Good Narrative Principles

August 18, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

Momo’s Stories: My Cat Elaine

IMG_7771Meredith, Momo’s Mom now lives with her daughter year round. It happened this way: after Walter, Momo’s Dad died, Meredith couldn’t get her bearings. Stumbling through widowhood, Meredith was repeatedly hijacked by vivid memories triggered by random shops or street corners. Sometimes even a tree sent her spiraling. It felt to Meredith like she was being mugged repeatedly by the past. She tried cultivating a forward-looking attitude. She tried without much success to bring a sense of zeal or at the very least, neutral anticipation to her daily life.

A change of venue was in order and so Meredith showed up at Momo’s doorstep with no advanced warning. To be fair, she had tried alerting Momo that she was on her way, but her daughter never seemed to have time to take her calls. Luckily, Meredith traveled light and so Momo was able to accommodate her mother for what she assumed was a brief stay. When it became clear to both mother and daughter that this arrangement was for keeps, the two went shopping for a two-bedroom condo on the Upper West Side that was pet friendly.

Back in time, while Meredith and Walter were running the camp and living a full life in their tidy suburbs, Momo, in New York City, had become a cat person. She happily embraced all breeds save for Persians, which were too vocal for her taste. Until her mother arrived, Momo named each of her cats Elaine in honor of her sister who died before Momo could form memories. On the first night that mother and daughter shared a meal in Momo’s studio apartment, Momo called her cat by a new name. Elaine the cat, failed to respond. Momo tried keeping the name under wraps but eventually she slipped up. Meredith looked as Momo had expected, shocked. Deeply shocked.

Elaine, the cat, was no mental giant. So Momo had no choice but to call her Elaine. She whispered her name. Used it sparingly. But still it was there — forming a wedge between the two.

Another issue was Khalid who called reliably every Wednesday evening throughout the winter. If by some chance Meredith answered the call, she’d tell Khalid that Momo wasn’t at home and hang up. It was her way of thwarting the budding romance.

At Khalid’s urging, Momo considered converting. But six months into studying the Koran she admitted first to herself and then to her lover that she wasn’t a woman of faith. Lacking a clear path forward, the lovers settled into a fuzzy gray area where affections and intimacy were exchanged freely but the future was off limits.

In the summer, Meredith held her position as founder and director, which essentially meant she faded into the background, except for visiting day when former campers now grown, held her in a warm embrace. They talked about the past, a game of nostalgia that Meredith played well.

Momo, now in her early ‘60s, continued the peculiar and divided life of a camp director. On weekends in the winter she traveled the tri-state area, meeting with potential camp families and sleeping when necessary at the closest Hampton Inn. She stored her camp supplies at the self-storage so that the mice wouldn’t steal the construction paper and use it for their bedding. There was also the inevitable law suit from a dissatisfied family upset over some mishap. If asked, Momo would say that things are “ducky” but a fine web of lines now etch the sides of her mouth and eyes.

Last winter, during a recruitment drive through Waltham, Mass., a wealthy couple, former campers as a matter of fact, approached Momo about the possibility of buying Camp Walmer. Momo blanched when they made their preliminary sales pitch. It happened moments after she left the stage in a Karaoke Slam. With the final notes of “Summer Nights” originally sung by Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in “Grease” still reverberating, Momo was asked to consider a future that didn’t revolve around the rhythm of the summer.

It was an offer she mulled over for a year and half. Alone. It remained her special secret.

August 14, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

Momo’s Stories: I Own It

IMG_2085_2Based on the events clouding Momo’s childhood and the way I described her tendency to cling to objects, you might get the impression that she was shy, retiring, sweet. A woman who, though she didn’t have any children of her own, (surely you noticed that) made her campers feel safe and secure. Maybe you picture her with a large cushiony bosom and a halo of tight gray curls. In the deep of winter, she’d drink chamomile tea while knitting a chenille scarf.

If childhood events dictate personality then you’d be right, in which case we’re all slave to the past. What if how we respond to a flat tire, a sale on brown diamond stud earrings or whether or not we can tell a good joke, or even remember the punch line to it, is pre-wired? What if at all your hand-wringing about not being breast fed as a baby, loved sufficiently as a child, encouraged and bathed shaped your personality the same way that icing determines the taste, texture and relative deliciousness of a cake? To put it another way, what if we’re all born the way we are regardless of say the toxic atmosphere in which we’re raised?

Consider Momo. While she does know how to knit and happens to fit snugly into a full D-sized bra, Momo could best be described as a balls to the walls type of gal. At camp or in the hallways of her apartment building on the Upper West side, Momo can be seen sauntering around in her robe. If it’s past nine pm or anytime prior to eleven the next morning, Momo delights in shocking her neighbors or campers with a flash of her long thigh otherwise hidden inside the folds of her red flannel robe. She laughs then with delight as you cringe or look away. Sometimes she wears bright red lipstick and might remind the casual observer of a cross between Rosaline Russell circa “His Girl Friday” and Sharon Stone slowly uncrossing her legs in “Basic Instinct.” And yet she runs a sleep away camp. She’s single, in her late ‘50’s and aging well.

At camp she’s instituted a bi-weekly tradition of Wild Wednesdays, were anything goes, within reason. She grants herself the same latitude. On Wednesdays, Khalid brings over a dinner of mansaf or some other Jordanian delicacy. He tries to get her to eat halva but she’ll have none of it. Though Khalid commits adultery every Wednesday night, with his wife’s blessing (she’s happy to be rid of him) he’ll never violate his religion’s injunction against drinking alcohol. Momo loves drinking a fine scotch, neat (why dilute it?) at the end of the day. She firmly believes in the evils of high-heels. Nonetheless, she kicks off her shoes as if her Tom’s or Merrills where squeezing her toes blue, plops down on whatever flat surface will support her and sips a jigger’s worth of top shelf scotch. It is her way of saying “day is done”. At first, Khalid tried to change her ways. He was appalled that she would allow scotch to touch her lips, let alone swallow it. He was appalled that he’d sleep with such a woman. Resigned, he now insists that she brush her teeth before they have sex.

When they first met, Momo made it a habit of accompanying her campers on the toe path that led to the new deli sitting on the intersection of Route 109 and Youngstown Road. She’d drink a frozen mug of root beer with her charges and rant about this or that. Drawn to the dark, mysterious stranger behind the counter who had a family of wide-eyed children bustling in the back room, she lingered. Gradually, the two became friendly. His children grew up and left home long before Khalid and Momo exchanged anything more than pleasantries.

In the first flush of love, Momo had a hard time restraining herself. She looked for any excuse to swing by for an emergency this or that. During the year, she stopped dating, stopped accepting new invitations on Match.com. After all, she had Khalid. At long last, here was a man who didn’t run from her, who loved that she towered over him and completed his sentences (even if she was generally wrong). Gradually, she came to realize that Khalid would never leave his silent brooding wife and that her mother, in particular, would never, ever accept her dating a Muslim man.

She had no choice but to own it.

(Photo: Tim Duch)

August 13, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

Momo’s Stories: Those Summer Days

MIMG_7668omo’s given name, the name that appears on her birth certificate is Miriam. But no one calls her that save for the government and those kind folks running security at the airport.

She was given the name by her older sister, Elaine, who, at the time, was a toddler and couldn’t wrap her mouth around the complexity of sounds contained in the word “Miriam”. Elaine shortened her new sister’s name to “Momo” and it stuck. I’m sorry to report that Elaine didn’t stick around long enough to enjoy the permanence of her youthful declaration. She died around the time Momo was mastering her first steps. Motoring around the coffee table, shoving stray curiosities into her mouth to see how they tasted, Momo was left pretty much alone as her parents grieved the loss of their first born. So deep was their grief, that her parents couldn’t bring themselves to share the actual story of Elaine’s death with Momo. The specifics remained a mystery cloaked in an unremitting silence that both Momo’s parents took to their grave.

Momo treasured the only physical object she found that belonged to Elaine, proving that once upon a time she had an older sister. It was a lenticular of the Cracker Jack sailor winking. She’d spend hours in her bedroom conducting imaginary conversations with Elaine, who was always, in Momo’s imagination, fearless and wise. The Cracker Jack sailor served as silent witness to each of these lengthy one-sided conversations.

Had Elaine survived, Momo wouldn’t have had to bear the burden of maintaining the family business long after it ceased turning a profit. If a family’s soul could be said to reside in a location, theirs would be the entrance gate to Camp Walmer, named after Walter and Meredith, Momo’s parents. Camp Walmer flourished in the great era of sleep away camps, the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Back then, summer camps were designed to keep their charges safe, entertained and out of their parents’ hair for two months. Successful sleep away camps offered their campers a well-rounded experience, where arts and crafts, sports and a bit of theater filled up the days and nights in a fun yet leisurely manner.

Momo lived for the summer. As a camper, she squeezed a year’s worth of drama, intrigue and romance into a brief seven weeks. She expected that the friendships formed in the back of the cabin, playing a forbidden game of jacks after lights out would last her a lifetime.

They didn’t. The lenticular Cracker Jack sailor’s face faded. The habit of sending your kids to sleep away camp fell out of fashion. Momo hung on. By virtue of being raised in a home where loss, mystery and denial were the norm, Momo clung to the stability of time-honored traditions, be it those at camp or throughout the year. She had trouble throwing away anything that suggested the past, especially prior to her birth.

This tendency to hold onto things, to reuse materials, to cobble together art projects from remnants of the past, made Camp Walmer, under Momo’s leadership, a safe and special sanctuary. Kids loved it because they are innately conservative. When you’re young, change happens at a furious and unremitting pace. Third graders for instance, pine for the seeming security of second grade when lunch was served at 11:30am and homework wasn’t so demanding. Momo understood this mindset and shaped her camp experience so that all campers felt they belonged. If tennis wasn’t your thing, then so be it. Parents, fully expecting their campers to return home having mastered a fluent backhand or powerful serve, were disappointed. Enrollment plummeted.

Momo plowed on. The rhythm of her life remained remarkably consistent; two months were spent either anticipating or reflecting on those glorious summer days and the rest of the year waiting for it to start up again.

As a child, it was impossible for her to parse out the specifics that made summer time so special. As an adult, she understood it all too well. It was in part the reality and the smell of just being at camp. But it was also the allure of the mysterious swarthy man behind the counter at the deli that sat on the intersection of Route 109 and Youngstown Rd.