THE Dandelion Muse is Charlotte Zolotow *, the renowned children’s book author, a Publisher Emerita, and retired HarperCollins VP.
The excerpt below describes our first meeting, a fateful one for yours truly. Charlotte’s subsequent support and friendship motivated me to take the plunge into the deep end of the writing pool.
The Dandelion Muse won a contest at The Next Big Writer website, a writer’s workshop. It is also available in print in the writing community’s anthology, “MY WRITNG LIFE.”
* Charlotte Zolotow passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 98 in November of 2013.
“Just a moment” answered my knock, a slight quiver crinkling the words. Ghost-like, my translucent reflection returned my stare from the entrance door’s pane of beveled glass. In no hurry, I waited patiently, well aware octogenarians moved slowly, deliberately.
The door opened and the owner of the voice greeted me, “Yes?”
Decades of wear and tear rested comfortably on Charlotte Zolotow’s face, her expression a blend of anticipation and uncertainty.
“Hi, I’m Bob Keenan. We spoke on the phone earlier this week. The Commission for the Blind asked me to be your computer instructor.”
Her eyes, the color of rain, appeared to focus on my left ear, in part to compensate for her vision loss. Unlike her voice, no quiver-like hesitancy troubled Charlotte’s gaze.
“Oh, yes, of course. Come in. Please, come in.”
Macular Degeneration may have assailed her sight but the intellect behind those eyes shone through undefeated, despite the years, despite the ceaseless and ever increasing toll the eye condition demanded as passage through the later years of her life.
“Thank you,” I said and added to put her at ease, “these stained glass panels are really unique. Beautiful. Is the flower a daffodil? Tulip, maybe?”
“Yes, tulips. Aren’t they lovely?” she agreed. “One of the reasons I bought this house–so long ago, more than fifty years. That and the porch. When neighbors walk by, we greet each other and talk, the children especially–so many over the years, all grown up now. Some still visit, bring their children, a few of them grown-up, too. Time passes by my porch–relentlessly.”
She paused, as if considering some thought.
“Well, he was definitely wrong, then,” I interrupted.
“Wrong? Who was that?
“Frost’s neighbor on the other side of the fence. It’s good porches make good neighbors.”
Charlotte’s smile erased the last vestige of her uncertainty. Her interest in children was unsurprising. She was one of America’s foremost authors of children’s books and was not yet ready to consider full-time retirement–not until life’s latest twist snared her hopes. My job was to help her untangle the impact of vision loss on her professional life.
“Well, Mr. Keenan, please come in. We may just figure out a way to get along, even if you are a computer person. No promises. That PC thing doesn’t like me, and the feeling’s mutual–very mutual.”
“Ah–no problem, you only need to show the Beast who’s boss. We’ll whip it into shape. Oh, and please call me Bob.”
“We shall see. Come. And call me Charlotte, or CZ if you prefer.”
I followed her into the house and along a short hallway past the dining room. Crown molding topped the walls, over nine-feet in height on the first floor. A neglected Royal typewriter, an antique from another age, waited in vain, sulking on the dining table for the return of its mistress.
In the living room across the hallway, the touch of a child, a line of multicolored origami cranes, finger-length in size, dangled below the chain of a chandelier. Much like on her porch, plants thrived everywhere, inhabited corner and floor stands, the surfaces of tables and crowded the photographs on the fireplace mantel. On the walls, the work of cover artists for Charlotte’s books presided over the antique coffee and side tables set comfortably around stuffed chairs and a sofa. Shades and patterns of blue on the upholstery fabric captured the eye’s attention.
Something missing captured my attention. I asked, “So, where’s the Beast?”
“Hmm, the Beast. I should warn you–two other instructors gave up on me. My CBVH counselor insisted you were her ‘ace in the hole.’ That said, I can’t guaranty you won’t run out the door in frustration, either.”
“No guarantees required.” I persisted, “So, where’s the Beast? In your office?”
“Never here and not in my office. It’s on the second floor. Up in the writing room, in the attic. Maurice’s writing room.”
“My ex-husband, he wrote many of his books there when we were still married– afterwards, too. We stayed friends. He wrote the original biography of Marilyn Monroe–interviewed her for months. She was a dear, really–kind to me. And very bright. Don’t swallow the dumb blond routine.”
“Maurice still uses the room?”
“He passed away some years back.”
“Oh–sorry.” I added, “Well, as long as Marilyn’s ghost doesn’t appear up there like Old Marley, I guess we better get upstairs ourselves.”
“No, no ghosts, no such thing–but not upstairs, not just yet. First a drink, so we can talk. What would you like? Vodka and tonic? Wine? I’m afraid I don’t drink red. There is some juice, if you want. I prefer vodka and tonic, this time of day.”
I sensed we would not get to the attic without a drink and that conversation. “A vodka and tonic then. Thank you.”
“Good choice. I’ll be right back. Please sit down anywhere you like.”
The height of the ceilings accented her petite form as she headed for the kitchen and turned the corner of the hallway. She walked without hesitancy, if anything with some haste, navigating confidently around the familiar environment–a relief to me
“Hey,” I called. “Just a sec. Need a hand?”
“No dear, you’re my guest,” her voice answered. “Make yourself comfortable. I won’t be long.”
Instead, I glanced about the room and walked toward a group of knick-knacks crowding the surfaces of two bookcases. One of the curios intrigued me: a transparent acrylic globe encased the fully sprouted seedling stage of a dandelion. I picked it up to examine.
Charlotte caught me. “I’ve wondered how they managed that myself,”
She held a tray with two vodka tonics and what must have been a pre-prepared snack, a plate of cheese and crackers.
“You saw me? Not bad, CZ. You’re what? Six, maybe eight feet away and you saw me holding a transparent, three-inch globe? I’m outta here. I’m telling your counselor Diane you’re faking it.”
Dry Macular degeneration, Charlotte’s condition, is a haphazard thief, often leaving behind tantalizing areas of sight around the peripheral vision, somewhat compensating its victims–or more like teasing. Without additional complications, total blindness is rare.
She said, “Well, you’re in the sunlight. That helps. You’re also at just the right angle. From the side of my left eye especially, the world is mine to see again. Fairly well, anyway.” She walked toward the furnishings grouped in front of the fireplace. “A gift from my daughter Crescent–the ‘frozen’ dandelion fascinated her, too. So delicate, protected forever. Time will never tatter that plant.”
“Maybe–but at what price? She’ll never complete her mission in life.”
“My, you have the heart of a poet? Have you ever written anything?”
“No,” I said. Not exactly a lie. Years had passed since my last attempt came to its justly deserved demise.
Charlotte nodded toward the couch. “Please, dear, sit. Let’s talk.”
She placed the tray on the coffee table and sat in the chair opposite me on the couch. Arthritis gnarled many of the joints in her hands; the most likely reason her Royal pined away on the dining room table. A computer keyboard with its much lighter touch would help.
She said, “Those other computer people, all they ever talked about was the ‘interface.’ A meaningless word. No sense of wonder. ‘Click here, do this, that. No, no, not that!’ I’m afraid I drove them crazy. In fact–I’ll drink to that!”
CZ picked up her vodka and tonic from the tray.
I followed her example and raised the glass toward my hostess. “Then don’t suffer any guilt over me–I’m already crazy. And thank you. Slàinte.”
“Slàinte. An Irish–actually, Gaelic toast. Roughly translates to ‘Good Health’.”
“Oh, something like le’chaim, ‘To Life’,” she said.
“Yep, they go hand in hand, I suppose. Can’t have one without the other. Le’chaim to you and lots of it.”
I liked this lady.
Nothing adorned the walls of the attic monk’s cell designated Maurice’s writing room. A single, long fluorescent fixture clung to the ceiling less than a foot above my five-ten height. Several, four-drawer filing cabinets abutted the exterior wall. A narrow cot pressed lengthwise against a wall perpendicular to the cabinets. I could easily imagine Maurice crashed on the cot’s surface after an all-night stint of writing.
Excluding an air-conditioner wedged in a tiny, attic window to the right of the cabinets, not much else demanded space on the wooden floor planks except an oak desk to the side of the entrance. The matching, swivel desk chair creaked as anticipated, a satisfying creak, and on the surface of the desk, the Tower of the Beast crouched, waiting to pounce.
CZ braved the Beast to trek with me once a week to the attic. She never rushed or failed to use the handrail along the steep, winding staircase, though I doubted she possessed the arm strength to hang on if she slipped. I often voiced my anxiety but my concerns went unheeded, something to which I would grow accustomed. My offer to relocate the computer to her second floor office encountered the same fate, as did the installed screen enlargement/navigation software I installed.
“Too bothersome,” she said; her tone of voice declared more–no debate necessary.
Age and stubbornness aside, CZ had progressed relatively well over the summer and through fall. So much so, a larger document was needed for practice.
One fateful lesson in mid-fall, I opened my laptop’s carrying case and from the interior pocket, which normally stored her practice floppy disks, emptiness greeted me. I rummaged around pockets and partitions here and there and stumbled across an old, misplaced disk. Digitally speaking, my long forsaken Great American Novel resided there, all three existent chapters of a self-delusional joke.
Charlotte retrieved the disk I held up and inserted it in the drive.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s try this again. Tickle that Open Box….” CZ’s preferred name for a dialogue. Adjusting to her visual needs addressed only a portion of her computer phobia.Together, we had found more “common sense” if slightly whimsical alternatives to the standard PC nomenclature.
“Grab the first document, ‘American Dreaming’–at the top of the List, first column. It’s maybe, fifteen pages, lots pages to roam around. Lots of paragraphs to cut and paste.”
“Interesting name,” she said. “Where did you get the document?”
“Hey, no changing the topic. Tickle that doc. We done got some practice highlighting paragraphs to do. Mind the Junk Yard Dogs.” The reference was our name for MS Word’s paragraph breaks.
The text of the file appeared on the screen.
“Okay,” I continued, “let’s hop to the end of the….” I droned on a bit before realizing she was ignoring me. “Uh, CZ? Hello.”
“Shh, dear, let me read.”
She leaned forward at few times, twisting her head left to right and back, taxing her peripheral vision to the limit. Every once in awhile, she advanced the page five lines at a time via the mouse wheel, a function she mastered with her ring finger, the least hampered with arthritis.
The fall day was pleasant enough to wear a long sleeved shirt; ergo, the attic was hot. Against the background of our semi-silence, the murmur of the air conditioner, normally unnoticed, captured my attention.
My patience ended. “Charlotte, we’ve got to get….”
“This is good, these characters really live and breathe–needs work though. A beginner but a good one. I love the voice. Who wrote this? I’d like to finish the chapter, but really can’t on the Beast’s screen. My eyes won’t take too much more. Let’s print it out; eighteen-point should be fine. A good, bright light, too, maybe the magnifier. Is there enough paper?”
“Uh, can’t we finish the session first, then…”
“No, my eyes are tired of the Beast. Don’t worry, if they ask I’ll tell them you worked me to the bone today, for hours and hours–such a tyrant. Let’s go downstairs. I’ll use the reading lamp. We’ll have some wine, talk. This is yours, isn’t it?”
“How’d you know?.”
“The voice, of course. You misled me, Mr. Keenan. I knew you had the heart of a writer. Let’s print this out.”
“Yeesh, fine, but you do it. You change the font size and all. I’ll watch.”
“Tyrant. Are you sure you’re not a closet Republican?”
We talked. She decided. I would remain after each training session to work on the novel. Maurice’s writing room was mine until I pounded out the novel. Or else. She would provide dinner in between the training and the writing; my wife Claudia, CZ announced, need not concern herself about her husband starving to death.
And, so it went, evenings of blood, sweat and tears.
Often, an unexpected midnight crept up on me still lost in the grip of some scene or plot idea. Concerned about the late hour, I would shut down the PC and, hoping Charlotte long since retired to bed, descend the staircase quietly as possible, quite a challenge. The squeak and creak gremlins inhabited literally every step of the way to mark my progress.
More often than not when reaching the first floor, I found her seated on the couch or chair before the fireplace. She sometimes would listen in the darkened solitude to WQXR, one of New York’s classical stations, or would sit with a bright lamp next to her, a magnifier in her hand as she read Emily Dickinson, her favorite poet. A thistle planting from Dickinson’s garden grew in Charlotte’s backyard garden.
Or she also would remain awake to read my previous chapters to provide a few last words of encouragement or guidance–not that her repertoire lacked pokes and prods if necessary. She never failed to admonish me when I “wasted” valuable time rewriting finished scenes, a habit still haunting me to this day
“Not now,” she insisted, “now is not the time. Finish first, don’t edit, not yet. Write the entire story down, warts, bumps and everything. Worry about polishing the paragraphs after your story is done. Otherwise, you’ll never finish, ever.”
“What then” I once asked.
“Then you’ll start over, of course. That’s when the real work begins. The art of writing is not what you write, it’s what you don’t write.”
Of course, silly me.
The weeks wound their way into winter, then past the holidays and marched onward into spring, the novel coming to life under CZ’s tutelage. The evening I proudly descended the staircase, my “final” chapter grasped in hand like the cherished prize it was, CZ surprised once again.
I brought the printout to her sitting before the fireplace. “Here it is, the last chapter. Finished. The novel is done. Hallelujah. Thanks to you.”
She obviously was trying not to grin. “True, the first draft is done. Now, your real work begins. Your rewrite.”
“Huh? You’re kidding me, right?”
“No, dear. Rewrite the novel from the beginning. Now is the time to tackle those scenes I stopped you editing or tried to, anyway. So–same time next week. But first, a reward.”
“Here.” She handed me a small box, tied with a blue ribbon, not an easy task, given the constraints of her arthritis.
“What’s this?” I asked.
She laughed, the sound of an imp–or a Muse.
“A gift. To make you feel guilty so you won’t stop writing. I am a Jewish mother, you know.”
I opened the box and removed a small globe, a duplicate of the one on a living room side table. No trapped bubble or surface abrasion marred the acrylic sphere’s transparency. Frozen, sheltered within was a dandelion “wishie,” a perfect ball of seeds poised forever to blow away at the slightest puff.
I raised the dandelion into the light of the chandelier, my silent wish: If only Muses were so well protected from the ravages of Time.
The story is available in the My Writing Life anthology