A WRITER PRACTICES ‘METHOD ACTING’
I’ve often wondered why so many of us are obsessed by our unique spirals of DNA, to the point of spending endless hours searching through immigration and naturalization documents on Ancestry.com?
When I mailed my spit-in-a-tube to be analyzed, I told myself this venture was purely an exercise in “method-writing.” In the same way Marlon Brando inhabited Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, I would “become” Alienor Crespo, the protagonist of my latest novel, Zahara and the Lost Books of Light. Alienor goes to great lengths to research her family tree. As her creator I felt obligated to do the same.
On the evening my results arrived in my Inbox, I clicked the link with no premonition of what was in store.
I was not surprised by all the Eastern European yellow and green, with a small dash of blue for the Baltic’s and the UK. I was philosophical about finding 6 great aunts and uncles on my mother’s side who I had no idea existed. My detachment, however, turned to deep curiosity when I investigated my dad’s side of the tree and started the hunt for the orphanage where he’d told me he’d been raised. If I’d taken a selfie at that moment, more than a hint of fanatical purpose would have shone in my eyes. I didn’t leave my dinner to burn on the stove but I would have if given half the chance.
The next day, over morning coffee, I got on the phone with the nun in New Jersey who maintained the archives of what was once the Nazareth Trade School. While we spoke I was looking at an online record of ‘students’ in residence, my nine year old father’s name written in surprisingly neat cursive, ten lines down from the top of the page.
(Image from Ancestry.com)
“He was with us until he was seventeen, except for some time in an orthopedic hospital,” the Sister told me.
That made sense. My dad used to say that being in the hospital after he came down with polio was the best year of his childhood. The Children’s Ward was where he learned to play chess and was introduced to Shakespeare’s plays. We didn’t have many books in our house but without fail Dad read his copy of Hamlet once a year. Now that I’m older, I can appreciate the significance this held for him.
Grandma Anna had been unable to support three children on her own during the Great Depression. She had placed my father at the orphanage/trade school when he was nine years old. She failed to visit him for eight long years and when she came to pick him up she was using a different last name than his, recently married, and ready to reunite her family.
No wonder Dad was a quintessential outsider who, when he met my mother, told her that his own mother was dead. Not true and after I was born there was a family reunion of sorts. But I was never close with my grandmother. The trauma endured by my father had marked him for life and as a child I was not the more forgiving person I’ve become.
So there he was, or at least the ghost of him, behind the walls of the orphanage in the photograph. For the first time I tried to see the world through his eyes. Somehow this allowed me to love him in spite of his deserting me the way his own mother deserted him. Maybe that’s why, when I wrote Alienor Crespo’s story, I decided to give her the gift of seeing through her ancestor’s eyes. In the end she too finds meaning in the painful discoveries she makes while recreating her family tree.
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