My latest play project is going to be one of the hardest I’ve ever attempted to write. If properly constructed with love and backed by historical facts, it might be a semi-autobiographical story of my parents, grandparents and me. On the other hand, it could also end up a confusing juxtaposition of parenting errors, misinformation, historical fiction and confusing storytelling. Right now, I’d give it a fifty-fifty chance of going in either direction.
It’s safe to say it will be different from any other play I’ve written. Right now, I’d describe it ‘experimental theater.’ That phrase rushed into my head about 3:00 am one morning as I tossed and turned and wondered out loud what the hell I was attempting to do with the confusing array of photos, phrases and jumbled stories that I’d been fed over the latter part of my mother’s life.
It began, innocently enough, with several old photographs my mother passed down to me years ago at a time and place long since forgotten. She had kept them in an old shoebox and wanted to give them to my sister and me so that we might have some pictures of her family farm and other images of her youth.
The photograph that grabbed my immediate attention was one of a small café on West Seventh Street leading into downtown Saint Paul. At the time, around 1944, it was a lower class, semi-rundown section of town that had long since seen its better days.
The story of ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ as it was passed down by my Mother to Marlene and me came out in drips and drabs, casual comments, thoughtful reflection and confusing contradictory stories. As best I can recollect the story it went something like this.
Arthur was a short order cook, just arrived in town, and working at the New Brighton Ammunitions plant. My mother had been a domestic worker who found the wages much better at the munitions factory. They met, they married and shortly afterwards, I was born. My sister was on the way when they decided to sub-lease the space of a closed café. It would be called ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ in honor of my father’s French Canadian heritage.
It was intended that my father would cook, my mother would bake and they might etch out a living even though they had two small children, me at two and Marlene at one, and a cheap apartment around (literally) the corner.
It only lasted six months. My mother’s best (vague) description was that my dad drank a lot of the profits away, the help was stealing food from under their noses and the hours were killing them both. So after six months they gave up and quit. Two years later, my father left town and we became homeless.
Now that photograph of ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ carries a whole new meaning to me.
So the play, as it is roughly outlined thus far, has a concurrent three-themed storyline in which the lives of my parents, my father’s parents and myself all intersect, cross over one another, and indirectly affect one other.
There are sub-themes of abandonment, spiritual devotion, loss of affection, careless love, and fierce determination to ‘rise above the raisin.’ It is raw, revealing and exposes many family sins and secrets that their keepers all thought they’d taken with them to their graves. Ancestry.com and my own research (Sharon’s really!) proved them wrong.
I have to see if I can fashion a story that tells a story, my story, in a manner that evokes compassion, understanding, and acceptance for what was.