Tag Archives: nonfiction

To Brockport, From Goddard, With Love

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t traveled much in my lifetime.  I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on one hand, and most of those trips were hour-long drives to Niagara Falls, when I’d squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath over the Rainbow Bridge.

I love Vermont.  During this residency at Goddard College, my MacBook is on its last leg, and I had too much Sauvignon Blanc last night.  I’ve never been to France, and I can’t do that accent, so I practiced “Sauvignon Blanc” over and over, meaning to order it without sounding idiotic or pretentious.  Practice doesn’t make everything perfect.  I can hardly get the keys on my Mac to type words I’ve spelled since first grade.

Yesterday, I tried to get to the RocRoots page from my aging Mac to see a story I’d written for the Democrat & Chronicle about Edgar Coapman and his dog.  It took me an hour.  I managed, and the piece looked like it had when I sent it out, familiar in many ways–not just in the way that it was my work, but in the way that it was my place, as though I can peer into the depths of this village I call home, all the way from Goddard, the place I call home for this week.

I’ve been out of town for a few days, and since, life has gone on in startling ways–my brother gave birth to kidney stones, my sons have become still more articulate (and are getting along), my uncle has come to visit from Florida, bringing with him a larger sense of home than can fit between the boundaries of our village, our house has glimpsed, perhaps, its new owners, and I am here, on the outside, gathering reports like I do during research– only reporting from decades later–preparing to write some story, some thing that can hold tight to pulp of human life.


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.


When You Were Little

Billy Mays for President

Billy Mays for President (Photo credit: centermez)

Johnny, when you were smaller, with hands the size of Sammy’s, we stared at each other for hours.  Then Billy Mays came on the tv, and your head turned.

“Don’t just get it clean, get it OxiClean!”  his voice carried through our small living room, yes, and easily, but I’m guessing it traveled to the kitchen, too.  I know, for sure, it had traveled through the stretched skin of my belly before you were born, and to your ears–a booming, vibrant voice.

This is not a tribute to Billy Mays, more an explanation for the passion that calls from your throat every morning.  Your voice that yells, “Mom, you know?  Buzz Lightyear flies on his back sometimes!”  that I quickly follow with, “Shh, Johnny.  Your brother is still sleeping.”

You have been a commercial-watcher for all three and a half years of your life.  Advertisements were made for people like you and people like your grandmother, who are quick to solve a problem, anxious to run ahead, scrub a stain, build a house, plant trees, work, and work, and work.

You won’t ever change the channel during ads, Johnny.  You learn everything there is to know about anything.  “Yeah?” you’ll ask to be sure you’re not being fooled, then you’ll commit it to memory, and probably, someday, repeat it to your brother, who might or might not do the same.

Your love of commercials has allowed you to memorize jingles, to multi-task, to enjoy television in small bits, and then go off to something more meaningful, like smudging dirt in your shirt sleeves or shorts.  Someday, I hope you’ll have enough money, because you pay in more than just attention for a love of commercials.  Perhaps it is my job, Johnny, to turn the channel during commercials, or keep you from tv in general.  But I don’t.  I want you to see it as something that’s simply there.  It’s in the background.  It’s not the focus, but simply a distraction, something easily left behind.

When you were not yet a year, Billy Mays died.  Had you been much, much, older, I might have used this a teachable moment (I really don’t like that phrase, but there it is, anyway).  I might have pulled you aside before dinner or before soccer practice or before your second date with a girl I’d never like, to tell you that Billy Mays had been paid to be as passionate as you were naturally.  How so much of his own trouble left his family alone.  Hell, maybe the cocaine had nothing to do with his death, but it is all I could think of after the reports.

Not everything you do will be advertised on your baseball caps or logo t-shirts or even held in your hand.  Rather, some things, the more shameful things, will fit comfortably in your pocket, hidden with abandoned pennies and crumpled receipts and wads of lint.  I will tell you that I will always find these things when I do your wash.  Really, what you’re most ashamed of will bark like a dog only you can see or hear and will follow at the end of an invisible leash, glued to your wrist, and will catch up with you when your head hits the pillow at night.

You were not even one year when I spent hours watching reports, reading news updates, wondering how someone like Billy Mays would vanish from our tv set.  Then, oddly, for weeks and months after, there was his commercial, echoing itself.  You’d still watch him, not knowing he was a ghost in the flesh.  You used to stare at him, and I used to stare at you, staring at him, but after he died, I stared at him, too.  Why, is a lesson I wouldn’t have to teach you until much, much, later.


Nostalgia: Chiclets, pine trees, and dandelions.

Dandelion

Dandelion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes it nostalgia is that I will never really get it back, also that I never necessarily had it in the first place.  It might be the lemony-citrus sun dazing behind my yard’s pines, or a rambling, ambiguous decade and its context, or my mother’s Renault, a pair of peacock feather earrings, or, more likely, the specks of dust between all of these things that I can’t ever hold in my hands.

I hate philosophy.

A couple weeks back, my father and I explored the old barn foundation behind my house.  I collected an amber 1970s beer bottle, a scrap of brocade-like wallpaper, a piece of metal with the inscription Quaker City 5, and a clear glass bottle.  We pushed through the twigs and not yet blossomed elbows of trees, cracking and crunching through an abandoned moment.

My father fell in the scratchy patch so slowly that I wondered if he was losing his balance or attempting to sit.  I held scraps and bottles in my arms and, after standing himself back up, he carried the bottles for me.

“You okay?” I asked.  I was the child, the one who was supposed to fall.

The sun was coming through the trees like it always did, like it always had.

My father smelled of nostalgia.  Patchouli and cigarettes and responsibility.  Worn denim and Chamois shirts.  Records and taupe and Chevy Blazers and dandelions.

I was supposed to have fallen instead.  I smelled like Chiclet bubble gum, my two young children, metal swing sets, clumsiness and shampoo and borrowed money.

I didn’t fall.  Nostalgia surprised me.

Now, when I look back to the foundation, the leaves fold down around it.  The wall of heavy stones can hardly peek out from behind all the nature.  In front of the old foundation is a leftover dog house from the prior owners–distressed red over plywood, simple lines, mossing shingles.  That dog was a yellow lab, I bet, a bounding, mud-hungry, stick-eater that would love my dog, Molly.  They would sit in the hot afternoon sun near the pine trees, panting together.

When I begin my MFA in CW at Goddard College this summer, my plan is (for now) to run recklessly into nostalgia like a puddle, to roll down the childhood hill in my parent’s backyard into it, to let its grass leave green crosshatching on the skin of my legs and dandelion dander on my cheeks. What I mean is this: I live nearly every moment in hopes that it will be like some moment I’ve already lived.  I can’t get away from a setting, context, or moment I’ve lived or wish I’d lived.

I’m struck by the pulsing sun glowing behind the pine trees just west of my house, a view I imagine I share with the college students who rented rooms here in the 70s.  I was never there, but I can get there if I just write it.


Baby, for now.

At some point, Sammy’s feet will develop callouses.  He will unravel the tough tangles of life like a math problem, or a mortgage, the fraudulent bank charges I stared at, open-mouthed, yesterday, and the tiny heartbreaks of whether to propose or not propose.  Worries greater than the hollowness of his milk bottle will follow him to bed at night, rest in his mind, then wake him when he least expects it.

Sammy is turning one on Monday.  He stands and falls and stands and falls, landing with a solid thud on my hardwood floors.  Then he smiles.

He is the only child I know whose happiness can rival what Johnny’s used to be.

Some day, he will decide to be called Sam instead of Sammy.  Some day, I will call him Sammy, and he will say, “Mom, geez, call me Sam.”

This is all preparation.

Yesterday, I called the bank to report a grocery charge that mysteriously appeared on my account from Michigan, and gas charges from Arkansas.  After, Johnny, who will one day want to be called John, asked me, “Mom, where are the people who took your money?”

I keep having to tell him that I don’t know the answers.  I had to leave it at that, emphasizing that we were safe, and the thieves were far away.  But I imagined that one day, maybe just yesterday, these thieves had been children, their names ending with ‘y.’

Johnny still bursts with joy, but he contains it, recognizing the world around him, that things greater than a dollar bill can be taken from us before we even know it.   I never even had to tell him.

I can see it happening already.

Sammy is smiling and reaching up for me, his hands thick and lovely.  His mouth is wide open, his fresh gums allowing three teeth to push through.  They are whiter than paper.  His tongue is soft and pink like his toes.

He’s learning sentences in syllables, and sometimes we think we recognize what he’s telling us, but we can’t be sure.


Snow, late.

Blizzard in Rillington, North Yorkshire, Engla...

Image via Wikipedia

It was half-through January, and my promise to Johnny that he’d wade through snow or sweep angel shapes with his arms and legs against the cold-burning flakes had still not come true.  Our Christmas tree had gone up and come down.  Even before Christmas, the festive lights looked like they’d been strung up too long, that they’d already served their purpose.  There had been barely any measurable snow.

Finally, on January 13th, Johnny perched at the window, watching the tiny patches fall from the sky in a real-life snow globe.  The window opaqued with breath, and then he drew wet lines to see through to the outside.  At three, he wasn’t a weather veteran yet–he wasn’t nostalgic for the comfort of sweaters and mittens or the sting of wind strong enough to drive retirees to Florida.

Of course, neither was Sammy.  This was his first winter ever.  Belly against the couch and my arm, he watched the scene, pointing with his hand’s five fingers.  The salt trucks were at it, layering their crystals heavy on the road.  This would be the demise of my cognac-colored leather boots, I knew.  Sammy gazed at the blinking lights of the tow trucks, how they alerted themselves, shining false emergency into homes like ours.  Warning beeps I had never questioned in all my life suddenly made me wonder.  Sammy and I had much the same questions.

A large delivery Mack growled down the road so loud that Johnny jumped.

“It’s okay you little munchkin,” Johnny said to Sammy.  Sammy hadn’t been shaken, but Johnny ran his hand over Sammy’s hair to soothe himself.

Sammy’s eyes followed tires taking their time over the salt crust, then turned to the plow truck fanning dust down the opposite lane.

Then he saw them: a flock of birds, breaking from the trees in synchronized waves.  The birds had blended in before as part of the still-life, small black knots and bends on giant twigs.  Sammy drew air in deep through his nose and let out a breathy scream.  Of joy.  His arms flailed, and I imagined the tapping made the same sound as wings on air.

The birds flew, oblivious to the snow, as though they were just another line of traffic.


Santa Magic

Santa in the snow

Image via Wikipedia

We don’t have a real Christmas tree.  Our tree is a pre-lit, no fuss, Big Lots bargain tree.  I like it though, and I’ve never really known a real Christmas tree, so I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything.  Johnny and Sammy will probably never have real Christmas trees, but I’ve plugged spruce or fir or pine-scented warmers into the outlets, so they still have the smell of Christmas.  Every time they wash their hands with my green alpine-scented soap, they will suds Christmas.

There’s no snow yet.  This is so odd for Western New York.  Instead of boots, I wear flats to my last class of the semester.  I shuffle my shoes on with no problem while Johnny begs, “Mom, when is the snow coming?”  His face presses against the cold of the glass, as though he can wish himself out there, running and sledding amidst the snow flakes.  I crave the snow, too.  Here it is as much a part of life as the drained canal, the fallen leaves, the gasp the chill sends running from your mouth.  The white blanket softens the blow of winter.  It’s too beautiful to hate.

When school ends and my Christmas shopping is nearly done, Johnny and I go to Wegmans for a few last-minute Christmas-season items: wrapping paper for “Santa’s” gift (Johnny is too smart to risk wrapping his North Pole gifts with our farmhouse paper), hot chocolate with marshmallows (à la Polar Express), and candy canes to dangle from our tree limbs.  When we leave the house, Johnny pokes at a tiny ball of frost on the stone walkway as though it is a pea on his dinner plate.  The snow dusted down upon us like confectioner’s sugar the other night, and it’s disappeared since.  Johnny analyzes the snow fall.  Maybe he will be a meteorologist.  Maybe he just wants to see it sprinkling down like confetti.

At Wegmans, Johnny and I settle into our routine.  I buy a coffee for me and an apple juice for him.  He sits in the cart to help me decide what to buy, but really it’s so I can make sure he stays put.  We use the little cup-holders, and he calls his “a juice-holder.”

He talks about the train that Wegmans has displayed since Thanksgiving.

“I want to see the train.  It will go around and around,” he says, his hands dizzying themselves in circles.  When the train was first set up, Johnny walked over to it, and his friend from his old daycare was watching it too.  When it came time to leave, I was impressed that Johnny complied.  “Why is he crying, mommy?”  Johnny tugged at my hand.  “The train will be here again,” he said.  Johnny is just three, I thought, deciding that maybe he wasn’t as spoiled as I had dreaded.

I gave in to the traditional Santa threats this year since it’s the first year he understands.  When Johnny is naughty, I warn him that Santa is watching.  When he pulls down his pants and pees on the dining room wall,  I tell him that if he’s not careful, he will be on Santa’s naughty list.   If he throws the wrappers from his peppermint Hershey kiss on my living room floor and refuses to pick it up, I say the same thing.  In general, it works, but I worry I’m touching something that belongs to him, that I’m stealing the magic from his Christmas.

The chefs at Wegmans always talk to Johnny, always ask him if he wants sautéed mushrooms, or pomegranate seeds, or pork roast with carrots, but he usually will only eat a cookie from the cookie club, calling out, “Thank you, Wegmans” before he takes his first bite.  When I was little, my Sundays were marked, not with church, but doughnuts from Wegmans.  Religiously, my father and I would pile our dozen into the white boxes: apple fritters, glazed rings, raspberry or lemon-filled for dad, custard-filled for mom, apple filled, sugar-dusted for me.   One Sunday morning when I was five, my father’s pick-up truck wouldn’t start after we bought the doughnuts.  It coughed, but wouldn’t turn over.  It was January, and Western New York was Western New York that year.  Snow had piled up heavy the night before.  My mother had no car and no license then.  My siblings were still too young to drive.  He looked down at my feet, in their small white bobo sneakers with thin lace socks.  My father carried me home, our breath chugging ahead of us.   I don’t remember if we brought the doughnuts home that morning or not.

Now every childhood memory of doughnuts from Wegmans is caked in snow.

“Can we go see the train, mommy?” Johnny asks when we’re picking out his hot chocolate.

“Remember, the last few times, the train wasn’t working,” I say.  I had cursed out Wegmans under my breath when Johnny pulled me over to the train table again and again.  Every train car has the Wegmans logo with perhaps a sliced ham printed on the side, or gum drops, or maybe Santa himself.  I must admit, I would buy it if it weren’t nearly $200.

“We can get batteries.  That’s all it needs,” Johnny says.

How practical, I think.

We make it past the train without Johnny even asking again.  He is holding his package of hot chocolate with marshmallows.  Today will be the first time he tries it.  I imagine setting him up at the kitchen table with his mug of hot chocolate, and I will have my mug of coffee.

At the checkout, Johnny tells the cashier that Santa is coming.  I’ve hidden the North Pole wrapping paper, a candy-cane striped tube, under the cart, and I whisper to the cashier not to let Johnny see it.  She ducks to scan the paper on the cart’s low rack.

I used to watch my parents closely, looking for clues that Santa was real, instead of clues that he was fake.  I believed for a short time, but I rode the school bus, so it was short-lived.  One year, my parents forgot to leave a present under the tree from Santa.  That was the last of Santa for me. That’s when my mom started using the phrase, “God is watching you,” when I was acting up.  Santa no longer held consequence for me.

After we check out, I see a man with a white beard and a red shirt coming towards us. Otherwise, he’s wearing blue jeans and tennis sneakers.

“Johnny,” I whisper. “There’s Santa.” This man has to know what he’s doing this time of year, I think.

“Hi, Santa,” Johnny calls out over the beeping registers.  The customers hear him and start laughing.  For a minute, we are all looking at Santa.

“Merry Christmas, young man,” the Santa says.  He disappears behind the door to the men’s room.

While I load the groceries in my car, Johnny grills me about Santa.  “How is Santa here?” he asks.

“He came to make sure you were being a good boy,” I say.  “He probably had to pick up some groceries for Mrs.Claus.”

“Santa is magic,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, relieved.

“Look, mommy.  There’s Mrs.Claus,” he says, pointing to an older woman in the car across from us.

“No.  Shhh,” I say.

The Santa is walking by our car.  “Hey there,” the Santa says. “I got something for you.”  He keeps walking.

“Johnny, you must be a really good boy.  He’s bringing you a present on Christmas Eve,” I say.

Before I finish loading the car, the Santa comes back, and hands Johnny a stuffed elephant.  I imagine whose it was before.  A grandchild, maybe?  His own child?

“Thank you!” Johnny says.

I’m reluctant to let Johnny take it.

“You keep believing,” the Santa says.

There are exhaust fumes trailing into the cold air from my car, and I wish it were snowing for Johnny.

“Ho ho ho,” the Santa says.

I smile curiously at the Santa.  He takes out his wallet and shows Johnny a picture of himself dressed as Santa.  I see a photo, tucked next to it, of the Santa and his wife.

“An elephant,” Johnny says, looking at his new and worn stuffed elephant.

“Merry Christmas,” says the Santa.

“Thank you,” I say.

“This is what it’s all about,” the Santa says.  Johnny has made his day.

I’m sure Johnny is in his booster seat before his eyes can follow the Santa to his car, where he drives away from the parking lot, leaving a trail of smoke behind him.