The history behind “In the Gingerbread House”

Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909

A young girl visits the backstage of an opera and is given a jewel that tells her the future.

When I was very small — about the age of Isabeau in this story — I fell in love with a film based on Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, made with stop-motion animation. It would play on television, usually around the winter holidays, and I adored the music and the puppets. Compared to today’s animation, it’s incredibly crude (even compared to some of its more carefully animated predecessors), but I would watch it every chance I got.

I also wanted very badly to experience magic. When I got just a little older, and became a dedicated reader, one of my favorite types of books were those where ordinary children would come across a magical amulet, or being, and would have adventures. I thought that, if I believed hard enough, some day that magic would happen to me.

My childhood belief in the possibility of magic, even in Brooklyn, and my memories of the opera, were the seeds from which “In the Gingerbread House” grew.

It was published in The Electric Velocipede, a marvelous independent press publication, in 2009.

“Willy,” Isabeau whispers. “The magic jewel is telling me stories. What’s a stroke?”

In the Gingerbread House

Isabeau is a completely fictional character, although like my partner Jim’s mother, she was smuggled out of Europe as a teenager by an underground movement. If you check her family tree, you’ll see that she’s the daughter of Sophia (whom we meet in the opening story).

Isabeau’s brother Wilhelm (later William) is, at this point in his life, completely fictional. When he grows up, he will become the William who marries Gretl (from “Waiting for Jakie”); some of the adult William’s history resembles that of my partner Jim’s father. William is the father of Ben (whom we meet in “Hearts and Minds” and “An Awfully Big Adventure”).

Isabeau’s father is a completely fictional character, as is everyone they meet backstage.

Traditionally, in Humperdinck’s opera, the roles of Hansel and Gretel are played by women, while the witch is played by a man.

Early in the campaign to exterminate “inferior” people, the Nazis would march populations to huge ditches, have them disrobe, and shoot them so the bodies would fall into the ditch. It was later decided this was inefficient, and other methods were employed.

In case you’re curious, here is the 1954 stop-motion version of Hansel and Gretel that I saw as a child. One thing I was delighted to discover, as I searched for this, was that the marvelous Anna Russell, whose satirical versions of The Ring Cycle and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are classics, voiced the Witch.

The history behind “Time and the Parakeet”

Girl and parakeet at piano

A disappointed woman is offered the chance to change her past.

“Time and the Parakeet” was written especially for The History of Soul 2065, to fill in some blanks and, quite honestly, to lengthen the manuscript. It came from my own musings (and regrets) on various points in my life where a different decision might have made a radical change in how my life was lived.

is fictional, but at least one of the events in her life is not. When I was in high school and had to choose a language, I took Spanish, because I thought that would be much more practical in a neighborhood and city where so many spoke Spanish as their first language. I got good grades over the next couple of years, but knew that my conversational skills were lacking, so when an optional class in conversational Spanish was offered, I signed up for it. As in the story, when I walked in on the first day, I found I was the only non-Hispanic student in the class. And when the teacher asked us to give a reason why we were taking the class (in Spanish) and called on me first, I knew I’d be laughed at for my bad accent and grammar, and just sat mutely, unable to utter a word. “This is a participatory class,” the teacher announced. “If you don’t intend to participate, you shouldn’t be in this class.” So when the class was over, I went immediately to the programming room, and signed up for driver’s ed instead.

I’ve lost most of what little Spanish I retained after that, and it’s one of the things I regret. So I offered Eileen the chance to fix it.

The bird turned its head and ran its beak through its tail feathers, admired the effect, and then cocked its head at her. “You’ve got me. Okay, here’s the deal: I’m here as a representative of Time.”

Time and the Parakeet

Camila is fictional, although I had one particular friend in mind when I wrote her.

ParaClete the parakeet is real — sort of. When I was around 12 or so, I had a tame parakeet of whom I was very fond. When I was home, I’d leave it out of the cage; it would perch on my bedroom curtains or on my shoulder, and would pick puzzle pieces out of a box and put them in my hand. Its name was Faigele (Yiddish for “little bird”). So when I needed a rather unusual stand-in for Time, I picked my parakeet.

At the time I was writing this story, there were news reports of undocumented immigrants being pulled out of their workplace by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (known as ICE). As of this writing, it is still happening.

The history behind “Under the Bay Court Tree”

A newcomer to a tiny Brooklyn community makes the acquaintance of a mysterious elderly woman.

There are several small neighborhoods-within-the-neighborhood in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn: courtyards located just off “normal” streets. The courtyards are shared by two rows of small, two-story attached homes that were built sometime during the 1920s. I’ve always wanted to write a story (or a series of stories) that took place in one of these courtyards, but found it particularly difficult. As a result, “Under the Bay Court Tree” had several false starts, but I was finally able to finish it to my satisfaction, and it was published in Space and Time magazine in the summer of 2015.

In order to fit it into the timeline and universe of The History of Soul 2065 –mostly, to make it an appropriate home for Carlos — “Under the Bay Court Tree” has been substantially tweaked. However, the story itself remains the same.

As mention earlier, Carlos is a loose mashup of a couple of friends.

Ben is loosely based on a colleague of mine from back in the 1980s named Mark. We meet him in several other stories here, at several other ages. His mother, Gretl, is a Holocaust survivor whom we also meet in a couple of stories.

The neighbors — the Hallorans, Vivian, and the others — are very loosely based on various neighbors I’ve had over the years.

Mrs. Delaney is completely fictional.

The tree once really existed, providing beauty, shade and a sense of nature within its urban environment. However, someone who briefly owned the property decided that, because birds loved to nest there, the tree was dirtying up the cement below and lowering property values, and cut it down.

The history behind “An Awfully Big Adventure”

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection

Note: This is story has been posted on the Mythic Delirium website and can be read there for free. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

A young boy finds that he need to call on his family and his own inner resources to fight a malicious demon.

I was eight years old when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. I have a clear memory of sitting on the rug in our darkened living room, my parents on the couch behind me, and watching President Kennedy address the nation. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I understood enough to know that things were really serious. I asked my father if there was going to be a war, and he said, “I don’t know.”

Like five-year-old Ben in “An Awfully Big Adventure,” this scared the crap out of me. “And with those words, the bottom dropped out of Ben’s world. A simple fact of his life had been that his father knew everything, could explain everything, and could make everything better.”

I’d always wanted to write a story based on that memory, and had made several unsuccessful starts. When I needed a story to fill out The History of Soul 2065, I was able (with Mythic Delirium publisher / editor Mike Allen’s able help) to finally bring it together.

Humans have been killing themselves for thousands of years, and lately, they’ve gotten a lot better at it. Haven’t you learned anything from your mother’s experience?

An Awfully Big Adventure

While the story’s origins lie in my memory of  watching President Kennedy’s address with my very American parents, Ben’s mother and father (whom I’ve named Gretl Held and Wilhelm/William Weissbaum) are loosely based on the parents of my partner Jim, both of whom escaped from Hitler’s Germany.

Jim’s father, like Ben’s, was in the OSS (the organization that eventually became the CIA) during the war. I’ve been told that he spent time as an underground operative in Europe. Like many war vets of his generation, he didn’t talk about it much.

Jim’s mother, along with her brother, managed to avoid the concentration camps when they were smuggled out of Europe by a network of Catholic religious workers, eventually meeting their parents in Morocco. In my story, Ben’s mother was not so fortunate; her experiences more reflect those of a neighbor I grew up with who bore fading blue numbers on her arm.

Ben himself (as mentioned in the entry about “Hearts and Minds“) is based somewhat on a talented young man I worked with back in the 1980s named Mark. The child Ben, however, is completely fictional.

Ben’s Grandmama Sophia is, yes, the same Sophia we meet as a child in the first story in the book, “The Clearing in the Autumn.”

Carlos is someone we will meet more fully in another story. He is a mashup of two or three friends of mine.

The Cuban Missile Crisis may still be the closest we ever came to nuclear war (at least, the closest we know about). It was just lucky that the men in charge of the two opposing nations had the maturity and intelligence to pull away from the brink. I shudder to think of how a similar situation would have been handled by some of today’s leaders.

Azazel and Shemhazhai are, in legend, two fallen angels who went to live among the people of Earth. Azazel is usually portrayed as male, but I saw no reason why an angel couldn’t be female, both male and female, or neither.

Finally, the nightmare that Ben has is the same one that I had for weeks after that frightening night in front of the TV set. I haven’t had that nightmare since I was a child, but I still remember it.

The history behind “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance”

An elderly woman in a beauty parlor wonders why her memory is so bad.

No single event inspired this story. At the time, I didn’t personally know anyone with Alzheimers or dementia, but I had done a great deal of reading on it, and talking to friends who had relatives with it. I also did a great deal of thinking about it. I’ve always had trouble remembering names, and I’ve always been frightened that this predicted memory issues in my future. That fear remains, and so I tried to imagine what it would be like. This story is the result.

The story was published in the anthology Clockwork Phoenix 2 in 2009.

I know I’m old. I can’t help it. They’ll be old one day too, and why don’t they understand that?

Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance

Lydia is completely fictional. I really wanted this story to be in the book, but at first I had a little trouble fitting it into the family trees. Then I realized that the woman whom Lydia did not completely recognize, but who was caring for her, did not have to be her daughter (as in the original story), but could be her close companion Isabeau, who takes her in after Lydia’s husband deserts her.

We’ve met Isabeau as a child in “In the Gingerbread House.”

The story takes place in an old-fashioned unchic beauty salon, which can still be found in various neighborhoods (and, I’m sure, around the country.)

The title, “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance,” is taken from Ophelia’s speech after she is driven mad: ““There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.”

The history behind “Stoop Ladies”

Image: copyright 2019 Google

A woman makes the acquaintance of a group of elderly neighbors who gather across the street, and finds there is more to them than meets the eye.

When I lived in Park Slope, the neighborhood ladies used to hang out on their stoops or in the areas in front of their brownstones in fine weather. They’d sit on the steps or bring out old folding chairs, sip coffee, soda, or beer, and comment to each other on the neighborhood news. I was younger than they were and didn’t spend much time with them, but I occasionally said hello and passed a few minutes. We were from different generations and different cultures (they were mostly the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants), but it was a pleasant relationship. One day, I imagined that beneath the ordinary exteriors they had hidden powers, and that’s where “Stoop Ladies” came from.

It was published in an anthology called Such a Pretty Face: Tales of Power and Abundance in May, 2000.

A high cackle bounces into the room from across the street. The pigeon flaps anxiously away while Julie peers outside. The ladies have gathered.

Stoop Ladies

Julie is the daughter of Lydia, whom we met in “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance.”

While the general characters of the ladies are pulled from my acquaintance with women of my neighborhood in the 1990s, no specific person is described.

I lived in what is called the South Slope — the southern end of Park Slope — for about 20 years, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. When I moved into the neighborhood, it was an unfashionable, working class neighborhood (as was Windsor Terrace, the next neighborhood over). In fact, when leaflets went up announcing political or social events in Park Slope, the leafletting would stop at Ninth Street, which defined the southern edge of the Slope at the time.

That, of course, changed, and the boundaries of what is considered the fashionable (and expensive) neighborhood of Park Slope have expanded. When my landlady asked me to move out, I knew I couldn’t afford anything in that neighborhood, and had (reluctantly) to leave the area. I haven’t done much more than drive through since then, but I still get a newsletter put out by one of my former neighbors, and while I’m sure the income level of most of the current homeowners has jumped considerably, there still seems to be a feeling of neighborhood there.

Discrimination against women because they were thought to be too old or not attractive enough to fit the preferences of company management was not uncommon at the time this takes place. (Of course, other types of discrimination were also common.) Recently, it has become less acceptable, but I’m sure it still exists.

The history behind “Escape Route”

Image: From Gold Diggers of 1933

Julie, a lonely, elderly woman, has the chance to escape into a new life.

I think that many women, especially those who don’t have children, worry about what will happen to them when they become too aged to care for themselves. Will there be anyone who cares? How will they cope? This was foremost in my mind when I wrote “Escape Route.”

This is original to The History of Soul 2065.

We first met Julie in the previous story, “Stoop Ladies.”

All of the people she meets on the bus and in the library are fictional.

I don’t know the name of the chorus dancer whom she picks out from the cast of Gold Diggers of 1933. I often wonder about the lives of the dancers, singers, and tertiary cast members of films from the past: Who were they? What were their lives like? But most have vanished into history.

She found herself remembering her mother, and the long years of caring for her. The men whom she occasionally dated but who never seemed to want to stay. The children she never bore, and the adoptions that never happened. Of a life that seemed over before it ever began.

Escape Route

Public libraries are places where children can go to find a quiet place to do homework or discover books they might otherwise have missed; for unemployed or homeless people to find assistance and a place to sit for a while; for elderly people to find services and a few hours of not being alone. Even now, with the digitalization of books, they are important resources for many and should not be neglected or abandoned.

The Gold Diggers of 1933 was made before the Hayes Code was enforced in 1934, so it’s funny, entertaining, and sexy. It features a group of chorus dancers who are doing what they can to survive during the Depression, which includes getting back at an insulting rich businessman by convincing him that he “ruined” one of the women so that he’d pay her off. (She frames the check without cashing it.)

Here’s the famous opening scene, where Ginger Rogers sings “We’re in the Money”:

I would be remiss if I also didn’t include the final number, a bitter piece of social commentary on the Great Depression called “My Forgotten Man.” It’s worth a look. While the number stars Joan Blondell, watch for an electrifying solo by singer Etta Moten. (The video stops about five seconds before the end of the production; sorry about that.)

The history behind “Sophia’s Legacy”

Chess pieces
Photo: David Lapetina [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

A teenager is asked to help her great-grandmother at a crucial moment in their family’s history.

I remember being told a story by my grandmother about my great-grandmother: my mother’s mother’s mother. Her husband, my great-grandfather, was a trader who traveled around Russia and Ukraine doing business, and who did quite well for himself. At one point, my great-grandmother was taking French lessons from a private tutor until my great-grandfather decided it wasn’t proper and stopped the lessons.

They used to play chess in the evenings, and after the lessons stopped, my great-grandmother suddenly started winning the games. After losing a few times, my great-grandfather got the message, and the French tutor was rehired.

I have no idea whether this story is completely true, somewhat true, or totally made up. It could be passed-down family history or a story my grandmother made up for fun. But I loved the tale, and I wanted to try to incorporate it — or something like it — into my own story.

The story was published in 2015 in Mythic Delirium #2.1.

The water still ripples slightly; Rachel watches as they resolve into the wavy lines of her great-grandmother’s dark blue dress, heavy and rich with embroidery and tiny pearl buttons.

Sophia’s Legacy

Many of the characters in this story have already been introduced to us elsewhere in the book. None are based on anyone in particular.

We will learn more about Rachel in the next couple of stories. She is the daughter of Eileen (whom we met in “Time and the Parakeet” and who is also part of this story) and the granddaughter of Isabeau from “Gingerbread House.” In fact, Rachel makes a brief appearance as a five-year-old in the end of “In the Gingerbread House.”

Susan is married to Eileen’s brother Mark. We will also see more of her in an upcoming story.

Sophia has grown up from her adventures as a child in “The Clearing in the Autumn.” The circumstances of the chess game were taken from my family story; however, it takes place in Germany. Sophia’s husband Meyer is completely fictional, although when I picture him, I think of the portrait we have of my great-grandfather, a distinguished-looking bearded gentleman.

While their daughter Isabeau is completely fictional, her schooling in Paris was borrowed from the personal history of my partner Jim’s mother, who as a girl went to school in Paris.

The story takes place in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The area of the lake that is first visited is off of Prospect Park SW; if you follow the lake around to the west, you will eventually get to a small, rocky area where there’s a small pond that feeds into the main lake. It’s not as isolated as the area described in the story, and in fact, there is no forested area like the one described. But then, this is a fantasy story, after all.

The history behind “The Clearing in the Spring”

Image copyright 2019 Google

Two young girls find a magical clearing and a mysterious note.

When I was arranging the book — and rearranging it, and rearranging it again — I realized that (1) I needed to make it longer than it was, and (2) I wanted to give Annie and Rachel, the two girls who were the descendants of Chana and Sophia, more of a spotlight than they got in the final story. So I wrote this story specifically for the book.

It took me a while to figure this one out and write it to my satisfaction (there was, for example, a long dream sequence that got thrown out along the way). I finally realized that the two girls needed to find the same magical glen that Chana and Sophia had met in nearly a century before.

But I still hadn’t gotten it quite right. At first, the book started with this story, and then went back in time to “The Clearing in the Autumn.” But that didn’t quite work, and eventually (it took a while), I realized that the two stories should bookend the novel, with the only outlier being the story that the book was named after, which needed to end the tale.

“What if this is really a magic place? What if that really is a note that your great-grandmother left for her best friend?”

The Clearing in the Spring

Neither Rachel nor Annie are based on real people. Instead, I tried to make them individuals with something of their ancestors in them. For examine, Annie, like Chana, is intelligent and curious, although she is not quite as adventurous. Rachel has Sophia’s theatrical flair, but is a little more down-to-earth. They are simultaneously the reflection of their families, and their own unique individuals.

By the way, I took classes in Yiddish when I was about the same age as Annie is here. It was sponsored by the The Workman’s Circle (now changed to The Workers Circle, for obvious reasons). As you can guess by the name, it’s a progressive Jewish organization with socialist roots that offers education, cultural events, and political activism. When I was a child, there was a Canarsie branch which gave classes in a small building not too far from the project I was growing up in.

As I mention in my rundown on “Sophia’s Legacy,” the area of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park leading up the forested area is fairly accurate; it’s an entrance into the park from Prospect Park NW (a friend of mine lived right across from that entrance, so I was familiar with it).

However, the forest and the magic glade is, well, magic. I haven’t found it yet. But if you happen to be in Prospect Park, and come across it, please let me know.

The history behind “The History of Soul 2065”

Decades in the lives of a single soul.

I don’t recall where I came across the Talmudic teaching that there were 600,000 souls in the universe, and that each one of us is a small piece of one of those souls. If you google 600,000 souls, you find a variety of tellings from a variety of sources. I’m sure that the version I heard was very simplistic in comparison to the complexity of the various interpretations, but the idea that a group of friends and relatives could all be part of a connected soul appealed to me, and I went on from there.

The story originally appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 4 in 2013.

Except for the two girls, Annie and Rachel, all of the other people at the annual seder are based on various friends and relatives. Some of them are a combination of two people I know (not necessarily of the same gender). I won’t get any more specific than that.

We have met some of these people previously in this novel. Rachel’s mother Eileen and her Aunt Susan both appear in “Sophia’s Legacy.” Rachel’s grandmother Isabeau, whose seders the child Rachel finds rather boring, is featured in “The Gingerbread House.” Annie’s mother Marilyn, who is the point-of-view character in “The Red Dybbuk,” is mentioned briefly.

“Which means we are all actually made up of a piece of a soul, and when all the pieces of that soul find each other, part of the universe is healed and made whole.”

The History of Soul 2065

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more conscious of how our lives change as the years pass. I decided I wanted to follow the lives of a specific set of people as the decades went by. I’ve also come to realize that eventually, if we are lucky enough to have long, healthy lives, we inevitably will start experiencing loss. This is my attempt to express that as well.

I started hosting annual second-night seders back in the 1980s. Since most of my Jewish friends are not from very religious families, and so don’t tend to celebrate the second of the two initial seders of Passover, I thought they’d be more likely to be free to come to mine. I’ve had to skip a couple of years when events made it too difficult to host the seder, but on the whole, this personal tradition is still maintained.

For the first few years, for the main meal, I fed my guests an incredibly non-pesadik (kosher for Passover) meal of chicken and rice — I was never much of a cook, and it was the only thing I could put together for 12 or more people. (I once tried to substitute baked chicken, and it was a disaster.) Once I moved in with Jim, however, that was taken care of; he is a very good cook, and handles the task admirably.

In addition, for a long time, I used a progressive Haggadah (the text that dictates the before-and-after-meal ceremonies) that I chose out of a group of five or six Haggadahs that I and a friend researched. I used that one for years until I felt it was a little out of date. At that point, I took some pages from that, and some pages from others, scanned them, put them in order, and created a sort of mashed-up Haggadah.

As a result, my seders can tend to be a little untraditional. As are those that Susan and Mark host.

Unlike the seder in this story, which tends to have a fairly stable set of attendees, the participants at my seders have changed over the years as friends have moved away, or have been unable to attend for various reasons. (The size of my living room has also limited the number of guests, unfortunately.) But I wouldn’t be surprised if all the people who have eaten at my cheap folding table, overlooked my paper plates and mismatched wine glasses, and put up with my fondness for the obscenely sweet Manischewitz Grape Concord wine, were all part of a single soul, one they in turn share with all their friends and relatives.

This is the background of the last story in The History of Soul 2065. Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read the book, click the book cover on the right side of this page.