Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil

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The Voices Told Her So


Photo by Patrice Molinard

August 28th, 1965

Ana looked at her son’s white denim pants and wanted the grass and the blood to go away. No matter what the television commercials told her, no matter how many magazines advertised the wonders of laundry detergent, the grass stains created by a violent fall to the ground and the blood that came at the hands of other boys who didn’t understand her son’s pain made her freeze with anger.

The voices screamed in her head. They told her she couldn’t erase the hatred. They told her his anger was her fault. The voices shouted that his biological father was right to leave her for another woman, that he was  right to replace the clothes in her closet with the wardrobe of another woman’s.

The voices told her that being a single mother with a career and fulfilling her dreams of a store filled with her own fashion was selfish.

“Look at your son!”  The female voice said. “He hates you for not being there for him, back when you spent your days in a working in a store. He hates you for putting your dreams before him. He hates you for leaving Havana. He hates you for bringing him into a world where everyone hates him for his accent”.

The voices crowded her head. She told them to shut up, but they wouldn’t. The grass stains and the blood glared at her.

Then she heard the words, “Gasoline will take out those stains.”

It was a voice with a melodious tone, as if she heard it on the radio in between songs.  All the other voices stopped, letting this voice say it out loud, again and again. “Gasoline will take out those stains.” It grew louder and softer, as if the voice was teasing her. Then it became a jingle, sounding like the the Texaco commercials on the radio.

The black hole. The nothingness after an explosion. The silent black screen in between commercials. The gasket was blown, the fuse destroyed. After that moment, she was unaware of what she was doing.

She threw her daughters diapers into the machine. She threw back her son’s soiled wet jeans into the lid of the washing machine. The previous load filled with her husband’s shirts were turning and drying in the dryer. The hissing sound of the pilot light flame beneath the machine sounded off.

She thought of the plantains she had so longed to make, but the local store did not have plantains to buy. She longed for the soft, sweet corn flavor of a tamale in a banana leaf, and Arros Con Pollo, papaya shakes and Cuban steak sandwiches, pork marinaded in vinegar and garlic. He mouth watered for the kitchen of her childhood, the cool tiles on a hot day where she’s lay her head down. Her mother’s kosher work space, but her mother often turned a blind eye to tradition.

But now there’s  Rice a Roni and Julia Child recipes. She learned how to make ‘Chicken a la King’ from the Ladies Home Journal. She tried her hand at Cherry Rouss and Baked Alaska. Her new husband was delighted. They were made to perfection, but they weren’t as good a the caramel flan she made with dozens of eggs, condensed milk and burned sugar.

She didn’t remember going to the garage. She couldn’t recall the moment she saw the canister of gasoline her husband had bought earlier in the day to fuel the lawn mower for his afternoon of yard work. Her nose didn’t smell the acrid, dreamy smell of Sunoco’s premium regular as  she poured it on the stubborn grass marks and those pesky blood stains.

Anita had things to do. She had to wax the kitchen floor. She had to feed the baby. She had to wash the dirty grimy jeans off the knees of her growing son who was getting dirtier and smellier every day as hormones created a miniature version of the man she married when she was eighteen, whose face was ripped off of every old family photo, who name was erased from records and family mementos.  Anita had to erase the dirt because that’s what commercials said. That’s what the Readers Digest said.

She didn’t remember the moment the gas touched the white jeans. The dryer flashed the pilot flame as the gas touched the fabric. There was a quick roar and everything went white.

She wondered where the baby was.

In her cradle.

She wondered where her son was.

With the neighbors.

Her brother was with her husband, in a car following the ambulance.  Her sister in law took her own children and left the house, bound for Bay Ridge after the trucks left.

It ended there. The white jeans and the stains didn’t matter. Hospitals and skins graphs, insurance coverage and lives blown apart and put back together again all in the name of love.

And so it began. Life within the aftermath.



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Wednesday Writing Prompt: Dreams Deferred

green dangling beaded dress

‘Ana La Habana’ Fashion

My mother came from Havana Cuba after a member of Castro’s staff told her to take her son and leave the country. This was 1959.

Ana Srebrenik was a single mother and shop owner. She ran a little lingerie store in the lobby of, what was then, the Havana Hilton. Castro and his team had their offices in the building, and every day (as I remember her telling me), she’d see he and his minions walk through the hotel after their day in the mountains.

She got to know his side men casually. One of them gave her the heads up about the revolution and how her capitalist ways were no longer going to cut it in post Revolution Cuba.

My mother immigrated to the US and settled in New York and built another business. This time it was a dress shop in White Plains. This time she designed some of the clothes and hired a tailor to run them up for her store. I believe she had a partner in this venture because I used to hear about a couple with whom she had to settle  when the store closed. Their names are forgotten.

Ana placed her career on a shelf, met my father, got married and had me. Maybe it wasn’t all in that order. I’m never sure. Details got fuzzy. When she was alive, she wouldn’t go into detail. I only knew she always thought she’d get back into her own store again. But she never did.

When she passed away unexpectedly in November of 2009, I had to do what we all have to do once in our lives: clean out the family home, send things to donation, organize estate sales, sell off property.

Among her things, I came upon a portfolio of her fashion sketchings.  They were likely done after she gave up her store. She always loved clothes and good fashion although she never allowed herself to buy many things. Mom would re-purpose old clothes, re-design a skirt, or use a scarf as a belt. Like Little Edie Beale of ‘Grey Gardens’, she’d find a perfect outfit for the day.

fitted orange dress

Smart business attire for the day. ‘Ana La Habana’

While going through these drawings, I see a creative side to my mother I had never explored. To me, she was the mom in the kitchen, the mom in the car driving me to school or to the store, the mom in the dark room. Her dreams stunted by responsibility placed upon her as a woman of a certain generation.


Cocktails? ‘Ana La Habana’

Each dressed devised by her hand evoked glamour and chance situations. There was a bit of glory and opportunity with each sash and button. The lines and shading promoted a dream world she wish she could step into, or to allow a potential customer to live empowered through a frock devised by her own vision.

Yet, those ideas were left frozen on a page, hidden in a binder sitting at the bottom of a trunk. So many years ago, measured by the passage of time where she wouldn’t allow her true creative self to flourish. That it was her duty as a wife and mother at the time. That her way of handling a career and motherhood as a young single mother in Cuba caused a riff between her and her son.

Not this time, she likely thought when she had me. So she shut the dream down.

She encouraged me to be successful.

She was proud of my athleticism and independence.

I think back at the times she never brought up marriage and grandchildren. Never guilted me about it.

She once even told me I should run my own business.  But the everyday corporate life seemed like a societal obligation, having seen my father find security at IBM for entire career.

How wrong I was. The world isn’t the same.

I think of the song *”Days and Days” from the musical “Fun Home”.  It’s sung by Helen Bechdel to her daughter Alison after dealing with her husband Bruce’s closeted life for so many years. She had just asked him for a divorce.

Although the family circumstances are not the same as mine, the feeling of wasted days due to what was expected of her comes to light.

She sings of the ordinary, mundane things, “…lunches and car rides and shirts and socks. And grades and piano…and no one clocks the day you disappear,” and “bargains I made because as a wife I was meant to, and now my life is shattered and made bare.”

Days and days and days. Just like my  mother, married to a very nice, sweet, adorable man whom I worshiped, but held her to what was expected of her. He was likely resentful of her depression, not understanding what she needed.

There is no one to blame really. But lessons are learned. Parents strive for their children to have a better life than the one they leave behind.

I can hear my own mother say it in my ear.

“Don’t you come back here. I didn’t raise you to give away your days…like me.”

Writing Prompt:

What are your dreams? What have you sacrificed in order to live a certain way? What creative activity have you allowed to sit on the shelf?  And if you brought it out of the darkness to make it a part of your livelihood or your hobby, how will you continue to use that talent and never give up?


‘Days and Days’, from the musical ‘Fun Home’. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Words by Lisa Kron.



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Ana From Havana


My mother at her wedding reception, 1962.

On this day back in 1928 in Havana, Cuba – my  mother was born.  She was born to a father from Poland (with Bosnian roots) and a mother from Russia (Ottoman Empire).   My grandparents were Jews whose path to Cuba happened when the United States quota of the early 1900’s delayed the immigration of various refugees from certain countries. Those with their sails set for America, were diverted to Cuba to wait it out. When the quotas were lifted, some moved on to the United States, while others – who adored the heat and sun of their pit stop – did not. What became known as “Hotel Cuba” – coined due to the refugees temporary status in a sun drenched country – became home.

My mother loved Cuba. She was born and raised within its steamy palm trees, and the splashing waves over El Malecon. If anyone watched Conan O’Brien’s special on his trip to Havana – you’d have seen the beauty of the island. The people, the ragged charm, the sun baked streets and the nostalgic remnants of the past. A country frozen in time.  That’s the country my mother called home – even as she made her life in America – after Castro kicked out capitalists and those who didn’t follow his socialist revolution.

The only thing my mother was passionate about was Cuba and open relations with the United States. She imagined going back and meeting her neighbors who were holding on to her clothes and perfume. She wanted to visit her father’s grave. She wanted to be Ana from Havana again.  Cuba was always in my house. WADO, the Latin radio station in New York was constantly on – the background music of my life.

When President Obama opened relations with Cuba recently – it was one of the most mind blown days for me. Just thinking about what my mother would have said and done if she were still alive on that day. This was her dream. This was the news report she was dreaming to hear after she moved to the United States in 1959.

I plan on traveling to Cuba in the next few years. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before – it’s my intention to visit her neighborhood in the Miramar district, and perhaps connect with the families of those who remember her and my family.  I want to see the streets my mother walked, the atmosphere she fell in love with, the home where she lived and the grave where my grandfather was buried. Most of all, I want to get splashed by the torrid waves splashing over the sea all of El Malecon.

Happy Birthday Mom!  Cuba está abierta!

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This Changes Everything, A Little Too Late

cubaopenrelationswith USAI’m half Cuban. My mother was born in Havana, and lived in the Miramar district. It’s the middle class suburban part of the country. She was part of a community of Jewish Cubans whose ancestors settled there, thanks in part, to a US immigration quota imposed during the early 1920’s. Jews from the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia, Russia, etc – heading for US asylum were diverted to Cuba. “Hotel Cuba”.  It was their pit stop to wait it out until they could be allowed US entry. When it was lifted, some left Cuba. Others stayed. My family stayed. Ana, my mom, was born in 1928.

Although I always knew my mother as a stay at home mom in living in the suburbs of New York City, she had an entire history before I came along that in hindsight made her seem like another person. Married and divorce with a little son by the age of 21, she was a single mother and business woman in the 1950’s. Quite a pioneer. Although it’s not as glamorous as it seems. My mother’s relationship with her son dissolved over the years due. It’s not pretty.

During her store’s residency in the Havana Hilton, she became friendly with Fidel Castro’s sidemen.  They’d trek through the lobby on any given day, heading for their offices in the top floor of the hotel.  She’d often see Castro himself. It didn’t take long for one of his minions to tell her personally, “Take your son, and get out of Cuba.” This was 1959.

When my mother came to America via Miami, Florida, I presume,  (I hold a passport card of her’s from back then, her Havana address listed, her stamp of US residency marked Miami), she established a little shop in White Plains, NY. It wasn’t long before she met my father, got married, closed down her store and had me.  That’s the Ana I knew. The mother who stayed home and wrestled with her demons. The mother with the Cuban accent, lost and isolated among the American suburban mothers in the neighborhood. The mother who was determined to be there for her daughter so she wouldn’t make the mistakes she made with her son. The mother whose general obstinance and hard headed ideas made her family think she was impossible. The mother dealing with mental illness exacerbated by the sadness of leaving the country she loved – Cuba.

Cuba and its mysterious, enigmatic world hovered over my life.  It was the Berlin Wall of the Caribbean – a lost world faded with my mother’s aching. Instead of a wall, it was 90 miles of ocean.

“Do you see the Capitol in Washington DC? We have a buildings like that in my country.”

“When they open up relationships with Cuba, I’m going to show you where Iived.”

“In my country, it would get so hot, we’d sleep on the marble floors.”

The loss of Cuba caused her to bargain. She was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia when I was a baby. When she was in the throes of  illness, she would write letters to President Nixon trying to convince him that if she was made Ambassador to Cuba, she would insure there would be better relationships between the two countries. Then, she’d spend the evening, listening to slow sons and Afro-Cuban music in the dark, coming in from WADO radio New York. During those evenings, you’d leave her alone. She was back in Cuba in her mind. It was a very strange childhood, judged by some members of my family to be difficult. To me, it was a lesson in understanding those in pain, coupled with the reason why my dad never left her. “Who would take care of her? You don’t leave someone when they are ill,” he once said.

My mother passed away in 2009. She was 81 at the time. Her mental illness mellowed out over the years. Yet, she had always hoped to see this day come. Just reading the headline from the New York Times sends tears to my eyes. I’m so sorry she’s not here. After a lifetime of hearing my mother pine for Cuba, pray for relations and pretend, in her own mentally distorted way, that she could make a difference – it’s all coming true.

I’m giving it a few more years. Let the dust settle a bit. I want to go to the country my mom always talked about, find her home and look for her father’s grave.

What a day.

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Miramar, Havana and Hancock Park, Los Angeles

The Friday writing fairy is being stingy once again, and finding words for my book is like swatting a fly: I aim, but they buzz away. However, the day is still young here on the west coast of the United States. So, to fill the absence of words, I turn to YouTube and Wikipedia to gain more inspiration on the Havana, Cuba of my mother’s young life.

I want to understand the geography of this Caribbean island. Through travelog videos of Havana, I find interesting realizations about my mother’s Cuba, and the sadness of her having to leave. It picks up on my theme from yesterday, on how home is everywhere. Vast distances between locations still conjure feelings of sameness — a sense of having been there before. A small square in Leningrad feels like that small park down the road from your house in Cleveland. The pier at Carbon Beach in Malibu could make you feel like you’re back home on the Jersey Shore.

My mother lived in the The Miramar district. It is an upscale area of Havana marked with big mansions and homes, mostly occupied by the upper class before the revolution. There are government offices and embassies throughout this region, which explains why my mother was fascinated by dignitaries and ambassadors. She loved her life in Miramar from childhood until her late twenties, when a member of Castro’s guard, an acquaintance, told her personally to get the hell out.

I live in the The Hancock Park district. It is an upscale area of Los Angeles marked with big mansions and homes, and mostly occupied by wealthy entertainment lawyers, producers and film mavens. The Mayor of Los Angeles lives within a two minute walk from my home. There are some embassies and official offices scattered around this lush green region. I live among this wealth, but on a street less ostentatious. I am not rolling in the dough. I can see the Hollywood sign from my street; yet, I’m far away from the madness of Hollywood. As the years have passed, I’ve made friends with my neighbors, and enjoy the camaraderie I never had with my neighbors in New York City. My rent is a bit high for what I can afford, and I’m nervous about my cash flow, so the idea of moving to a less expensive place has been weighing on me. But to even look for another place, somewhere more affordable, makes me sick. It makes me sad, depressed — lost.

I weigh this against my mother’s history. She longed for the Cuban beaches, byways, streets and the Malecon. Whenever we discussed summer vacations, Washington DC would be her main choice. The Capitol building always reminded her of the Capitolio Nacional. Everything from the Mall to the Treasury reminded her of Havana.  Washington held the pomp and circumstance, the familiar visuals she craved. Although the closest thing to a beach was The Potomac River, it was almost like  home.

It occurred to me while wading through videos and articles about my mother’s country, that her leaving Miramar Havana was in some small modicum of a way, like me having to leave Hancock Park — times one hundred. To have the world that sustained your emotional well being,  that provided your security,  that held your common ground be ripped from under you, to be forced to leave the only home you’ve ever known,  must feel like death.

As I struggle to find the next step in my mother’s story, I tap into her pain.  America is my home, yet she never seemed to feel it was hers. The United States. How could anyone not see it as the final destination, the triumph, the land of opportunity? How arrogant of me to judge my mother’s unhappiness. Her vision of home was shattered fragments of Havana, like glass on the floor, reflecting moments long gone. She settled into a life with me and my father, stuck in a suburban landscape, so far away from home.

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That Feeling of Deja Vu on a Thursday

Thursday. It’s the Thursday of a slow and difficult week in terms of accomplishing my writing goals. Perhaps it’s the late summer doldrums. My body is still stuck in childhood, when summers were spent watching morning television, reading books from the library, discovering music, playing with friends and going to the local public pool. As an adult, I’m stuck in a routine of office work, and trying to get a Friday or Monday off during the hot months to keep my sanity.

Sticking to my writing goals. Trying to write at least 1000 usable words for the book inspired by my mother’s life in Cuba called “The Sea Around”. It will be part one of a trilogy inspired by the stories of, not only my mother, but my father’s life as well.

But first, Havana. My mother’s voice is over my shoulder. It feels like she’s saying, “You have to tell my story first! Write a book about me!” So, I spend some time each today writing about, and researching a country I’ve never been to.

In recent years, Cuba has slowly opened its doors to tourists from America. It’s quite tempting to sign up for a tour of Havana, my mother’s home city. My intent would be to absorb the culture, the heat, the energy, the despair – to follow the footsteps of my mother’s life told in darkened rooms during her depressed evenings, stories that hang like myths in my imagination. Yet, the prices for tours are expensive. For a country so poor, I have to wonder where all that money is going. Ethics win out over financial draw backs for me. I decide to stay put in my current home of Los Angeles, and live vicariously and without abandon on Google Maps. Tourist shots of calles and avenidas paint a picture of my mother’s neighborhood in Miramar. The map gives me a vision of her landscape.

While coming across various street shots of the shabby Victorian buildings, mixed with shattered shacks and contemporary apartments, some crumbling, others well maintained, it struck me how much Havana looks like Echo Park in Los Angeles. The blue skies and open horizons beyond the shallow rooftops. Tired palm trees line the streets. Some of them pop up in random places. Run down cars and jalopy pick up trucks so old and rusted, I can practically hear the music from ‘Sanford and Son’ playing as I imagine the sound of creaking shock absorbers crying for help while holding together bouncing bald tires.

It reminds me of how pockets of Los Angeles remind me of New York – my home state. Just like a residential street in Havana looks like a side street near Elysian Park, L.A., there is a corner north west of La Brea and Beverly Boulevard that makes me feel like I’m back on Central Avenue in Hartsdale, New York, near what is know as “The Four Corners”. Both locations have a brick apartment building in the same spot. Both have gas stations nearby. Hartsdale’s corner has a Dunkin Donuts to it’s right, followed by the famous Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. The corner in Los Angeles has a strip mall with a major Kosher store that caters to the large Hasidim community that surrounds the region. Slightly altered specifics, but it still embodies the same energy – the same feeling – like I’m back home where my parents lived before they died four years ago. Back in familiar territory, where only a decade ago, my adult summers were enjoyed on weekends, away from my place in the city, back in Westchester County. That’s  where I hung out by my parents’ condo pool, and befriended my now distant friend Marie. It’s where I found out about the local condo politics and listened to family stories spoken by neighbors with open hearts. It’s where I met my sweet, disturbed friend Eamonn (who inspired some of the stories in my forthcoming October book), who calls me once in a while to tell me about his progress in life.

Different places in separate states or countries – yet they conjure the same feeling. Home is everywhere.

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Habana Cuba

“Dark skies. The smell of brine. The esplanade that kept the sea from swallowing Havana, the place were we went to dream and watch the sun sink into the sea. El Malecon. The winds kicked up over the wall, splashing the ocean onto the avenida de maceo, whipping back, retreating into the water’s edge, coming forth with a larger wave, crashing on the road, misting the stores on the other side of the ocean wall. This is my home. It vibrates in every cell within my blood, skin and heart. Me. Rosa Jacobson Leon. My childhood is now behind me. My adulthood passing even faster. I’m old and have been living in another country, wondering how I could have changed the way I lived my life. Where did I lose the girl I used to be?  Cuba is in the distance behind me. How can I find my way back?”

Excerpt from ‘Sea Around Us’ by Debra Rotmil (To be published Spring 2015)