“A Born Writer”
By Lisa Lieberman
Before I had children, I was firmly on the side of nurture in the nature/nurture debate. As the first person in my family to attend college, let alone attain a Ph.D., I believed that education was the answer to many of society’s woes. I still do. But when you have kids, you realize how much of who we are is innate. Joy and sorrow, success, failure, illness, accidents, loss: all leave a mark on the psyche. Some of us, however, seem better equipped to handle what life metes out. In my own case, creativity provided a refuge early on. Tucked away among my father’s papers was the letter my kindergarten teacher wrote about me at the end of my first year in school. I discovered it when I was going through his things after he died.
Abington Friends School was not the obvious choice for kindergarten. A twenty-minute drive from our home in the northern Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham, where my parents had moved expressly on account of the public schools, it wasn’t cheap, and my family wasn’t wealthy. Nor were we Quakers. Indeed, when my mother converted to Judaism to marry my father, the rabbi exacted a promise from my parents that their children would be raised in the Jewish tradition. Paper-clipped to the ketubah [a Jewish marriage contract] were carbon copies of the enrollment papers attesting to my younger sister’s and my enrollment in our synagogue’s religious school, which we both attended on Sundays throughout childhood. I liked it well enough to stay on as a student teacher following the Bat Mitzvah year, working summers during high school in the nursery school and going on to teach kindergarten when I was in college.
And yet, among the few memories I retain from that year at Abington Friends, I recall sitting in a patch of sunlight in the high-windowed meeting room during a morning service. If you had something to say, you could stand and speak. It didn’t matter whether you were a child or an adult. If you were moved to share your thoughts, the congregation would listen respectfully. I think I must have spoken at some point or other, because my recollections of the Quaker service are tinged with warmth. As for the storytelling skills I exhibited at such an early age, I’m afraid I have no recollection, but I love Edith Dawson’s description of the quiet happiness that settled over me when I was immersed in music or painting or (shyness notwithstanding) greeting my friends. In most regards, 1962 was not a happy time in my life. My mother was hospitalized in the spring of that year after what was called, in those days, a nervous breakdown. She was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent the next several years in and out of mental institutions. My posture and facial expression in our kindergarten class photo says it all. There I sit, second from the right in the middle row, wan and miserable.
But Edith Dawson recognized the writer in me, the source of my salvation. It would be years before I gave myself permission to write fiction full-time, as opposed to sneaking off to workshops at the end of a semester, during my professor days, and publishing the odd short story here and there. Cara Walden, the heroine of my historical noir mystery series, loses her mother at an early age. In searching for the words to express Cara’s feeling’s about her mother’s (apparently) accidental drowning in the series debut, All the Wrong Places, I reached inside to find that little girl in the picture and acknowledged her pain:
I held it against [my mother] for a long time, you see, her leaving me so suddenly, and so completely. You might say it became my quest, to solve the mystery of her death—not for the sake of justice, but out of a deeper need to understand why I’d been abandoned. . . If she loved me, couldn’t she have kept herself out of harm’s way? Beneath this loomed another, darker question: Was it my fault that she didn’t love me enough to stay in my life?
Author’s note: I was well into adulthood before I thought to ask my parents why they’d sent me to Abington Friends for kindergarten. They said it was because I was so sensitive (and things were so unsettled at home), they thought I’d be better off in that environment, but staying on was not an option once my mother needed care. She was in a private hospital. The public schools in Cheltenham were quite good, although I never had another teacher who saw me as Edith Dawson did.
To learn more about Lisa Lieberman and to enjoy her blogs on film noir and writing, go to her web site, Deathless Prose.