Erik N. Pyontek is a writer and high school history teacher who lives in Trenton, New Jersey. He’s written a two-part series Cavell Avenue Memoirs based on the life of his maternal grandmother. Cavell Avenue Memoirs consists of When the World Was Young and Scattered Dreams. Erik’s passion for his family story comes through in today’s guest post.
And so, it came to pass… and I remembered the words Mrs. Wynright had spoken during the war… that in a blink of the eye, what you think will last for the rest of your life vanishes, like the day into night, and in time you have to search your mind to wonder if it had ever been at all.
These words grace the closing pages of Cavell Avenue Memoirs, a two-part series based on the life of my maternal grandmother, Anne Woods, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants who grew up and spent the first fifty-one years of her life in Trenton, New Jersey. Anyone who has ever been there knows that Trenton’s fortunes, like many American industrial towns, fell hard in the second half of the twentieth century. Cavell Avenue Memoirs is set in the first half– the city’s golden age, starting on the eve of the first world war, and ending in the years immediately following the second one. At the heart of the story is a house—30 Cavell Avenue—where much of the main character’s life unfolds.
It was my intention to take the reader on a journey back to that time and place—to a city of big departments stores, vaudeville houses, and street hucksters, of elegantly dressed women in grosgrain and chintz, and the newly arrived immigrant still donning peasant wool. It’s a city of coal dust and lavender. At every turn, there is contrast; a thousand stories bound within a singular, collective narrative.
The impetus behind the book came from my own experiences growing up, in the 1970s. I was very close to my maternal grandmother. She was a constant presence in my life, though she didn’t live with us. Her tiny Cape Cod, built in the 1950s, was my second home. From an early age, I understood that something wasn’t quite right about the house she lived in. It was packed to the hilt with furniture– there was a massive mahogany dining table wedged in one of the bedrooms, along with a Queen Anne desk and a Victrolla. The kitchen set was too big; a piano sat just a few feet away from the kitchen table. All the contents of grandma’s old house were squeezed into the new one, and they told a tale of another place, and time, that I was fascinated to know about. When I was ten, my mother agreed to drive me back to where my grandparents had lived before. The experience changed my life.
I spent much of my young life listening to my grandmother’s stories. Typical of her generation, she was a private person and didn’t share much about the past with anybody. But it seemed to me that nobody—none of us young pups anyway—cared to ask. I was different. The future history teacher in me begged explanation. Why did you move here? Where did you live before? What was it like? Tell me about your neighbors. Tell me about your family. And over time, the stories came. I whiled away countless afternoons in grandma’s parlor, listening. The stories were intoxicating. Child labor, Reds on the street corners, changing sir-names so as to acquire mortgages and white-collar jobs, neighborhood bookies who ran underground lotteries, bank failures and mass evictions, German prisoners of war being paraded down the city’s main thoroughfare on route to internment, air-raid black outs, the great cathedral where she prayed that was eventually burned to the ground by a madman who roamed the city giving sermons, hunger and deprivation transformed into bounty and mobility. And all this, right in Trenton, New Jersey? Truly, fact was better than faction.
That’s how my book came to be. After grandma died, I processed through my mourning by writing down the stories I’d spent a lifetime listening to. It was my childhood friend, Jerilyn, who pushed me to actually do something with them. My story would likely have never gotten further than the desk drawer if it wasn’t for her effort in helping me edit and publish it.
Cavell Avenue Memoirs is a dance across a time and place, of people passing in and out of each other’s lives, of the want of home and respectability, of the fundamentally human desire to establish domesticity, and especially of change. It’s a story that reveals some unpleasant truths about human insatiability, fear, and bias. It also touches on aspects of American history often avoided because they’re uncomfortable to confront. Mostly, though, it’s the story of a vanished time that, as a kid, played on my imagination. I wanted so much to have known, and walked through the world my grandmother vividly conjured in her stories. Writing the book, I felt I did. Reading it, I hope, will give my audience the chance to do the same.
Thank you, Erik. You’ve already made these memoirs sound very intriguing. Best wishes for their success and I hope you continue to write.
When the World Was Young by Erik Pyontek – Anne Lewis, the daughter of East European immigrants, tries to hold her lot of siblings together through the tumult of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, she falls in love and begins a family and home of her own that comes to symbolize the stability she yearns for. Her version of the American Dream, however, does not always coincide with those around her, and her strong will to overcome the odds often brings loss, disappointment, and a deep determination to establish a place that her family can call home.
When the World Was Young is the story of a house, the first-generation family that occupied it and Trenton, New Jersey, the city that enveloped it over a fifty year span.
Scattered Dreams by Erik Pyontek – In the aftermath of World War Two, the country embarks on a journey of transformation marked by unprecedented economic growth and heightened expectation. In this time of remarkable bounty, collective triumph, and personal tragedy, Anne Woods finds herself caught in shifting currents of change that signal the twilight of one life, and the uneasy transition into a new one.
Scattered Dreams continues the story of a house, the first-generation family that occupied it and Trenton, New Jersey, the city that enveloped it over a fifty-year span.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.