I have been taking an online novel writing course through Curtis Brown Creative in London, under the mentorship of author Nikita Lalwani and with fourteen other novel writing peers. The bulk of the work is evaluating 3,000 work segments of each other novels, but we also get little voluntary 500 word homework assignments we can submit for peer review as well. This week, in which we focused on plot, the assignment was to take the plot of Red Riding Hood and “retell it so that the events of the tale take place in your time and in a real place known to you.”
The Predator in my Family
In my twenties, I hated that Robert Frost poem about the Road Not Taken. I imagined myself forever cut off not from one road that diverged in a wood but from dozens, each one leading to a better life than the one I had chosen.
My unhappy marriage broke me, and like the face of a mountain cracking, then sliding off, it demolished more paths leading through that bleak forest, or so I thought. And several years of dithering and depression swallowed up others.
Then, of course came therapy. I looked backward in order to move forward and saw how my parent’s dysfunctional marriage had affected my own, and that I had to deal with my childhood traumas, yada yada yada.
But something besides dysfunctional relationships had stalked my family. My mother had spoken of a predator—something that got into the brain. She told me about her visits as a child to the family farm in Ohio and her grandfather’s violent, incoherent rages after the predator got into him.
My grandmother, an austere woman—although attentive to her grandchildren when I knew her as a child—became more sweet natured and gentle after the predator overtook her. I didn’t understand, as a teenager, why my mother and grandfather seemed upset by this lovely old woman who was always smiling and happy, and reveled in my righteous adolescent indignation when my mother stopped visiting her.
When she ordered the autopsy on my grandfather and saw that the predator had been inside my grandfather’s brain as well as my grandmother’s, decades of paralysis overtook my mother as she waited for it to come get her.
I lost my cellphone last month. I know it’s in the house somewhere, lurking, the battery dead now. I remember the last time I used it, or I think I did, and I retraced my steps of the day I lost it and pulled apart the furniture. What did I do that accidentally turned the ringer off? My brother was absent-minded even before he became a professor, but the predator as stripped us of the ability to regard these things as harmless. I do not think much about other roads through the woods anymore. I just keep looking behind me, and I just keep trying not to trip.
My mother lives in a charming cottage now, called a “Green House.” Her fellow occupants are called “elders” and the staff called “Shabahzin”—the Persian name for midwives. The founder of the Green House movement had the idea that elders are being birthed into a new life.
And I’ll buy into that concept. I am happy she has put the smells and clatter of the nursing home behind her, the noise of the roommate who continually moaned “ithurtithurtsithurtsithurtsithurts.” Happier still, that she has lost her terror of the advancing predator and succumbed to it. On our visits, she often does not know who I am, but I think she knows I am someone she loves as she cocks her head, smiles, and looks up at me with curious, wide, wide eyes.