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For Seniors : LINDA FELDMAN : Proof That It's Never Too Late to Dream

March 06, 1994

This is the story of Lillian Hammer Ross, writer of tales for children. She came to her craft a bit later than most, and more through pain than ambition.

She lives in a corner house on a typical Culver City street--flat and tree-lined, with neat front lawns. Ross' house looks typical, too, until you step inside. That's when you begin to suspect there's something magical inside.

It's not the pictures of children and grandchildren on the baby grand piano, or the needlepoint pillows she sewed. Nor is it her collections of teaspoons and colorful glass and marble eggs.

The real magic is Ross, 68. She exudes what mythologist and teacher Joseph Campbell said was the true experience of life: the rapture of being alive. To feel this way, she had to liberate herself. And the retired teacher accomplished that by reclaiming and re-creating her life--by undergoing Jungian analysis and writing books for children about Jewish folk stories.

Ross had an unlikely upbringing for a writer of Jewish tales. Her parents worked from dawn until midnight, leaving her in the care of strangers who exposed her to Catholicism.

"My first religion was Catholicism. I knew I was Jewish by birth, but because my parents weren't there, a 9 o'clock occurrence--Mass--brought me to Catholicism. I was so young when I sat in a pew that my feet looked at me. The nuns were comforting, but what troubled me were the tears coming from the eyes of a statue of Jesus. I always felt so sad that he was crying," she said.

It wasn't until she was in her 50s that she started to understand the effect of that abandonment. She was married with three children, teaching kindergarten. After a family crisis (she declines to describe it for publication), she began undergoing Jungian analysis, which relies heavily on dream interpretation.

"My analyst suggested I write my dreams and then the dialogue and interaction between the characters in my dreams," she said. "He then suggested that I take children's story-writing classes at UCLA Extension. Painful childhoods never go away. Between the classes, a writing group and my teacher, Terry Dunnahoo, I flourished."

It was her teacher's approval that gave her the motivation to rewrite her first manuscript so many times that there was nothing left to do but send it to publishers. The rejection letters were positive until the last sentence, which said they were sorry but . . . until Harper Row accepted.

The title of the book was, "The Little Old Man and His Dreams," a story about the strength of her mother, who lived with Ross at the end of her life and provided much of the creative material that her daughter has used in her writing.

Her mother died the year "The Little Old Man and His Dreams" was published, but not before giving Ross the idea for her second book.

One day she saw her mother kiss a letter from her grandson and say, "I'm just like Buba (grandmother) Leah." When Ross asked her to explain what she meant, her mother said that in Europe, her grandmother used to kiss letters from her children in America. The grandmother called the letters her "paper children."

The conversation inspired Ross to write "Buba Leah and Her Paper Children." The book was published in 1991, the same year her husband died of cancer. Three years later, her next book is ready for publication. Called "Sarah, Also Known As Hannah," it is based on her mother's journey from Europe to America at age 12.

In writing all three works, Ross says, the key was to dig deep.

"You must look within to write a book. If you can't get past the surface you never become an author--you remain a writer. It's the same with life. I'm living, I'm not surviving. I don't want to be just a survivor," she said.

Today, Ross calls herself a born-again Jew. Because she had no religious background in Judaism she studies Hebrew so that she can read the prayers when she attends synagogue. She's also listening to French language tapes because she plans to live in France and write a book about a family that fled the Nazis, staying 100 miles ahead of them. She's researching folk tales of different lands and wants to publish them according to country of origin.

Once a year, she visits schools in Long Beach to speak to students on Author Day. The name of her lecture is "Birth of a Book."

"The teacher can read my books so I come in and show children how a book gets born. I bring my transcript, my contract, black and white sketches and I draw a circle on the board with spokes coming out and say this is how you write a story: I pick a subject and each child says one descriptive word and we fill each spoke. From that we write three sentences and that's the beginning," she said.

Lillian Hammer Ross believes in bashert-- the Yiddish word for "meant to be." She feels her life has meaning and what is unknown to her comes through her dreams, which she still interprets with her analyst.

Ross wouldn't be caught without a dream.

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