A few months ago, I heard a story on NPR about the Juliet Club in Verona, Italy, and it has stuck with me, so I need to share it with our readers. I started out to paraphrase it, but then I realized I was quoting almost every part of the article, so I decided just to copy the article here for you. I think you will see why it has stuck with me. My conclusions, after hearing this story: 1) I want to move to Italy 2) the world is full of wonderful people that we don’t even know about until we hear stories like this 3) there are times that, despite the voices of the announcers (which can drive me insane), I love NPR, and 3) the more we can all realize our common humanity, common suffering, the better chance we have of surviving and helping our planet survive!. Here’s the story, complete with pictures from the NPR website:
Each year, the town of Verona, Italy — home of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — receives thousands of letters of heartache and unrequited love addressed to the play’s star-crossed heroine.
The tradition of sending letters to Juliet very likely goes back centuries. People started by leaving notes on a local landmark said to be Juliet’s tomb. Later, many started sending mail directly to the city. By the 1990s, Verona was receiving so many letters, it created an office to deal with it. And each letter — the Juliet Club office gets more than 6,000 a year — is answered by hand.
An example, from India:
I am madly in love. I know you get millions of letters with love problems written from around the world. I write today to ask you for strength. I live in India where my parents won’t allow me to marry the guy that I love because he is from a different caste. He’s the only guy I have felt so strongly about. I know I will have to fight my family for him and I am ready. I ask you only for strength.
The Juliet Club is housed in a small building on the outskirts of the city and is staffed by a small army of volunteers who call themselves the “secretaries.” There are about 15 of them.
My sister, Minda, is cleaning out our childhood home. She’s my only sibling still in Cleveland, and now that my father and stepmother have both passed away, it’s time. Here is what Minda has to say about getting our childhood home ready for sale.
I thought my home would be there forever. It would be there for me anytime I wanted to go there. It was a safe place, a place where I could visit with my father and enjoy his company, long after my mother died. It was a place I shared with my siblings when they were home, with my niece and nephew and my great nephews. As an adult, the home took on a new meaning for me. I continued to be attached, but not in the way I was 20 years ago. As an adult, it was the place where my father would grow old, where I would continue to visit him and love him. It was always the one constant in my life.
Not until my father died two years ago at 85 years old, did I start to even think about not being able to be in that house. I say house because that’s what it became when my father died. It ceased to be my home. My stepmother continued to live there. Due to a falling out after my father died, I chose not to be a part of her life. A decision I was, and still remained, very comfortable with. She died several months ago and now we are selling the house.
My siblings and I do not wish to live there. We also don’t wish to be landlords to anyone else. It is, and will continue to be, somewhat painful during this process. Sometimes you find surprises when going through the house. Today I found my dad’s wallet with pictures of his children, his grandchildren and even his parents. I also found a few items of clothing,
some political buttons, his old tackle box, some old notes, and an old calendar. I kept some of those things and threw away the others. I don’t want my home to be a mausoleum to my father. He would hate that. I already have enough in my heart to last me my lifetime.
In Memoriam: Lieutenant-Colonel Nathan B. Bluestone, M.D.
On August 26, 1948, Nathan B. Bluestone, M.D. ended his suffering that began four years earlier on the fields of France. My father was a country doctor. His love was medicine and he tended to the ill and wounded. It was his calling. In the small upstate New York town where he practiced he delivered babies in the office house where we lived. He drove out to remote farms to give the five daughters of a farmer their vaccinations. He healed broken bones and cut foreheads. But nothing prepared him for the slaughter that he encountered after he landed with the fourth wave at Normandy in June 1944.
My experience of the war was my father’s absence. He would send my mother and me funny little letters that would have sections blacked out. This was V-mail. I always thought it was strange that other people would read my father’s letters to me. But the censors did read them and blocked out areas that they felt were sensitive to national security or something.
He wrote me a continuing story about a friendly amoeba. There even were illustrations. In later years, when I visited India, I found it strange that people feared amoebas as much as they did.
To my mother and aunts and grandparents he sent letters and watercolors. He was an artist as well as a physician and would, in those rare moments when he had a minute or two, paint a watercolor of where he was. We cherished those postcard size pictures painted with love, for they were not only beautiful but they represented a part of the artist that could not be expressed in words.
Then, for what seemed to be an eternity, we heard nothing. No letters came. No pictures came. Nothing came. And with each day my mother became more and more distraught.
This was the time when the Germans made a desperate attempt to counterattack the American forces. The German forces under the command of Field Marshall Gerd von Runstedt had encircled the American forces centered at Ardennes, France. This was the Battle of the Bulge. And for over a month, during the bitter winter, American and German soldiers slaughtered each other. Nineteen thousand American soldiers died. Six armies locked in battle in the coldest winter on record. Over a million men fought in what was to be recorded as the worst battle of World War II.
Torn, ripped, cut and blown apart, young men passed through the field hospital that my father headed. It was X-ray after X-ray after X-ray. It was an assembly line of death and dying. There was no time for the physicians to protect themselves from the deadly radiation. And it was this radiation that caused the skin cancer that later was to take my father’s life.
When he returned from that war I was six years old. My father rarely spoke to me about that war, only once, that I remember, to joke that he had a rifle in the back of his jeep and that’s where it stayed. He was a healer, not a killer. He even received a Bronze Star for bravery and never told me what he did. It was half a century later, when my brother and I were cleaning out my mother’s house that I found the citation from the Major General to my father and the reasons. My father received the Bronze Star for his service tending to the wounded from France through Belgium and Germany, often on the front lines under enemy fire. He was a lieutenant-colonel. He was chief of surgery. And he went to the front lines, not as a hero, but as a healer. He knew that, for a wounded soldier, the journey from the front lines to the field hospital could mean the difference between life and death. He was just doing his job.
My memories of Dr. Nathan Bluestone are fragmentary and impressionistic. Mostly I remember how we would sing together in the car, my father and I. “I’ve Got Sixpence”, “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” and rounds and rounds.
Much later a psychic told me that my father had been deeply wounded by his inability to heal in the face of such overwhelming carnage. His soul, as much as his body, had been gravely affected. That rings true.
We moved back into the office house and my father continued the practice that he had left four years earlier. But the cancer, first on his finger, spread and slowly, he began to die. Bit by bit the doctors cut away my father. First they took his finger. Then they took his right breast. And then he died.
It has been almost sixty-five years since my father died. I have grown far from that nine year old boy who couldn’t understand why such a thing was possible. And yet, after all this time, I still cry at the loss.
On this day each year we are called upon to remember those who have died in the service of their country. Politicians give speeches, flags are unfurled and hot dogs are consumed.
What we tend to forget is what General William Tecumseh Sherman once reminded a group of young men. “War is hell.” And the hell is for the living, for those who survive the deaths of their beloveds as much as it is for those who die on the fields of battle or in the hospitals.
What we tend to forget is that war leaves lots of fatherless sons and daughters. Today, for example, thousands of American and Iraqi and Afghani sons and daughters will grow up without their fathers and mothers. And for what?
What we tend to forget are the children who are left behind. We forget that fifty years from now there will be adults who still grieve for the loss of a father or a mother–who still cry at the remembrance. Let us truly remember.
So many blogs for women over 50 post about fashion accessories, new hair products, anti-aging products, and diets. While I’m not against any of those topics, I am so happy to post one of my favorite things on oops50.com – new books, especially books by new authors. Today, I not only want to introduce you to a new book I’ve just read, The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman,
but share an interview I had with the author last week.
The story takes place in a small German town in WWII where a “young, working-class Christian German woman struggles to survive poverty, Allied bombs, and the wrath of the Gestapo while trying to save the love of her life, a Jewish man.” That story line alone was enough for me to buy the book. In fact, I devour anything that hints of the Holocaust which means I’m becoming more and more like my father who consumed mass quantities of books (fiction and non-fiction) that had anything to do with WWII and Hitler. So many in our family perished in concentration camps, and those that survived were full of stories, and their stories definitely left a lasting impression on me as a child.
Very quickly into the book, I was aware that this story was different, and for the first time, I was reading about the War, and not measuring who suffered more, Christians or Jews? Moved by the power of the story, I searched for the author on FaceBook, friended her, and asked for an interview. Graciously, Ellen accepted, and this is how it went:
Oops50: Why did you decide to write this story and is any of it biographical?
Ellen: I grew up visiting Germany because my mother’s family is there. I grew up listening to stories of my mother’s childhood and my grandparent’s struggle to survive the war. My grandfather was captured by the Russians, and even though he eventually escaped, my grandmother didn’t know for two years whether he was dead or alive, until he showed up on their doorstep one day. And, like Christine’s grandfather in the book who was killed during an air raid, that happened to my great grandfather. On one trip to Germany, I visited the bomb shelter where my family hid. Also, like Christine’s mother, my grandmother put food out for the passing Jewish prisoners and listened to foreign radio broadcasts, both crimes punishable by death.
Oops50: At the center of your bookis a love story between Christine, an average Christian girl who falls in love with Isaac, a young Jewish man from a wealthy family. Is any of that part of your mother’s story?
Ellen: No. While my mother and grandmother experienced lots of things, this was not their story. I added a love story because I wanted to tell the Jewish story, too. The story had been brewing in me for a long time. In school, where I grew up in Three Mile Bay, NY, everyone knew I was German. Kids even called me a Nazi. At a certain point, I knew I wanted to tell the story of poor German families like my mother’s because I knew they suffered, but didn’t’ know how much. There is a lot of collective guilt, and the Germans feel they can’t talk about how they suffered. They feel they aren’t allowed to speak about what happened to them. So, I wanted to be that voice and tell that story.
Oops50: How did your mother feel about you writing a book so close to her experiences?
Ellen: My mother is amazing. She’s always had a lot going on in her personal life. My sister was in a car accident and remained in a vegetative state for 23 years just like Terry Schiavo, if you remember that case. My mother took care of my sister at home all those years until she passed away in 2010. She sees darkness and lightness in life, and she is more grateful for the life she has now. So, over the years, I had heard pieces about her life, and when I got serious about writing the book, I gave my mother a questionnaire. One memory would trigger another, then another, and it wasn’t until she’d read the whole book that she said, “holy cow – I survived that.” At the time, she just didn’t think about her suffering. Again, it goes back to the collective guilt. I think Germany is still sorting all that out.
Oops50: Your mother does sound amazing. Was it depressing at times to do that kind of research? Did it affect your psyche?
Ellen: Not really. If anything, it made me even more grateful for the many blessing I have in my life.
Oops50: Has there been any backlash from Jews for telling a story from the German experience?
Ellen: Not at all. All the feedback has been positive. It’s been very encouraging.
Oops50: I’d like to talk a little about the process of writing the book. How long did it take and did you do a lot of research?
Ellen: As I said, the idea had been brewing for a long time. I actually started writing the book in 2006, after my daughter graduated from High School. It took me about four years to write.
Oops50: With the publishing industry in such turmoil, what was your publishing experience like? Was it hard to find an agent? Did you think about self-publishing?
Ellen: I thought about self-publishing but I really wanted to try the traditional route first. I got 72 rejections from agents, but I just believed in my story and didn’t want to give up. Then, after I sent out one more letter, I got picked up, and it didn’t take long for my agent to sell it. And now, I’m working on my second book with the same publisher.
Oops50: So is your next book historical fiction, too?
Ellen: No. My second book is more contemporary. I like historical fiction, and I was passionate about my story, but my publisher didn’t want me to be pigeonholed with another WWII book.
Oops50: Has the book been sold in Germany?
Ellen: No. We’ve sold foreign rights in Italy, Spain and Sweden, but not yet in Germany.
Oops50: So now that you’ve published the book, are you enjoying the aftermath, any book tours?
Ellen: Yes. The publishers do a lot of behind the scenes promotions such as the blog tour on-line, sending out the book to lots of different places for review, but unless you’re a well known author, they don’t do more than that, and they don’t pay for book tours.
Oops50: Interesting. And what about readings in your local book store?
Ellen: I live in a town with no book store. I have to drive an hour to get to one. But, I did have a signing at Sam’s and several of the local libraries.
Oops50: Sam’s Club? That’s amazing. I love that Sam’s has book signings in your town. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Ellen: Yes, please spread the word about “The Plum Tree”, and if you don’t mind writing reviews on Amazon, that would be wonderful!
Oops50: Ellen, thank you so much for spending time with me and agreeing to an interview. And, I’m looking forward to your next book.
Only a few weeks ago, I wrote about how overwhelmed I was feeling. Well, actually, I’ve posted on that subject quite a bit. In fact, it’s a pretty common theme these days with us baby boomer women. But, after spending ten glorious sunny days in California, I feel somewhat renewed. No whining for me for a while. I guess more vacations are in order.
My nephew’s wedding at the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon was beautiful as was his bride, Noelle. Her family came in from Hawaii and it was great meeting them as well as their Bernese Mountain Dog, Walter, who was actually in the ceremony. What an event. My sisters and I rented a cool house in Santa Monica for the week, and although we didn’t always agree on little things like what bread to buy for the house, or which coffee is better, it was wonderful spending time with them.
In Santa Monica we went to a cool flea market with wild stuff, stuff I don’t see too much in Asheville, like tons of vintage clothing and art deco furniture. Then my nephew took us to the Santa Monica Food Truck Lot where we feasted on Lobster Rolls, Peking duck tacos, and even curried fries. Yummy. Then, there was the Getty Museum which I had never seen, and how lucky was I to stumble up on a Vermeer exhibit?
Once the festivities of the wedding were over, I visited two friends I hadn’t seen in years, and what a treat that was. One friend took me to the Shoah Foundation (founded by Spielberg) after Schindler’s List where I discovered my dad’s s cousin had given a four hour interview/testimony about her experience in Auschwitz. I will write about that separately, when I can process that experience of just listening to her and what happened to many members of my family.
To end on a happy note, we finally got a puppy. After losing both our dogs several years ago (you remember, Gus and Carli), we found our dear little Chesapeake Bay Retriever from an incredible breeder only 40 minutes from our house.
So, let me introduce you to Whiskey Creek’s Terra Cotta – 11 weeks old. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Terra in posts to come. She’s pure joy – well almost. Still potty training her…