Tag Archives: Sarah Cedeno

Matters of Space

English: State University of New York at Brock...

English: State University of New York at Brockport’s Hartwell Hall, east side (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In class last Wednesday, the heavy doors of 219 Hartwell Hall opened and closed without reason.   The windows were shut.   No students were passing.

Each time the door opened and closed forcefully, I looked to a different student to corroborate.  I knew what people would think, and I wasn’t crazy.  Hartwell has its own haunted history.  I’m not the first person to abandon skepticism.

This week I will move to a new house–an 1860s Victorian on a village street in the college town I grew up in.  As I write my novella amidst the packed boxes in my house,  I consider the matter of space.  It took me so long to get going on this piece.  It was so much larger in scope than anything I’ve written before.  The short stories I’ve written nearly all my life seem like mudrooms in size compared to the grand, living room-sized novella I write now.

The house we will move to is twice the size of the home I sit in as I type this.

On Friday, in class, I discussed with my students the Hartwell Takeover of 1970–a Vietnam protest that occurred in the very same building we sat in that minute.

The Hartwell Takeover: Brockport students smoking pot in the hallways, skinny-dipping in the (then) swimming pool (now, Strasser Dance Studio), a student on LSD climbing the bell tower, and a cultural center just around the corner from the building set afire in protest.

I asked what had changed in all this time?  I urged them to consider how everything around us had changed.  How can we not explore the space we live in?  Even its past?

It’s probably the reason I love old houses.  And thrift stores.  And museums.  It’s probably the reason I’ve never left my hometown.  I take the word “roots” literally.

I have always tried to imagine myself in a time-warp.  Who was standing in this same spot–in the quaint farmhouse where I now type this–40 years ago?  I happen to know that the house we’re about to move from was a college house in the 1970s.  Perhaps the students who had protested in the Hartwell Takeover were strumming guitars or drinking Gennys in this same space?

My parents’ house was built in the 1880s.  As soon as we got our hands on a copy of the deed, in the 1990s, my father and I scanned its history, and I placed each family in context, imagined them in the kitchen and on the front porch.  I longed to hug them, to hear their arguments, to rustle through their closets.

It’s part of what we do when we write, and probably part of the reason I had such a tough time with the novella at first.  I fought with the setting of a home for unwed mothers, when I’d never been there.  How could I go to where I’d never been?   I had to relocate my mind to some place foreign–something I’d never done.  I write the stories of the place I grew up as I imagine them, but more importantly, as they could have been experienced in human terms.

When that door in Hartwell opened and closed, who was there?  Was it the force of another door down the hall sucking the air from our space?  I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t want to believe that.  I like to believe it was some part of history, some student from another time taking a peek.

The house I will move to has its own history, and most of the facts have been researched and recorded by a village trustee, but I have a lot of wondering to do, still, a lot of supposing to do in that space.

 

 

 

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On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.


Writing Illness

English: Detail of plate 4, figure 4 of Pathol...

Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease. Last fasciculi published in 1838. Depicts Multiple Sclerosis lesions before the disease had been described by Charcot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was the only one sobbing at Bellevue Literary Review‘s AWP panel.

Poet Hal Sirowitz, who writes honestly and humorously about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, had me crying.

He stood up at the podium with his wife and read in a deadpan voice, sometimes struggling to get out the end of the line.  His wife stood next to him and I didn’t know if it was to help him along with the reading, or to help him stand– or even if he needed or wanted any of these things.  But I guess in this case, needing and wanting really are two different things.  Sirowitz read poems, and it seemed planned that his wife would finish his lines or sometimes she started the lines and he would finish them.  His wife, composed, smiled at his humor.

I chose to sit near the front so I could quickly thank the poetry editor after for publishing my poem in their prior issue, but I ended up staring at the presenters, wiping snot from my upper lip, imagining that they looked at me strangely.  Mortified, I left immediately.

I’ve written two poems about Multiple Sclerosis.  I’ve written essays that I don’t really care for about the disease–essays that feel too self-deprecating or too self-pitying or too removed.  So, I try to work the disease in other ways.  When a peripheral character in a story needs a disease, I give them MS, and then I make them really tired all the time, or I make them walk with a cane, or I make them die.

What else should I do with these characters?  How should I write a protagonist, a mother, who has MS?  What else should be in her life besides her disease and her family?

Bellevue held another panel at AWP: “In Sickness and In Health: Literature at the Intersection of Medicine, Science, and the Arts,” where I teared up, but didn’t sob.

I took notes.

Sure, the title of the panel sounds clinical.  But that was the rub–how something so intensely personal like disease, something that makes itself so much a part of the body that we sometimes don’t even recognize we have it, can steal away the most human aspects of ourselves.  So much time in the panel was discussing how “medical-ese” takes the primal, human, messy parts of disease and sterilizes those parts into vocabulary terms that the patient can’t understand without a medical dictionary.

So I went to the human side when researching the history of MS for this novella.  I am determined to explore it in a way that lets me control its every appearance, though not my character’s.  I suppose that I should be an entirely different being from my character.

I read mostly archival news articles from the 40s through the 70s.  I wanted to know what the public knew about the disease then, to understand how little was understood.

From the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1947:  “Patients suffering from the ‘brutal’ and always fatal disease, multiple sclerosis, are getting an answer to their plea, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this disease?'”

I thought about this.  When I was diagnosed, my friend told me it was a “trendy” disease.  As much as I didn’t understand the diagnosis, I didn’t understand what my friend meant.  Benign?  Fashionable?  Cool?  Preferable?

I re-read the line: “brutal and always fatal.”  My great-uncle Tony had MS, and in his time, I wonder, was he devastated in ways I couldn’t know?  The disease isn’t thought of as “fatal” anymore.  Hardly even “brutal”–at least less-so–for people diagnosed today.  Though there are days I might describe it as “brutal” (certainly episodes of vertigo), I’d feel too guilty to use that term.  There are days I don’t feel diseased at all.

From reading his poetry, it’s clear Hal Sirowitz is living his disease–I imagine he feels the steady decline with every one of his senses.  I’m sure he can tell when disease is taking his life from him because he might find something he used to do that he can no longer do.  His poetry tracks disease, treats it as fact, but still prods at the unknowing, bravely looks it in the face.  Even if the face with that disease is his.

The most common word associated with MS in the old news articles is “mysterious.”  And I get that.  Doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused it, how to fix it, how people could be either unable to walk or walking just fine, or how–the scary part, still–to predict its course.  It is mysterious.

Dare I call it like I see it, how it presents itself in my life?  A nuisance?  A ghost?  A threat?

Even though some articles refer to it as “a crippler?”  Because sometimes, it is.

I’ll write into the mystery of it.   And it’s still a mystery to me how to do that…even as I finish this blog post that I wrote to make sense of writing and illness.  Of story and disease.

–a poignant essay by Rafael Campo, “Illness as Muse,” from Bellevue.


What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


Gifts From My Father

Clutch Cargo

Clutch Cargo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I placed a bid on a toy from my childhood: a Fisher Price Discovery Globe that lights up and has a viewfinder to “zoom-in” on a location. (Please don’t out-bid me.) Imagine a tangible Google Earth. Life really was cooler in the eighties.

This was the toy I loved most as a child. I spent hours peering into places I’d never see in real life–the countries and cities with their animals and culture and scene. And when I win the auction, I can’t wait to revisit that world. Can’t wait to share it with my boys. When Ebay asked me to enter a maximum bid, I turned melodramatic: How do you enter a high bid on your childhood? So I “x’d” the window.

I could always tell the Christmas gifts my father chose for me–besides this globe: a wood-branding kit, a full chemistry set with pipettes and chemicals, an amateur microscope complete with slides of fly wings and ant feces (or something as gross), a build-your-own-kaleidoscope kit, and a photosynthetic developing kit that I made maple leaf prints with while he blared Simply Red on the living room stereo.

My father used to bring me with him to houses en route to becoming homes, structures without drywall, with see-through staircases that I refused to climb, that I watched him climb with ease. In the process of home-building, it was his turn to add insulation. I loved the saw dust smell and the look of a structure vast and transparent as the woods around it.

Last night, on Ancestry.com, I found a census that showed my grandfather as living in LA when he was six, and my father said, “Huh. I didn’t know.” I frowned. Our realities are what we deem important, what stands out to us as remarkable or noteworthy. My grandfather had never told my father this in all his life. How can I tell my boys everything? How can I let them hold it in their hands?

What happens when life goes undiscovered? We can live a full day without a single moment of it embedded in our memory. There are whole weeks in our lives that we don’t ever speak another word of.

One day, when I was little, I fed bologna, my dad’s favorite lunch meat, to Cricket, a life-sized, blond-haired, blue-eyed doll that talked, because she’d said she was hungry. Another day, uncooked pasta. Her mouth moved when she “talked,” so why couldn’t she chew? Neither worked. I left her side for Teddy Ruxpin, who still refused to eat. (These dolls are now labeled as “vintage” on Ebay.) They could only be so real. Perhaps these failures led me to my microscope or globe? Perhaps these moments lead me to Ebay for my long-lost globe?

I give my parents a lot of grief for not hanging on to my toys. My husband has everything from his childhood! His old toy box sits in my son’s bedroom. They play with his super hero action figures–multiple versions of Spider Man and Batman. They can wear his old denim jacket.

Probably, I coaxed my parents to throw out my old dolls and science laboratories, to let me be a grown-up with lip gloss and purses and cassette tapes.

Last night, my parents showed up with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle truck for my sons. We watched Disney, and then I put on Looney Tunes, a throwback both my father and I remembered. He quizzed me on the character names.

Then he asked, “Have you ever seen Clutch Cargo?” This was a question he’d asked me before, and I still hadn’t looked it up on my own. I still had no vision when he said “human lips on a cartoon face.” Before I knew it, he had his Iphone in his hand, and had pulled up an episode on YouTube. He was eager to show us all–especially my boys.

After we took a peek, he sat there, mesmerized, in his YouTube childhood, watching the episode.


Moms Are Like Candy

bubble_gum

bubble_gum (Photo credit: JMacPherson)

One morning, while my mother did her makeup,  I wrote the words ‘Mom’ and ‘Sarah’ under the doorbell on the white molding of my parents’ front porch with a raw umber Crayola as though we were the only two who lived there.   As though the people who visited would be looking only for us, as though they would need to know our names before they rang the doorbell, as though everyone would know my mother as nothing other than ‘mom.’

It stayed there for years.  When my parents repainted the porch, I felt a sense of loss.  I still touch the space where I’d written our names, wishing I could erase the paint and take a photo for my own personal historic preservation.

When I got older, my mother and I would fight over her clothes.  I wore her sweaters, though my bony shoulders left marks like a hanger would in the cloth.  They never seemed right on her again after I wore them, she would say.  Before school, I would sneak in her closet and pull her tops on over my head while she was doing her makeup in the bathroom, and then sit at the table eating Pop Tarts and reading the obituaries of the Democrat & Chronicle when she came in the kitchen.  She’d pretend not to notice that I was wearing her floral knit cardigan from Barbara Moss.

My mother has always worn Maybelline Great Lash mascara in Blackest Black– the flamingo pink tube and the lime green cap feels both young and classic at the same time.  She has olive skin, dark eyes, and wears thick black Revlon eyeliner with the red coating and burns it with a lighter before using.  She used to have Coty powder–the gold, round, cardboard container sitting on her nightstand, next to her ashtray, where she would stow her chewed Extra bubblegum for morning.

Lately, she’s begun an extensive alarm clock collection.  Just in case.  When my boys turn on the alarm clock radio and have a dance party in her bedroom, she will say gently just before they push the ‘on’ button, “Don’t touch that.  It always messes up the alarm,” but then she will forget, entranced in their dancing, smiling with the gum pressed between her back molars.

Though at the age of four, I had all of my top front teeth pulled after days of Tang-drinking and Tart ‘n’ Tiny addiction, my sons are two and four-year-old gum-chewers.  Their brand: Pink Extra Sugarless Bubble Gum.

My mother tries endlessly to teach them how to blow bubbles.  I scold her for giving them gum.  She has a special stash hidden in one of her kitchen appliances for Johnny, so now it’s sacred and I can’t tell her no.  My favorite childhood gum was Fruit Striped with the zebra on the package.  I did my sixth grade science fair project on which brand of bubble gum kept its flavor the longest.  I blow large bubbles that, when they pop, cover my nose so I can’t breathe.  When I do this, my son thinks I’m amazing in the same way I think my mother is amazing as I watch her, kneading her gum between her thumb and her teeth, stretching it long like taffy and then pressing it close again.

When Johnny learns how to spell, I’m going to give him a raw umber Crayola and send him out to her porch, where for now, my two little boys ring the doorbell incessantly before swinging the front screen door wide open, calling, “Gramma!”


For Boston, One Month After We Met

Boylston Street

Boylston Street (Photo credit: COB Landmarks/Archaeology)

One month and two blocks ago, I was at the site of the “twin explosions,” as were many writers, AWP attendees.    Anne and I joked, looking down on Boylston Street from the hotel window as bits of snow fell from Storm Saturn that we teased in all our western-New York toughness, that this? This was what they were afraid of?  After a couple of minutes, we skeptically bundled up for our walk to the conference center.  The wind blew us to the center–I grabbed hold of a lamp-post to keep from stumbling into traffic.  Anne turned, letting the wind pummel her back, the air holding her up.  We laughed and squealed like little girls and that’s what we felt like when we got to the conference.  We recognized that our lake winds were not ocean winds.

Today, I walk into my parents’ house with three Wegmans’ subs tucked under my arm.  My four-year-old meets me at their screen door.

“Mom, there are bombs all over Boston,” he says.  “Every human is dead.”

Good lord, I think.  Are they letting him watch Sponge Bob again?

My mom tells me what’s already broadcasted all over Facebook, all over the news, behind the WordPress window I type in now.

The horrors we have to hide from our children.  How do we know when it’s okay for them to look?

We wait to find out what will happen next.  My son hears bits before my parents can change the channel to the Jodi Arias trial.  A leg flown through the air.  Two people dead.  He knows I was in Boston not long ago.

He says, “Mom, I was hiding in your bags when you went to Boston.  You never knew it.”

My father bites into his ham sub, he remembers air-raids, underground bunkers, but never a marathon of tragedies, an ongoing battle we don’t know we’re fighting until it’s lost.  Two years ago today, his father died.  He’s thankful his father misses this, and then looks at my sons, who never miss a thing.

Anne and I learned quickly that Boston was no joke.  We gave in, we took the train to the conference center when the snow fell like wet lint around us, and admitted we needed the scarves and mittens we’d packed.

The night before we left, we stood beneath the city waiting on something called the T, and I looked at the couple on a bench a few feet away, cuddling.  It could have been their first date, or their last date.  The next day they could be enemies, or just friends, or married.  I was wondering what a life it must be, to live waiting for a train, waiting for a cab, negotiating all those buildings to get to your friends.  We had walked the same six blocks on Boston’s Boylston Street during the past week, wishing Nordstrom Rack had been open while we were there, stopping for sale boots or glasses of wine, missing our children at home, who were waiting for us to come back, one long train ride away.

We were romanced for a week by a city in heat, a city with secrets unknowable to its own stone steps, a city with a secret, waiting for a moment that will never be right.