"Splinters from a wooden head." Who said that? I think it was my Uncle Eddie, the songwriter who never sold a song. Everything he touched seemed to turn to sawdust. He was handsome really, but he had those swollen-looking heavy-lidded eyes that made him seem sleepy and look like a failure.
He used to come to our house and sing his songs, "A Happy Ending," which was almost word for word "My Blue Heaven," a really popular song that came out just after he wrote his. There was always a reason why Tin Pan Alley didn't take his songs and loved other people's. When Uncle Eddie died, the rabbi who preached his funeral said something like, "He was a good man, even though he was a failure, and a creative man, even though none of his songs ever sold, and a kind man and a good husband, even though he never had any children..."
It was the saddest funeral speech I ever heard.
"Splinters From a Wooden Head.: It might have been the title of a book of poems he wrote and published by himself. Or maybe it was the title of a book he gave me. I was a little fat girl who wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and he was my role model. At least, he was the only writer in my family, the only one I had ever known. In fact, there were no female writers as far as I could tell; all the books I read had men's names on the spine, except for maybe Baroness Orczy, who wrote the wonderful "Scarlet Pimpernel." But maybe that was a nom de plume. All the others were Rafael Sabatini and Arthur Conan Doyle and Alexandre Duman. That was my taste.
I should have been warned by Uncle Eddie about how hard it was. He never stopped writing songs. During the day he earned a living as a draftsman, whatever that is, and the living was probably better than my father's, who was a route man for a dry cleaning store. Uncle Eddie and his wife, Aunt Bessie, owned a little attached house in Queens. My parents, who were only renters, were impressed.
But my father was a rip-roaring ex-prizefighter, as full of chutzpah as salami is of fat. If he'd been a songwriter, I thought, he'd have battered down the doors of Tin Pan Alley and had everybody singing his "A Happy Ending" and fogetting about "My Blue Heaven." He wasn't sleepy and hopeful like Uncle Eddie; he was a battering ram, but in those days he wasn't getting anywhere, just driving a truck and yelling at us and supporting everybody else in my mother's family.
My grandfather lived with us, and looked a lot like a skinny, shrivelled Uncle Eddie, and my mother's sister, Aunt Rosetta, who lived with us too, worked but didn't give much of her salary to the household, and attracted a lot of boys. Then there was my sister and me, two girls, which bewildered my father. Why hadn't all that testosterone -- did we know that term then? -- brought forth sons? And, of course, my mother was there, an island of sanity in our strange world, which seemed normal to us because what else did we know? An island of sanity, but also a sponge to my father's prickly temper.
Out of that family came me, with all my hopes and imaginings, me who didn't want to be a movie star or a pop singer, or a teacher or a librarian or a nurse or even a housewife -- who wanted to be, who grew up to be, a writer. "Take steno and typing," my mother said. "You can always get a job." "Why go to college?" my father said. "You'll just get married and have kids" -- grunting this while he was fixing my typewriter.
What don't I owe to them -- to my father's chutzpah, my mother's love, my grandpa's cautionary old age, my Uncle Eddie's faith in the face of failure.
What better charms to have in your pocket before venturing forth to become a writer?