Every writer learns to take that leap of faith and believe in her own creative expression, a way to tell a story that is true and compelling. A Portrait of Love and Honor is that sort of book…a marriage of fact and fiction; a memoir within the framework of a novel. I wanted to write a love story – two people who find in each other their dreams come true. Just as happens in real life when the chemistry is undeniable…not just physical attraction, but a meeting of kindred souls…connection and love quickly follow and create a compelling narrative of its own.
The central story revolves around Jay Scioli, a man with more than his share of tragedy, and Ava Stuart, a writer and divorcee, quite disillusioned with love, until she meets Jay. My late husband, John M. Cavalieri’s unpublished memoir, written two years before his death in 1994, is interwoven as flashbacks, told in first person. John’s pen name was Jay Scioli. “Jay’s” memoir, told in first person, is his recounting of his cadet years at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the late 1960s. His questions about decency and honor as he confronts an impersonal system – the military mindset during the Vietnam War – form the central narrative of his story.
Jay seeks Ava to edit his memoir. As they work on his story, she, who has a willing heart but has steeled herself against more disappointment in love, begins to find renewal and passion in this man; he begins to realize that she – not those gold lieutenant bars he had once so coveted – is his dream come true. What could be more romantic than that?
Jay and Ava travel from Pennsylvania to Tucson, Arizona. Their love affair, which is told in third person and from both of their points of view, is poignantly set against the backdrop of his illness. Jay reveals he is in remission from cancer, but time may be running out, and so he heads out West for sunshine and healing.
I excerpted portions of the memoir, choosing those sections I felt most dramatic. I added more detailed writing and descriptions of the Hudson River Valley, the Academy during bleak winters, and more vivid character descriptions of the cadets who served as the centerpiece to Jay’s story. Perhaps, the biggest challenge…how to answer so many unanswered questions in my husband’s memoir – questions which I never thought to ask him. Why did he keep coming back to West Point year after year even after he saw how the system often tore down the individual spirit and soul? Was he trying to please his parents? His father was a World War II veteran, his mother an Italian immigrant who desired her son commissioned in the U.S. Army to realize her own dreams. How did this play into his story? Thus, the marriage of fact and fiction as I had to imagine parts of his story as he would have told it.
Here’s an excerpt from A Portrait of Love and Honor: A Novel Based on a True Story.
Shall we dance?” Jay smiled, holding out his hand.
She nodded and set her wine glass down.
They stood up. His hand cupped hers against his chest and they began swaying to the romantic music. He leaned back and looked at her. “So where did you learn to dance?”
“Mrs. Hill’s Dance Academy. My parents made me attend ballroom dancing classes.”
“Ah…and what was that like?”
She laughed. “Well, after I mastered the box step, it was still pretty awful. Mrs. Hill, a very sophisticated matronly woman, made all the girls sit in chairs along the side of the dance floor. Then she would instruct the ‘young gentlemen’ to choose a partner. I remember sitting there in this stiff white organza dress my mother bought for me, wearing black patent leather flats, waiting for some boy to ask me to dance. It was dreadful because even then in the sixth grade you were so afraid you’d be a wallflower. How about you? Where did you learn to dance?”
“Ten years of an all-boys Catholic school which included etiquette and dance classes took care of that.”
They danced slowly to the seductive Latin rhythms of Jobim’s music.
“I’d like to hear how you became a writer.”
She smiled. “I was fourteen when I wrote my first short story. I couldn’t sew – I was terrible in home economics, couldn’t even sew a straight seam. I wasn’t athletic. There really wasn’t anything I was good at but writing. Like you wanting to be an officer in the Army, I never thought of being anything but a writer. I was a terrible romantic.”
He nodded. “Poetry, romance, it’s the stuff we live for.”
One solitary lamp lit the living room and the music beckoned one more dance. They swayed to the strains of yet another love song.
Ava jolted herself out of her reverie. “We should go,” she said, hoping she sounded brisk. “I have an early morning appointment.”
Jay pulled back. “Ok.”
She moved across the room to switch off the living room lamp. She turned and looked at him. “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
He smiled. “Better grab a coat. It’s getting cold outside.”
Susan G. Weidener is a former journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has interviewed a host of interesting people from all walks of life, including Guy Lombardo, Bob Hope, Leonard Nimoy, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Mary Pipher. She left journalism in 2007 and after attending a women’s writing retreat, wrote and published her memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, about being widowed at a young age. Two years later, she wrote and published its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, a woman’s search for passion and renewal in middle age. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, completes the trilogy, inspired by and dedicated to her late husband, John M. Cavalieri, on whose memoir the novel is based. Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. An editor, writing coach and teacher of writing workshops, she founded the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. She lives in Chester Springs, PA. Her website is: www.susanweidener.com.