08 June 2013

Writing a biography means tracking changes, from the ground up

Anyone who's ever done serious research will tell you that the digging part is mostly tedious. But the feeling you get when you find a shining nugget makes it all worthwhile. I've got a passel of nuggets after years of work on No Truer Hearts, many of them placed in my hand by Beverly and her friends and relatives. Here's one I stumbled upon while trying to find maps and photos of the area around Wickham Drive, the setting for the book's first chapter. It's an aerial photo taken in 1951, the year Beverly was born. It shows mostly open fields and golf courses in Amherst, northeast of downtown Buffalo. The photo gives me a wonderful window on how this area changed during the course of Beverly's life, from a bucolic space of fields, streams and woods, to an orderly grid of suburban streets and homes.

A current satellite image of the same area illustrates the dramatic changes that development have brought. The story of Wickham Drive is the story of the rise of suburbia, repeated thousands of times around the country. It is the story of the baby boomers growing up with backyard cookouts, go-cart races in the streets, block parties, and sock hops in garages. Beverly's summers on Wickham Drive tell that story through the eyes of a creative and optimistic girl.

29 May 2013

On Beverly's birthday, some new readers of her story

Beverly Eckert comments on documents and articles at her 
dining room table in Stamford, Connecticut while I take notes 
as part of our work on No Truer Hearts. [Photo: Anthony Toth]
Everyone knows how solitary an act writing can be. Three years ago, when my marriage fell apart, solitary turned to aching loneliness. I looked around and realized that I had not a lot of friends around who were writers, members of my tribe. Not a lot of friends period, in fact, since my closest chums were scattered about, far from Arlington, Virginia.

Then, in conversations, meetup.com kept coming up. "It's a great way to meet new people!" I was told. "They have groups for every interest." So I was happy to find a group called the Arlington Writers Meetup Group, and I started to attend its Wednesday evening meetings. At first, I felt anxious and out of place. I'd never been much of a "joiner," plus this group was made up mainly of people writing fiction -- young and old, greenhorns and old hands. I had dabbled in fiction and poetry, but my writing life has centered on journalism and scholarship. But they were all writers, and that was the important thing. They devoted most of their meetings to offering critiques of members' works. And whether the discussion was about an offbeat sci-fi short story or the chapter from a young adult novel, I felt at home. Writers are writers, after all. We believe in the magic of words strung together in just the right way. It felt good to be around people who lived the life and spoke the language and cared about the power of story. I looked forward to the day when I could present my own work, this biography I've been working on, and see whether my attempt at this daunting genre would strike any chords with these discerning readers.

Well, today I find out.

Just over a month ago, I asked if I could submit to the group at the end of May. I was eager to become more of a participant, after many meetings where I just offered the odd word of advice. It helped, too, to have a deadline, so that I would feel an extra push to finish the first draft of the first chapter of this book. As the time for submitting approached, it dawned on me that the day of the critique would be Beverly's birthday: May 29th.

Some people would call this a sort of sign; others, a mere coincidence. I count myself in the second group, but I understand what drives the hearts of the first. We are all hungry beings. Hungry for love, which is epitomized by Beverly's story. And hungry for meaning. When a strange, unlikely concurrence of events pops into our view, it can serve to sate this hunger. It can seem utterly meaningful, fateful, just right. In a world of chaos and confusion and pain, it is the most natural thing for this fragile human heart to seek order, logic, a comforting master plan.

Whatever you may believe, one thing is true: life is a journey, and each of us does our best to make it enjoyable, meaningful, filled with the things we love. A biography is one person's travelogue of that journey. Back in 2004, I asked Beverly if she would allow me to chronicle her journey. When she agreed, it was my first step on a daunting and rewarding undertaking. Putting the first chapter in the hands of the members of my writers group is another important step.

I think it's the perfect way to celebrate the birthday of a woman who was never afraid to take that first step. And the one after.

28 January 2013

The Newtown Family Members Can Take Note of the Successful Activism of 9/11 Family Members

"Speed, urgency and focus" are three tactics the new activists can adopt from the ones employed by Beverly Eckert and the other 9/11 family members, according to a recent article in National Journal online. "Persistence and nerve," are two more. Carie Lemack said, "The most important lesson is never give up." She had lost her mother on 9/11, worked tirelessly on the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Commission, and has continued to advocate for a safer America by working as director of the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Another article on the same site focused on the reflections of Lemack, as well as two other Family Steering Committee members: Mary Fetchet and Kristen Breitweiser. Fetchet, who co-founded, with Beverly, the advocacy and support group Voices of September 11th, went to Newtown in the wake of the shootings to assist family members in dealing with the process of coping and moving forward.

30 December 2012

9/11 to Newtown: Tragedies link family members in the difficult quest to cope with unbearable loss

In her most recent Washington Post column, Lisa Miller notes that the families of Newtown are going through the difficult process of surviving their great losses. Each family must find ways to cope in their own ways, as have the families of other tragedies: 9/11, Columbine and Virginia Tech.

For example, Adele Welty, whose firefighter son, Timmy, was killed on 9/11, was not one who believed in "moving on." For her, the memory of her son was something to keep close, every day. Jay Winuk lost his brother Glenn in the South Tower on 9/11. "It's hard to imagine that you'll ever heal," he said, "But to provide a happy life to your children or other people, you have to heal. It doesn't mean that the pain ever goes away. The questions remain. How could people go so wrong as to cause so much pain in so many innocent lives?" Monika Iken's husband Michael was killed on 9/11, and though she has remarried, she still feels "like we're still connected spiritually. He sends me signs. I'm always aware of his presence. Rainbows come out of nowhere. Butterflies."

Beverly Eckert's story of horror, loss, pain and healing is very much the same. After Sean's death, she had to answer the monumental question: How do you go on when you lose the person who was at the center of your life, of your heart, your soul? Every day after 9/11 was Beverly's answer to this question. You live a life with meaning. You never forget. You survive. You fashion yourself a new life. You make the world a better place.

21 December 2012

Family members of the Sandy Hook School shooting victims will be powerful forces in the debate on gun violence

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR and heard one of the guests make an important connection between 9/11 and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Susan Davis of USA Today was discussing the looming national discussion about the ways to reduce gun violence, and she said that one potentially crucial factor will be the family members of the victims. She noted that after 9/11 it was the family members who were a powerful force in making the country safer. Beverly Eckert and other family members organized demonstrations, vigils, lobbying campaigns, press conferences -- anything that would keep their concerns from being shunted aside or defeated. Many of those who had firsthand knowledge of the workings of Washington have said that if it weren't for the 9/11 family members, the efforts at reform would not have happened. The political opposition -- from the Bush White House, its allies in Congress, the Pentagon, FBI and CIA -- would have just been too great. Beverly and the other family members did not know at first they were up against such formidable forces. They only knew that for the sake of their loved ones they had to do something, and that they would not give up. So that small group of inexperienced, low-budget but passionate, savvy and determined citizen activists took on Washington and won.

The family members of Sandy Hook are still reeling, still healing. But soon they will be asking themselves, "Why did this happen? How can we make sure it doesn't happen again?" Then they will join hands, united in the love of those they lost, and take on the powerful forces arrayed against them. For once, the biggest political bully in Washington, the NRA, may finally meet its match.

18 December 2012

A lesson from Beverly Eckert: cherish those you love every day, "Because life can change in an instant"

Once again, hell has visited earth.

This time, it was at a grade school in Newtown, Connecticut. The pain it brought, the gaping, black-draped sadness, reminds us of times past when a day of horror left us weeping for the loss of those we loved. For so many, including me, the slaying of those 26 innocents brought back the shock and vertigo of 9/11.

Now, just as then, the first question is "Why?" Then, a gathering sense that something must be done. "We can't tolerate this anymore," President Obama told the people of Newtown. "These tragedies must end." In the same way, Beverly Eckert, other family members, politicians and others worked tirelessly to make the country safer after the hell of that clear September day in 2001.

At times such as these, there are other lessons as well. The most important being: show your love in words and deeds each and every passing day. Because you just never know. This thought was in my head on Friday, December 14, the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Just two days before I had been transcribing an interview with Beverly's sister, Karen Eckert. I had asked her to tell me about the days before and after 9/11 because this was the one subject I did not cover with Beverly. She had talked to me at length about her early years in Buffalo, her life with her husband, Sean Rooney, and her work after 9/11. But I knew that even though she had spoken about the day itself many, many times -- to friends and relatives, to journalists, and at official hearings -- it would still be the most difficult part of our collaboration. So I had left that topic as the last one, because it would not be easy, and because I thought we would have time. Turns out, we didn't.

Karen told me that Beverly's memory of the times with Sean just before 9/11 were peaceful, warm and filled with a deep, mellow love. On the evening of September 10th, Sean had his arm around Beverly as they sat at the end of the day in their den, a soft rain outside, the soothing strains of "Theme from a Summer Place" playing on the stereo. Both of them had a sense that life was good, and the reason for that was that they had each other. The next morning, as he was leaving on his commute to the World Trade Center, Sean walked up behind his beloved, softly kissed the back of her neck, and said, "You make me so very happy."

It was the last time she would be kissed by her best friend, her partner, her one love. The magic of that moment stuck with her, treasured until the end. And the lesson, too. Karen said that after Sean's death, Beverly "always used to say to us: 'If you love someone, don't leave the house without telling them something nice -- 'I love you' or 'This is great' -- because life can change in an instant.'"

30 May 2012

Vivid childhood memories of the street where she lived

Who was Beverly Eckert, and how did she become that person? These are some of the deeper questions I'll try to answer in No Truer Hearts. My task was made much easier because of all the help Beverly provided during the course of our collaboration. In addition to sending me scores of emails over the years, she gave extensive interviews, and opened up her bulging files of articles, documents and reports. She also provided visual tours of parts of her life, paging through fat photo albums and giving me copies of videotapes with media coverage of her post-9/11 work.

But my favorite source is one I received from her sister Karen after Beverly's death. It is a small book that Beverly had written around 1963 at age twelve titled "Summer on Wickham." In it, Beverly recounts tales of the previous couple of years, when she and a group of her buddies happily roamed the sidewalks, streets and fields around Wickham Drive in Amherst, New York.

This little literary gem is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is quite well written, considering the author's age. Beverly was at times very dramatic in recounting some of her adventures, like this one about a bicycle outing that went awry.
The heat of the day was oppressive, so it was hard going for bicycles. Finally [Beverly and her friends] came to a hill which had a stone wall going all the way down. "Hey Bev!" yelled Cheryl. "If you want to go down faster, keep your feet off the pedals!" "All right," agreed Bev. She pedaled furiously till she reached the part where the hill began. She started down this, her feet off the pedals. The stony wall had jagged edges of rock protruding from it on either side. Bev, as she was going down, looked over this wall. Her heart stopped beating. A car was coming down the driveway that was at the end of the stone wall!
The stories in "Summer on Wickham" provide nuggets of gold for the biographer, for they reveal aspects of young Bev's character: her leadership qualities, her zest for life, an eagerness to make friends, her amazing creativity, and a budding sense of romance. The book is a wonderful gift that she left behind, of cherished memories, frolicsome vignettes of youth, and a window onto her young but precocious personality. Every time I read it, I smile at the memory of Beverly, and remember as well similar episodes in my own youth, and the things Beverly and I had in common, Baby Boomers growing up in America's new and expanding suburbs. And on this day after her birthday, I hope these words bring others closer to her memory and to her bright and vibrant soul.