On Writing

For the next few posts, I’m going to talk a little bit about my books, my reasons for writing them and what I think is interesting or relevant about them. I’ll backtrack a bit and say a few words about the writing process as well.

Though in our times, many seem to be suffering from graphomania, it seems, and quality is not a criteria either for publication or sales, a writer begins spinning their own stories very early in life. I think it’s often the case in sensitive or lonely children, and certainly when I was growing up in the former Yugoslavia, there was little on television and nothing like the panoply of games or the organized activities that children are subjected to nowadays.

Instead, there were days which seemed to stretch forever when I was allowed to wander around the countryside, close to the earth, experiencing all that beauty with a sense of awe that bordered on the spiritual. My first self expression was visual – my mother was an artist and I recall drawing and painting in water color from a very young age. But my father was a bookworm who had literary ambitions of his own, and so I got my love of stories from him.

I suppose when I started to read on my own, I would embellish whatever grabbed my interest and rewrite the story in my mind, or add to it, putting myself in the action-everything from pirate to princess. I think being an immigrant with very different cultural values than those around me, suddenly transported from a bustling extended family circle to vast American spaces, where, unless one was in school, days might go by without one having a conversation with another human being is a serious reason to spend time within the world of the imagination where all sorts of wondrous things might transpire.

I did very little writing growing up. I was too lazy to write the stories I had in my head out and by high school I had discovered great literature and was still taking it all in. In my twenties, I was still a very serious reader, but by my thirties I thought that I too might have something to say. I began writing a series of related short stories and saw several elements running through them, which have become features in my fiction, though in themselves all my books are very different.

Throughout my work, one can see lonely childhoods, unhappy families, artistic ambitions, spiritual awakenings and people caught up in the tumultuous events of the modern world which they have little control over. Write what you know, they say and I certainly do.

Tall Tails

Our children are challenging, our parents demanding, and our friends can be competitive. Often our love affairs are fraught with anxiety and our marriages descend into routine. But there is one love that overrides all, the love we feel for our beloved pets. If the universe is pure consciousness, then animals ride on that stream of energy and are complete and whole—though sometimes they can be made neurotic by way of their relationships with us.

I had a friend who once said, the only thing I look forward too in the afterlife is being reunited with my dead pets. I hope so. And I hope that they’ll be able to speak a language that I can fully understand.

My own first pet was a piece of sheared beaver, left over from a coat my grandmother had been making for one of her daughters-in -law. It was a rectangular with a piece hanging off of it, which I assumed to be a tail. We were inseparable. It was only when I got the infamous Klempitsa that my cat managed to disappear, thrown out by my fastidious mother, no doubt. I was unable to sleep until I was clutching either the cat or Klempitsa and this has carried over to my habits to this very day. At bedtime, all three cats pile on my side of the bed and snuggle close to me. Mickey has remarked that I am like a medieval peasant sleeping with my livestock, but I couldn’t care less what he thinks.

When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at the farm of relatives and I have written about this elsewhere, but it is worth repeating that I was deeply enamored of the horses and sheep dogs and had a great fondness for the rest of the animals, though I do find chickens and their habits to be a bit on the disgusting side.

My first real personal pet was a beautiful Siamese cat named Sheba, who was followed by a tabby named Miki and a dog named Bianca. Miki and Sheba both died young since they were outdoor cats, but I’m not going to tell you any sad stories today.

Bianca was the offspring of the next door neighbor’s border collie bitch and the beautiful but galactically stupid English pointer which lived across the way. ‘My God,’ my father used to say, ‘that dog reminds me of an English aristocrat.’ In his book that was not a compliment. In any case, one day the pointer jumped the fence and that was that. We picked Bianca out of the litter a few months later. Fortunately she had her mother’s brain though she did inherit her fathers looks. We brought her home in January during a rather terrible winter. Because the snowfall was so heavy that year, my father paper trained her, something she remembered the rest of her life.

I contracted a bad case of mononucleosis that year and because I couldn’t stay warm, she slept under the covers with me, functioning as a live hot water bottle. Years later when I left home, she still retained that habit though she moved on to my parents’ bed.

‘Listen to this,’ my sister said, holding up the phone. Hearing several chainsaws operating the other end, I asked what it is. ‘Mom, dad and Bianca snoring,’ she replied.

Because of my illness, I couldn’t recover my energy level and took to having a cup of Turkish coffee in the afternoon. I don’t know how it happened, maybe I needed company, but Bianca would sit at the kitchen table like a person, and I would serve both of us, though I would dilute her serving with milk and sugar. This went on for years, until I realized that my poor dog was an addict and weaned her off caffeine.

Bianca was both wise and compassionate. In the ranking of the household, she probably saw me as her peer, my parents as largely absent, my sister as her inferior whom she had to protect and the cat, Mosha, as her best friend. When she had her puppies, Mosha was the only one she trusted to look after them while she rushed to the backyard to relieve herself.

One day Mosha decided to cross Lagrange Road, a fairly busy street that our house sat on. We had a huge picture window in the living room which fronted the street and where Bianca hung out on the forbidden sofa while my mother was at work. Spotting the cat, she hurled herself at the window, barking hysterically. I didn’t know what was going on but had a presentiment that I should let her out, and watched in disbelief as she rushed out onto the road and herded him back home before any cars came by. He never dared to cross the road again.

Now Mosha was pretty clever too. He figured out he needed to ring the front doorbell when he wanted to get back into the house. At first his humans couldn’t figure out who was playing pranks on them, since whenever the bell rang no one was on the front step except the cat, until they caught him in the act. Eventually Mosha fell in love with the neighbor’s dog and shifted his center of operations next door.

The other cat, Garitsa, a French Blue, outlived both of them and emerged from their long shadows to intimidate the next dog, a flatcoat retriever named Hoppy. Hoppy was beautiful but retained the personality of a teenager into maturity. She always was ready to play and would get down and run around, hoping to engage Garitsa. The cat who was well into her twenties, had no patience for shenanigans and would patiently wait until Hoppy came close enough, and then would flick one sharp claw across her nose, which usually put a damper on things.

Hoppy thought she was a person and would often put her feet in my father’s slippers or try to imitate my mother while she was doing calisthenics. She also happened to be madly in love with Mickey and would get on her hind legs, throw her front paws across his shoulders and gaze soulfully into his eyes. Once when she caught us kissing, she was so distraught she wouldn’t stop muttering and rolling her eyes for an hour. Another time we ran into an old boyfriend of my sister’s and stopped to chat. I could tell the dog was bored and said, ‘Hoppy, you can kiss Peter, if you want.’ She looked up at me, and the expression on her face said, you can’t be serious. I told her it was quite alright and she hopped on her hind legs and planted a wet one on his lips. I could tell from Peter’s reaction that he had never been kissed by a dog before.

When I married Leo, he was not a pet person and I had to nag for six years until he would let me get a cat. Lulu came to live with us and then three months later Zuzu joined her. Both were exceptionally intelligent animals. Our friends couldn’t believe it but they could both clearly say, ‘Help’ ( at bath time), ‘leave me alone’ ( though it sounded like meahve me malone) and ‘go away’. Additionally Lulu learned to say corn, which was her favorite food after tilapia, but I suppose that was little too advanced for her vocal apparatus. Both cats could count to four with their tails—I would call out a number and they would thump it out. Zuzu played the piano. She also wanted to type and paint. This little Zuzu figured out that she could open the doors by jumping up and hanging on to the handles. The first year we had them and came back from a vacation, my mother warned me that we had to double lock our doors because the cats had learned to open them. I thought she probably forgot to lock the doors and the cats escaped. I was shocked one day when we were over at our neighbor Marge’s and both cats appeared. Marge, a plump woman who was terrified of animals, jumped up on a chair and began to scream as if she had seen a mouse, forcing me to spring into action and round up the cats.

In any case both cats had a wonderful life and lived to ripe old age of eighteen when they began to decline. By then I was with Mickey, a confirmed cat lover. Lulu figured out how to manipulate him very quickly. She would howl as if pinned under a truck, and he would come running, thinking something was wrong. She would them turn her back to him and say, ‘Mrrrh,’ indicating she wanted a back massage, which he would dutifully administer. Zuzu, on the other hand, was a man hater and could never get used to him. Once she left a piece of poop on his pillow to show how she really felt. Oddly enough Mickey had been saying, ‘She’s probably going to poop on my pillow,’ for weeks beforehand.

After Lulu and Zuzu died, I was so distraught, I cried for three months. One day Mickey took me by the hand and drove me to the animal shelter where we saw our Dixie for the first time. Dixie had been found wandering the streets of Chicago in winter as a kitten, and due to the fact that she was black and no one wanted her, had spent three months in the shelter already. When she saw me, she grabbed a fishing pole between her teeth, climbed to the top of the cages, lept off, and running over, dropped the toy at my feet. ‘You’re hired!’ I said, and we brought her home where she has been entertaining us like the charming clown she is ever since. Dixie loves to play and often tries to operate machinery. She races Mickey to the fax, knocks the receiver off the hook when she recognizes callers voices, also says, ‘Leave me alone,’ when she doesn’t want me to groom her. She is an extremely loving and easy going cat and we adore her.

Her first companion was Lexie, a little black dumpling, whose mother had died in catbirth. Lexie came to us after being fostered by humans and would only eat roast chicken, almonds and potato chips. Dixie, who was thrilled to have a playmate chased her around unmercifully. ‘Don’t worry Lexter,’ Mickey would console her, ‘one day, you’ll grow up to be a big panther.’ And so she has at over fourteen pounds, though she still has the mentality and self image of a kitten, and often tries to nurse anyone who is available. She is generally very sweet unless she is hungry and then she turns into Kitty Hyde, growling and yowling until she gets her way.

The third cat, Mia, was a single mother, also black, whose offspring were all adopted. When I saw her she was nurturing all the other kitties in the shelter, even though they were not her own. As a dog approached the glass room where they were housed, she chirped to her son, who was waiting to be picked up by his new family, to watch out. I thought, I have to have her, but it took some convincing before Mickey finally consented. The night she came home, as he was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, she jumped on the sink, stood on her hind legs and gave him a big kiss. It was all it took to win him over. But in the end, she turned out to be a mama’s girl and is my constant companion.

It’s a cold night as I write this. There is a wonderful smelling pizza in the oven, Mia is on red alert, food obsessed as she is. Dixie is napping on her blankie, and Lexie is hanging out in Mickey’s office, purring like a tractor. Soon we’ll all be climbing into bed to sleep like medieval peasants.


As you all know by now, my mother loves to eat. How she stays thin, I’ll never know. In any case she’s been under a lot of stress and was going to out with a girlfriend for a night on the town. The next day she called from the hospital to tell me that she had collapsed on the street, but her girlfriend had managed to get her home. However, the day after she was still feeling lousy and went to the emergency room.

‘How much did you drink?’ I wanted to ask but restrained myself.

Well, to make a long story short, it turns out that she has a bleeding ulcer but had to have a test to confirm that.

That evening, I overhear Mickey talking to her. She’s just found out that we are going to go to the Serbian grocery store.

‘Bring bread,’ she tells Mickey.

‘You know you can’t have bread until they do the procedure to see what’s going on,’ he patiently tells her.

‘Okay,’ she sighs, like she’s five years old.

The next day she calls to tell me that she’s starving to death.

‘Aren’t they feeding you through that tube thingee?’ I ask.

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘but my stomach is empty.’

Reader, what can be expected from a woman who after an evening of gorging herself on a multiple course French meal at the Union League club takes her children on a tour so they can see the art on each floor and seeing the remnants of a banquet, wolfs down a roll, saying, ‘They are vasting good bread.’

Yesterday, they let her have broth and jello for dinner. ‘Jell-o’ she says, like I would say, pig’s feet, with a sneer. ‘The soup was good,’ she adds.

Today she is already volubly complaining when I call her in the morning. But her mood immediately brightens when they bring her an early lunch.

‘It’s Spaghetti, Leel, ‘ she says, ‘I’ll call you later, I’m going to be busy now.’

Later that afternoon she calls back.

‘How was lunch?’ I ask her.

‘Terrible!’ she exclaims dramatically. ‘Vatery sauce on spaghetti, roll like cardboard, a blob of spinach dat looked like brrd sheet. Den they gave me sorbet, the cheap kind. The worst part was, after I ate spaghetti, I saw der vas Parmesan on the side. It was hidden. I didn’t get chance to put on top.’

‘Aw,’ I cluck sympathetically, thinking, well, no one really goes to the hospital for the food.

‘I can hardly vait to go home to eat,’ she says, ‘maybe tomorrow they’ll let me out of here.’

‘I hope so, Mom,’ I say. She can tell my attention is drifting, and that I need to go back to work.

‘Okay, talk to you soon, I’m going to stare at TV for vhile.’ she says signing off.

I haven’t talked to her yet, but do I hope dinner was at least a little bit better.

Conjuring Raphael

My regular readers know that I often write about my sister-in -law, Nely and her fiancée Sam. For those of you who are new here, I’ll backtrack a bit. Sam is very Italian and has a huge heart which is his greatest asset and his worst failing. Sam also has a misguided sense of obligation to his grown son who takes unfair advantage of him which occasionally puts a strain on Nely’s and Sam’s relationship. Now readers you’ll recall that Sam’s son was busted on marijuana charge last year, and his five foot alligator was confiscated by animal welfare, though they said it was the best kept reptile they had ever seen. What I didn’t tell you is that Sam’s son has managed to total the Mercedes Sam bought him and the BMW that replaced it.

When Sam and Nely can afford to they like to vacation and a couple of years ago, they took a trip to Cancun, where playfully they made up new identities for themselves. Nely was Natasha and Sam was Alexei her bald ex-KGB lover. All in all, they managed to fool quite a few people around the pool before confessing to the deception.

Last winter, Nely and I were both at low points, and one night as we were talking I asked Nely what her perfect man would be like. I can’t recall the whole conversation but it went something like this:

N: His name would be Raphael.

L: And he’s young.

N: Not too young.

L: About forty-four.

N: But he would love women in their fifties.

L: Naturally. He would have green eyes.

N: And be six foot three and well proportioned.

L: He’ll be blond

N. No, light brown and curly.

L: ( disappointed) Okay.

N: He’ll be a great kisser.

L: Yah, his name is Raphael, isn’t it?

N: He lives in Paris?

L: He owns an island in the Caribbean.

N: And he’s just waiting for us to turn up.

L: He’ll ask us to stay with him on his beautiful hacienda.

N: Where he has an art studio.

L: Big enough for all three of us to paint in. But not only that, he’ll be certified in seventeen forms of massage therapy.

N. And he loves giving pedicures.

L: He’s very generous with his money.

N: His father was Ferragamo, and he taught Raphael to cobble shoes, which is his hobby.

L: He’ll have to be Mormon so he can marry us both.

N: Do we have to be married?

L: Yes, because we need to inherit the island when he goes.

N: How ill we drink wine if he is a Mormon?

L: He’s lapsed.

N: What else?

L: He loves cats. Hundreds of them.

N: And he’s a yoga instructor.

L: And a great listener.

N: And affectionate, romantic and faithful to us both.

L: Have we covered everything?

N: And he’s mute!

Now I’ve told you before that Nely does have the powers, but usually she is too tired from taking care of her senile mother to even think about the universe or the law of attraction, much less use them. Last week, to celebrate the publication of my short stories I had a couple of glasses of wine and realizing I was lonely, I called Nely who was doing a little therapeutic drinking of her own.

‘Guess who walked into the office looking for a Realtor?’ Nely asks.

‘Someone I know?’

‘Sort of.’

‘Man or woman?’


‘Alexei who?’

‘Bald Alexei. Bald, six foot four Russian Alexei. He wants me to call him Alyosha for short, ‘ she says in Russian accent.

‘Oh, that Alexei.( Reader, I’m not even surprised by her mystical and synchronistic experiences any more) Is he attractive?’ I ask.

‘Yes. He looks like former special forces.’


‘There something in the air. I can tell he’s attracted to me. And we have all the same interests.’

‘Well you haven’t been too happy.’

‘No but still, I am engaged to Sam.’

‘Let’s be logical. Does he have a job?’

‘He has his own business.’



‘Does he have a crazy son?’


‘How crazy?’

‘They are selling their house, so they can buy a condo closer to to the train station so that Alyosha can drive Lev to work, ‘ she explains.

‘He can’t drive himself?’

‘Lev totaled three cars already.’

‘He doesn’t have a crocodile in the bathtub does he?’

‘No. He has a two foot long chameleon that turns colors. Green, he is upset.’ she says, assuming that Russian accent again.

‘You’re lying!’ By now both of us are howling with laughter.

‘Boga mi,’ she says, swearing to God.

‘I can’t come to my senses,’ I am gasping for breath.

‘There’s more, Lily. I got another call.’

‘Who from?’


Readers, my gasping has now turned into a full blown asthma attack, and I am developing a migraine from laughing so hard.

‘Raphael is buying an apartment for his twenty-eight year old son, because if he doesn’t, he is afraid the son will stay with him forever.’

‘This could only happen to you!’ I scream, frantically searching for my inhaler.

‘I know, right?’ she says. ‘I’ll be meeting him next week.’

Reader, I can hardly wait to see what she conjured up this time.