December 1, 2020

The "Story-Telling" Part of the Writing Life

Over the past few weeks I've had the amazing experience of having a custom song written and recorded by one of my favorite bands, Fox and Bones

Image Source: Fox and Bones Website

It all started when I won a contest. I typically don't enter contests, so it's a major big deal that I entered and then WON such a cool opportunity. Fox and Bones recently started a new enterprise called Our Custom Song, and the contest was one of their launch "events." The band posted the contest info to their Instagram account, indicating that interested followers could enter by commenting on the post. Just before the contest closed, the band posted a reminder on their Instagram story, and I decided to add my name. The next day I received a message that I HAD WON! 

Soon after, Sarah and Scott (aka Fox and Bones) got in touch with me to share how the process would work: First, I was to select a topic or person of my choice that I wanted the song to be about. Next, I would complete a brief questionnaire about the subject, then we would set up a Zoom meeting so I could be interviewed about the subject. 

My first thought was to ask Fox and Bones to arrange and record their version of Travel in This Life with Me, the song I wrote the lyrics for and gifted to my husband, Sam, for our 30th wedding anniversary. I also thought it would be grand for them set one of my yet-to-be-published picture book manuscripts to music. I have collaborated with different musicians to create songs for three of my published picture books (Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?and the forthcoming Lucy's Blooms), and I thought it might be fun to change things up and create a song first. I sent an email with these ideas, and Sarah got right back to me indicating that they would love to put their own spin on Travel in This Life with Me

Then, I went on a long walk. Sam and I were in Sunriver, in Central Oregon, at the time, and the fresh air was all I needed for another idea to rush in. It was so obvious when it hit me, I was almost embarrassed that I didn't immediately think of it before: what I most wanted was a song about my late father-in-law, Henry Prochovnic, aka "Pop." His life story is tragic and beautiful and full of everything good stories are made of, and I could not imagine a better subject for a custom song. I wrote an updated email to Sarah and Scott, including a link to a blog post I had written about Henry a few years back, shortly after his memorial service. The post included a link to his obituary and the remarks I made at his service, to give them a sense of this wonderful man and his life story.  

Scott and Sarah agreed, and they sent me their "getting started" questionnaire and coordinated a time to meet by Zoom. We covered a lot of ground during the recorded Zoom meeting, which lasted just over an hour. Sarah took the lead in interviewing me, using the questions in the questionnaire to guide our conversation...and I told family stories. I found myself wondering what elements of Pop's story would make it into the song. Scott, who was the primary note-taker during our conversation, offered some hint of which of the morsels I shared were particularly "song-worthy," as he periodically and enthusiastically scribbled in his notebook. Throughout the conversation, I found myself both participating as an interviewee, and also taking mental notes as a fellow story-teller.

After our meeting ended, I sent Sarah and Scott an album of photos of Henry and Teena, and of our family, including these gems: 

as well as a copy of the handout from Pop's memorial service that included some of his well-known quotes and his full obituary. I also sent the responses I had jotted down for the questionnaire, in preparation for our meeting. The questions, and some excerpts of my responses included:

Q. Why did you want to do a custom song for this person?

A. Because Henry (aka "Pop" and "Grandpa") was such an important role model...the example he set for what pure, unequivocal love looks like and what it means to be a family will continue to live on in our family...and the families we grow.

Q. What occasion is the custom song for?

A. I plan to gift this to my husband, our kids, and my mother-in-law for the holidays--most likely around the time of Thanksgiving.

Q. What emotional impact do you hope to have on the recipient? 

A. I want this song to simultaneously break their hearts and fill them up.

Q. In one sentence, what do you want the song to be about? 

A. The cosmic nature of the circle of life. 

More than one sentence: The life we know and share exists because Henry/Pop/Grandpa somehow endured and survived the atrocities he witnessed and was subjected to AND because he fell in love with Tatiana/Teena... Reflecting on the Holocaust he often said: "On one shoulder I could hear a little voice saying, 'I want to die.' On the other shoulder I could hear a little voice saying, 'I want to live.'" He often followed that by saying he didn't know how or why he survived. I always replied, "so that I could have this beautiful life with your son and your grandchildren."

Q. What genre or musical artist would you like this song to resemble?

A. Acoustic folk. 

Q. What do you want the feel or the essence of the song to be? (ex. ballad, funny, romantic, upbeat and fun, thoughtful...)

A. Thoughtful. 

Q. Tell us about your subject: 

What were your favorite things about them? 

A. That he told me to call him “Pop” the first time we met. That he lived and survived so that I could be so lucky to live the life that I do with his son and our two children.  

Q. What words would you use to describe them?

A. Hard-working. Strong. Stubborn. Enduring adoration for his wife, Teena and the family they created and nurtured. 

Q. What do they love to do? What is their life purpose?

A. Henry was most proud of providing for his family. He worked at a cannery all of his career. 

Q. Do you have any anecdotes our stories about this person that help explain who they are and what your relationship is like? 

A. He asked his citizenship teacher if there were any pretty girls in town, and he was told where Tatiana/Teena lived. He knocked on the door and asked to meet her...he got a glimpse of her, and he was determined. He loved to say, "I had a nice car, a full head of hair, some money in my pocket..." Henry and Teena dated briefly and were married soon after. They had their first child before they spoke the same language and before they even knew they were different religions. 


The next steps would be that Fox and Bones would compose a song and share draft recordings with me for a couple of rounds of feedback before they professionally recorded the song. I anticipated that weeks might pass before I heard back from them. Two days later, I had a draft song in my inbox. It was beautiful and moving and took my breath away. I did not know how I would keep it a secret from Sam and the kids until Thanksgiving. True confession: I shared the song with my sister, because I simply could not keep it to myself. She, too, was in disbelief that a song written by strangers could so perfectly capture Henry's story. 

After receiving the first recording and lyrics, I had to get busy and do some fact checking with Sam, and my mother-in-law, Teena. There were a few stories that I had shared during the interview that I needed to double check were completely accurate. That fact-checking led to my needing to make a few clarifications with Sarah and Scott. Once again, they quickly turned around a second draft recording. That version was even better than the first. There were just a few small, outstanding details that needed to be fine-tuned. I noted those requests, made a few suggestions, and in a matter of another few short days, I had a beautiful studio recorded version in hand. Then I had to wait to share it. 

Turns out I did not have the self-discipline to wait. I shared the song with Sam while we were still in Sunriver. He was speechless and deeply moved. Together, we shared the song with our two kids during our Thanksgiving dinner. We printed out the lyrics and rolled them into a scroll and wrapped a ribbon around them. It made for curious questions leading up to the song share--and soon the meal was seasoned with tears. A few days later, Sam and I shared the song with Teena and were met with more tears. 

As the tender memories of this man who is so dear to me are nudged so specifically, the feelings of grief and loss resurface. I suspect we will each cry a little bit each time we listen. But even though it indeed hurts to listen, it also feels good to hear this man's life conveyed through music, played back with truth and authenticity. The tears are in large part because Fox and Bones wrote and recorded a song that so beautifully and eloquently captures the life and times of Henry Prochovnic. 

I think one of the greatest compliments that could be given to Fox and Bones is that family members and friends who have now heard this song have asked if I wrote the lyrics. I did not. But I did learn quite a bit about story-telling by participating in this custom song writing experience. 

Henry and Teena have rich and compelling life stories, and Sam and I have been diligent about asking them to share their stories with us and with the wider community. As a result, Henry's story has been recorded through formal projects with organizations such as the Shoah Foundation, and through informal projects of our own, such as long ago setting up a video camera over many shared meals, and thus recording their answers to the questions we asked about their lives. 

On several occasions I've dabbled at writing down some of these stories, but I've never gotten past the dabbling stage. I've had difficulty sorting out the details and finding the through-lines. What I realized through this experience with Fox and Bones is that there are many, many stories about Henry and Teena (and others in my family tree) floating around in my head. The raw matter is there. I just need to commit to working with it. I was also reminded of the importance of narrowing in on significant details. I shared a variety of family stories with Sarah and Scott during their hour-long interview, and they created something magical and true by asking good questions, listening carefully to the answers, and by having good instincts for choosing the details to amplify and the details to resist getting distracted by. Going forward, I will seek to replicate that skillful crafting of story in my own work--be that stories that chronicle my family's rich history, or stories that I invent from my rich imagination.   

And now I imagine, dear readers, that you would like to hear this song. It is entitled, The Love Your Life Begins

You can find it on YouTube and SoundCloud (and maybe someday, on one of Fox and Bones' albums.) I've shared the beautiful lyrics below. And if you would like the opportunity for Fox and Bones to create your very own custom song, I encourage you to get in touch with them directly. You can find out more here


The Love Your Life Begins

Lyrics and music by Sarah Vitort and Scott Gilmore. Recorded and mixed by Matt Greco at The Rye Room in Portland, Oregon. (c) 2020 Our Custom Song, a subsidiary of Fox and Bones LLC Lyrics Poland 1925, the beginning of a life Memories are few and far between pulled from this time Had 2 brothers and a sister, life was simple looking back Only 14 years of youth, before adulthood took all that Just 14 years, your youth went by so fast 1939 a prisoner, separated from your blood Transported in cattle cars and ground into the mud potato peels as sustenance, crushed stones with your bare hands One step out of line, and there your life would end A hallowed voice asks why continue on? With so much pain and suffering, just take that step and all this will be gone A second voice chimes in Your life’s more than your own, it belongs to the love your life begins The love your life begins 1952 in Portland, a 26year ride, you catch a glimpse of pure beauty, you’re convinced that she’d one day be your bride one look, is all it takes, it’s all you’d ever need, you married Teena shortly after for 65 years of harmony still the prettiest you’ve ever seen Working hard and saving up, providing for your family To insure they never wanted, you spent overtime at the cannery In 62, a joyful call came by surprise Your sister, who’d been presumed dead, was very much alive The first voice asks, how could you live on? I had you marching straight towards death, you were defeated I thought that I had won The voice responds within Your life’s more than your own it belongs to the love your life begins Fatherhood comes naturally to strong and steady types The nightmares of your youth became the dreams you made for your children’s lives They flourished, free from persecution in the states Henry, your family called you Pop and burned for you each one of your steaks It was the only way to make them safe You passed more peacefully than any could have guessed Upon the day that heaven opens up its gates to each and every guest You worked relentlessly to keep your family fed you lived your life to honor all the souls who would come next The first voice asked how do I become So strong a man, with so much love, is there still time for me to turn to one? The next voice draws you in Your life’s more than your own it belongs to the love your life begins


Thank you, Sarah and Scott, aka Fox and Bones, for knowing just the right questions to ask, and just the right details to capture from my answers, and for creating something so tender and true. It is quite possible I will never be able to fully convey my gratitude for this special tribute to Henry Prochovnic that our family will treasure for the rest of our lives. 


  1. Thank you for sharing your story behind the lyrical tribute to your father-in-law. What a gift you gave to your loved ones!

  2. Thank you for giving the song a listen and for taking the time to read the backstory. I'm so grateful to Fox and Bones for this beautiful gift!

  3. Hi Dawn, that's an amazing story and song!
    I was wondering if there was any backstory to the line they wrote about steaks ?
    ...and burned for you each one of your steaks"

    Thanks again for sharing this to the world. We need something uplifting in 2020.

    Marc G. (Kerrys husband)

  4. Hi Dawn, that's an amazing story and song!
    I was wondering if there was any backstory to the line they wrote about steaks ?
    ...and burned for you each one of your steaks"

    Thanks again for sharing this to the world. We need something uplifting in 2020.

    Marc G. (Kerrys husband)

    1. Hello Marc. Thanks so much for reaching out. There is in fact a backstory to that line ... It was not uncommon that the food that Henry and other prisoners were fed during the Holocaust was spoiled. The way to make the spoiled food safe(r) was to burn it to a crisp. Long after the war (and in fact, for the duration of his life) Henry was never able to eat a steak rare/medium or even well ... he needed it burned to a crisp in order to feel that it was safe enough to eat. We always burned his steaks for him ... it brings to tears to my eyes right now to write this to you, because of course this is clear evidence of how much harm he experienced during the Holocaust. Thank you so much for listening to his song.