully unaware of his engagement to another woman — the pier is his destination of choice when he seeks his mother’s counsel in person.

Side Note: When I first moved to Florida, I’d often go to this pier for my own consolation, which is why it is also the setting for Maddy’s date with Mark (another fact turned into fiction). Today, I still visit there frequently as this section of Deerfield Beach also boasts plenty of retail and mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, as well as a beautiful, two-mile sidewalk along the beach.

More to come in another post!

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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