Apr 232011

One of my favorite memoir clients was John De Luca, former vice mayor of San Francisco and President of the California Wine Institute for 28 years.

A man of considerable warmth and bonhomie, John De Luca’s character seemed to flourish despite or because of family tragedies precipitated by war and poverty. His first memory was of two grown men staring down at him in his crib. At three years old he was sleeping next to a trap which his father and godfather had devised to catch a rat.

This rodent that had been nibbling at his fingers and toes, leaving tooth marks as baby John slept. The jerrybuilt contraption successfully immobilized the rat and the men disposed of it.

Thinking back on this event, De Luca reasons: “Two resourceful men with few material assets accomplished what they had to do to save my life.  From my very first memories I was impressed that there were people and forces looking out for me.  I have felt that deep sense of protection from my earliest days.”

On his eighth birthday, family and friends gathered round for the celebration which was interrupted by a radio broadcast: Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor.  De Luca’s family members were living both in the United States in Sicily (while Italy was a member of the Axis)– especially John’s elder brother whom his mother had to leave in Sicily when she immigrated.

The De Luca’s were beset with conflict within the conflict. His father was sequestered at Ellis Island as an enemy alien during World War II. He remembers his parents did their best to keep their spirits up for their son. They put on the “bella figura” – a good face — to protect John from the gravity of the situation.

The family’s emphasis on John’s security and sense of safety bore fruit.

His Rhodes scholarship supported his study of Italy’s Communist Party. Against the prevailing wisdom at the time, he predicted correctly that communism in Europe would not kowtow to Moscow but would take on national characteristics wherever the movement grew.

John was among the first class of the White House Fellows program created by Pres. Lyndon Johnson and he had a hand in researching the background behind the president’s Vietnam policy.

He served eight years as deputy Mayor to Joseph Alioto in San Francisco helping the mayor cope with the pressures of the riotous 1960sand then went on to become president of California’s Wine Institute. For 28 years, as the wine industry struggled with questions about marketing and legislation, De Luca broadened the Institute’s vision to emphasize the healthful benefits of wine and its physical properties.

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
Apr 122011

My first workshop “Forever Remembered” was held at the Fior d’Italia restaurant where I guided six students in writing a memoir. Three of them were writing about their mothers.

For instance Suzy was creating “a portrait” of Marie her mother. One of my instructions to my class was that they should seek out people who knew them or their subject (if they were not writing about themselves) and interview these individuals. Suzy reached out to her son Stuart who responded with the most affecting recollection. In the following excerpts, Stuart refers to his grandmother as Ree:

She understands a young lad’s thirst for attention and excitement, his love of ice cream, swimming pools and even video games. Ree cries out in delight and fills the house with boisterous laughter… She overcomes her physical infirmities and never bemoans her fate. The delight of children matters more than her comfort, it seems.

Ree sends the new copies of every single one of the 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. In many of these, she skillfully and beautifully colors in the illustrations using pencil or watercolor. She buys him a subscription to a kid’s literary magazine and one nature magazine. She sends me stories cut from her own collection with her notes and suggestions for interpretation.

She hides money in her bookshelves and loves to delight me by taking out one of her little fortunes in giving me yet another generous gift. She finds special coins and stamps for me, both new and old, and more stories to go with them.

She never stops praising my cleverness, my virtue, my sparkling eyes. She paints a picture in my head of a boy that should let himself be loved by the world. She tells me I am her “favorite grandson”. Her love is vast, total, absolute, and inspires the same for her. Ree is my first girlfriend.

She teaches me the basics of playing the piano and reading music. We draw pictures together and she teaches me to paint with watercolors. A common reaction to my magnificent pronouncements is for her to shout, “oh, how marvelous dear!”, and clap her hands in delight.

And she makes up a game for us to play on the beach. Each of us will pretend to be a merchant with fine wares from foreign lands, shells and stones and pieces of colored glass found on the sands of Inverness. We place our treasures onto pieces of driftwood, and haggle like caravan traders.

In her sister Lucille’s large tended garden in Oakland, we imagine we are in the land of Oz, fleeing the witch in the tool shed. Somehow Ree makes this specter of the witch feel potent and realistic and delights the small children as the danger is eluded.

One last memory is very particularly deeply in my mind, the stories she tells me about a boy named Felix.

The stories begin during a visit to Inverness, and are usually told only there. I don’t think she’d write anything down, she just makes them up on the spot. Ree creates a mythical world around us, inhabited by these characters and their boats. Felix is a good boy who happens to be a lot like me. He bravely adventures around the bay in his yellow boat, confronting his rivals: the unsavory characters Rake and Jake. They have a fast black boat and want only to cause trouble for Felix and his girlfriend. She has a blue boat, but her name I don’t remember.

I say this world is mythical and not merely fictional because the boundaries between reality and fantasy are left vague. This is a story about us and the world we live in as well as the archetypal characters.

Typically it is Felix’s goal to row his boat to a nice picnic somewhere with some people he likes. The description of the picnic voyage, and the feast itself, are most appealing. Rake and Jake appear and cause some mischief which Felix struggles against. But Rake and Jake have a father who is a good man and often he appears to rein the boys in. Their boat is taken away in punishment and they give a grudging apology. Perhaps they are allowed to share the picnic and perhaps there is a bit of hope for them after all.

These stories were invented, personal, magical in a way that surpasses my ability to describe. They were Ree’s special gift to me. I love her so dearly. When the world is unfair to me now, I demand that I want my Ree. She visits my dreams, soothes me, and guides my little yellow boat back to the safe waters of Inverness.

Our Ree’s beaming smile is a light that never goes out.

 Posted by at 5:07 pm
Apr 112011

On Saturday, April 9, 2011, I held the last session of my first workshop “Forever Remembered”.

I had to learn to adjust my expectations of the class. Although I promised students that if they followed my instructions about writing discipline they would finish a draft by the end of six weeks, in fact time and family commitments prevented them. However they seemed to judge their experience as worthwhile. As one of them said “this course gave me a kick in the pants” to start my project.

Other comments echoed similar satisfactions and approbation. They’ll all were able to list the concrete steps they had to take next and actually started planning to accomplish them. I felt it was a victory for us that they were actually putting in motion the requirements to complete their vision. I daresay they would not have made this progress without this course. Possibly they might have gone on for years thinking “if only I had” and “why didn’t I?”

They were pleased with their results so I was pleased.

One startling and inspiring event came from Suzy’s son Stuart. Suzy had asked her son to write his memories of his grandmother, Suzy’s mother. Stuart’s four pages of recollections were poetic and affecting. I asked Suzy to read extracts from it. Three of us ended up in tears.

Now my next challenge is to attract participants to my May workshop, the format of which I’ve changed somewhat. It will be only four weeks long and in the middle of the week, unlike so that’s thathe previous one.

 Posted by at 4:59 pm
Apr 052011

Monday morning April 4 I spoke to a group at the North Berkeley Senior Center. My friends Pat and John Sullivan attended and my old friend Tom McMahon came. It was a joy to have the Sullivans and Tom meet each other. They had so much in common.

Otherwise the attendees were Fay Small, Hishka, the coordinator Elaine William-Brown, Caroline Huang, JoAnn and Bernice who had been looking for the nutrition class but stumbled in to join us.

My topic was How to Write a Book. I had originally proposed to Elaine some weeks ago the idea of doing a talk on how to write one’s life story. But she pointed out to me that they already had such a course and teacher on the curriculum. So I asked her if we could broaden the my topic to how to write a book, any book. She agreed.

But when I arrived at the classroom, I found that most of the attendees were interested in writing their life stories. While I gave the lecture I had prepared, I kept bringing it back to them and their personal interests.

I led them in an exercise of writing the title and table of contents of their books. They were surprised to be instructed to start writing their long envisioned documents right there on the spot.

When they finally shared their pieces, we were all amazed to hear of the intriguing and moving life stories each had written. And it turned out that they wanted me to come back. This was delightful to hear and led to conferences with Elaine and the new director Kelly Wallace. More to come on this.

 Posted by at 10:46 am