Tag Archives: Erie Canal

for Michael

Bridge Up

Bridge Up (Photo credit: ECV-OnTheRoad)

On Monday, I sent in my second packet of MFA work, including a short story about a boy, set in the 1930’s, who was drowned in the canal by a dog.  I can’t make this stuff up—this premise, it was born from a newspaper headline—an instance of tragedy in Brockport’s history.

On Monday, I went to my parents’ house after dropping the packet behind the royal blue postal door, so blue I trusted the envelope would make it to my advisor.  I sipped at a cup of Mulligatawny with my mother before I was to head off to pick up my two boys from my in-laws, who take care of them during most days that I work.

Before long, the house was crumbling beneath news of my cousin’s death.  He had drowned in the canal that afternoon after wandering away from school.

Since, I have only been able to think about him.  I haven’t seen him in years.  He and his brother were both developmentally disabled, and though I know one from the other only by the shades of their hair and their ages, I knew nothing of them as people.  And now.

Everything I know about him is from a news report.  I can tell you this: he was at a school for special needs a town over that also bordered the canal.  It had been his first day of school.  His first bus-ride at 20 years old, to a school on the canal, a quaint school in a quaint village on a sweet blue-bell sunny day.  And now.

That night, the news reporter who visited my parents’ house to get the story, apologized to me for my loss because the people he should have apologized to were so stricken that they could hardly breathe let alone hear a thing between their sobs.

I told the reporter it was okay.  That I wasn’t close to him.  But it wasn’t okay for any of us.  Not even the people who watched the news.  And it wasn’t okay for his parents.

My father talked to the news reporters on the deck he built when I was five and had just moved to our home.  He told them he wouldn’t want to appear on camera and that my mother, for sure, would not want to be on camera.  The reporters scribbled on pads the way my students do when responding to a prompt—chasing words with their pencils as though they were running away.  I know the feeling.

The first reports had my cousin walking out of the building towards the canal, the officers investigating whether the accident was intentional.

My cousin was twenty, but with the capabilities of a five-year-old.  My son is three.  My cousin was twenty, and he was five.

The five o’clock news broadcasted that he had walked to the canal from his school, just yards away.  Also, that a passer-by pulled him out of the canal and tried to resuscitate him.  Also, that the aids found him about the same time, that they didn’t know how to administer CPR.  The man who helped him, a face now more vivid to me having seen him on television than my own cousin’s, said he couldn’t sleep with the thought of the boy’s face.  I couldn’t sleep either, but I can’t say I could picture his face.  I wish I could.

Truthfully, the premise of a boy drowning in the canal had kept me awake since I’d started writing that one story, which was a month ago.

Now, it is a different day.  The premise has changed.  The stakes are real.

My father and mother have told me three times when the funeral plans are.  They have told me my grandmother is as okay as she can be after hearing the news.  My grandfather has only suggested they make sure my grandmother is okay.

Last night, my father texted the family that he loves us all, that parents should not outlive their children, that he has felt this in the past few days.  We all thought we knew it before.

My doctor asked if I felt my story had “called it.”  If I could write about anything lighter.  I said, “yes.” And “no.”

I read the news reports about my cousin from all the local outlets, watched an interview of the man who tried to save my cousin.  My cousin, who had dark hair and was twenty and because he was my cousin, I was sad to admit that I didn’t know him more, that I couldn’t know him more, anymore.

In one report, it said he liked Transformers and wrestling.  So now I know that, too.

For the past few months, I have been studying newspapers from Brockport’s history, for information about a would-be serial killer, a dog drowning a boy in the canal, a plane crash, and tornado taking the life of one person and damaging just one house.  I have been reading true accounts and the paper has been barrier enough for me to keep it separate from my own life.

I was told when I was a student, and now I continue to tell my students, that a reader should be able to picture the words they read as they read it.  I read these reports again and again, but still, I cannot find my cousin’s face.

It’s true that “these things happen.”  It’s true that we turn to some sort of fact to make sense of things that are too close to believe, even.  Even now.  Even as they happen before our very eyes.

Donate if you can, but prayers are just as important.



How Children, and Fiction, Grow.

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a...

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a reporter/photographer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’m writing right now is my worst fear: a story, born from fact, of a woman who loses her son in the Erie Canal, drowned by a really large puppy.  This actually happened, though the particulars are fictionalized.

Stalled, and re-started, and re-stalled on this story, I figured what I need is
actually more emotion because I tend to avoid emotional avalanche in my fiction.

I’ve read conflicting accounts of the story from national newspapers, local newspapers, anecdotal histories, and then corroborated with Ancestry.com, obituaries, and yes, sometimes I feel like a stalker.  I mull through histories that aren’t mine, like shopping at an estate sale, buying photographs with unnamed faces and features that aren’t mine, so I last night, before I fell asleep, I imagined it to be mine.

I listened to the late-summer bugs and scared myself with thoughts about how vulnerable my children were.  My oldest son’s fingers were twitching with sleep, his mouth slightly open, and he was sweating in the humid air, refusing before bedtime to remove his Disney comforter for some sort of security.

Lately, before bed, he’s been asking about monsters and ghosts and something called the “silly silly gumbo” from a cartoon, and THAT scares the business out of him.  He drapes his arms around me, having asked for a hug, and his grip is tight because he’s not letting go.  I refuse to pull away and leave him with his arms open and empty, so I just sit there, waiting for him to say something like, “You know, mommy?  Superheroes protect us.”  And then I say, “Yes, but policemen do, too.  And so do the walls of our house, and Molly, and Mommy and Daddy do, too.”  And then he asks where the naughty guys live, and I tell him they live far far away.  And he says, “In the woods?”  And I think hard, because everything matters, and there are woods around our house, so I say, “No, not around here.  I’ve never seen a naughty guy.”  And I lie like that until he feels safe enough to loosen his grip, to give me his kiss.

God.  And he’s just three.

So my husband was snoring beside me last night, and I thought, what if I were Mabel, the mother from my story?  It is something I hesitated to think, but my mind had already gone there.  What would I miss most?  Mabel is consumed with the Lindbergh baby, and so my mind wandered to that, how the family was unaware their child had been kidnapped from his bedroom window.  When I hear on the news that that’s happened, I turn skeptical, imagine the parents are neglectful, drunk, or involved somehow.

My mind reeled around the conversation I had with Johnny before bed, and then Sammy, my other boy, who’s just learning to sit still while I read him bedtime stories about fireflies, that his thick fingers turn the cardboard pages for me.   How, when he curls up to go to sleep, he still pushes his butt high up in the air with his knees underneath.  For security.

Every night, before my husband and I go to sleep, he peeks in on the boys and latches their doors closed.

I got out of bed before I could stop myself, and tip-toed down the hall to see for myself that everything I’d imagined about my boys asleep was true, that they were there.  And they were.

I left their bedroom doors open, not worried about noise, wanting to hear everything that happened in their rooms, every breath even.