Elise Juska on Finally Learning the True Story of Her Namesake


On the first day of every new semester, I ask my students to write stories about their names. It’s an exercise that reliably generates discussion-worthy material: the reasons behind their naming (some familial; some symbolic; a smattering of homages to soap opera characters, musicians, and delivery nurses) or the way their feelings about their names have evolved over time. It’s a trusted opener, one that gets the class talking, making connections. But surely I also keep returning to it because I have a name story of my own.

My nickname, Ellie, came from my great-aunt Ellie Slocum. According to my parents, I wasn’t named for her, but they liked Ellie, and liked the name in part because they liked her. She was one of a trio of older relatives who celebrated holidays at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, along with Dwight and Irene, two of my grandmother’s 11 siblings from northern Maine.

Irene I remember as bright and girlish: thick glittery rings, lavender hair, clip-on earrings the size of cotton balls, a musical laugh. As a child, I knew that her husband, Harry, had died too young, that everyone had loved him, and he was buried with their parakeet John John (so named for JFK, Jr.) who used to stand on the table during dinner, eating off their plates.

Dwight I picture as a quiet presence settled deeply into the couch. He had low-hanging jowls, sleepy eyelids, thick-knuckled hands resting on the dog nestled in his lap—a poodle named Snowball or, later, a livelier poodle named ChaChi, who sometimes leapt down to scrabble through the torn gift wrap on the floor. Dwight liked peanuts, drew cartoons, bet on horses; he was, I now know, quietly wealthy. Every Christmas, he brought a large glass jar in which he’d stored the loose change he’d collected during the previous 12 months and gave it to his sister’s grandchildren, who emptied it, creating a mountain on the carpet to scramble through and divide up in roughly equal parts.

Dwight and Irene lived in the same house; their names, along with the dog’s, appeared together on our Christmas tags every year. Ellie was—a cousin? I didn’t know, and didn’t wonder. We called her my great-aunt; I didn’t press for more than that. The more urgent detail was her hair, which was twisted like a sculpture, unwound every night and brushed one hundred times, like something out of a fairytale. Her eyeglasses hung from an ornate silver chain, and her legs were always encased in shimmering nylons, shins slid elegantly together, resting on high heels. She seemed vaguely like a celebrity. She and I got our picture taken together every year.

It was only when she died (elegantly, in her sleep) that I learned Ellie had been Dwight’s fiancé. They’d gotten engaged in 1935; they’d been engaged ever since.

When I asked my father and his siblings about Dwight and Ellie, they told slightly different versions of the story, but the basic plot remains the same: after moving from Maine to New Jersey in the early 1930s, Dwight socialized with my grandparents’ friends Grace and Frank Lane. The Lanes rented an apartment from Ellie’s parents, which sat behind the grand old house where Ellie’s family lived.

Ellie was, by all accounts, exceptionally pretty. From there, the stories part ways, mostly in regard to her degree of agency in what happened next. In Uncle Billy’s version, Dwight spotted Ellie on one of his visits to the Lanes and started coming around in hope of seeing her. My grandfather’s account (taken from his memoir, which, though written at age 92, is filled with impossibly specific dates and details) describes Ellie spying Dwight in the driveway and then making a point of being on her back porch when he stopped by.

In any case: They started dating and were engaged shortly thereafter.

(“Her scheme must have worked,” my grandfather wrote.)

Here, the details diverge again, in fact if not in spirit. In my father’s telling, Ellie’s father picked out a house he thought Dwight should buy for his daughter and settle down in. In my grandfather’s version, Ellie’s mother intercepted Dwight at the train station when he came home from work—he was an office boy and, eventually, national sales manager at a baking soda company in New York City—and pointed out potential houses as they made their way home.

Maybe both things happened; either would have been an affront to Dwight’s intractable Maine-bred independence. It’s well-documented that, on his first day at the University of Maine, he was reprimanded by some upperclassmen for talking to a girl he knew from home. When told where and when to report for hazing, Dwight packed his bags, left, and never returned.

Whichever version is truer, the end result is the same: Ellie’s parents overstepped their boundaries—or Dwight perceived they had—and he decided he wasn’t getting married after all.

When I first heard this story, after Ellie died, it came as a complete surprise. Not just that Dwight and Ellie had been engaged for their entire adult lives but that they’d been romantically involved at all. I was 15. To the extent I’d paid any attention to their dynamic, I had never linked the two of them in any way. This seems odd now, looking back. But at the time, their being a couple never occurred to me. Maybe because Dwight lived at Irene’s house. Maybe because a single, older aunt didn’t seem that strange. Maybe because Dwight seemed rough around the edges, obdurate and idiosyncratic, while Ellie was the picture of refinement. When she died, they’d been engaged for 52 years.

The story struck me as totally depressing. Young Ellie, her marriage called off, hanging around for decades in hope that Dwight might change his mind. She was a teller in the bank where my grandfather worked. She had no children of her own. Dwight came over every evening, evidently; she cooked him dinner and he went home. She had Frank Sinatra’s autograph in a frame above her fireplace. She lived in her parents’ house, the one with the garage apartment, until she died.

Of course, I was filling in the blanks, and in all the most obvious ways. Mine was an easy story—one of compromise, of settling, a cautionary tale. When I first started jotting it down, in classrooms with my students, I was in graduate school, 22 and casually single; with the exception of my name, Ellie’s story felt like it had little to do with me.

As time went on, though, I felt increasingly aware that, according to popular convention, there was another life I should be living—coupling, buying a house, having babies. I was unmarried for all of my 20s and well into my 30s. I would get married eventually, I thought; I was content on my own. In hindsight, I suspect this was part of my fascination with (and vague anxiety about) the story of Ellie. A single woman living alone in a big house seemed not an inappropriate namesake for me.

As I got older, Ellie’s story struck me as far less straightforward, subject to varying interpretations:

There’s the version in which Ellie cooks Dwight dinner every evening, then feels lonely as she washes the dishes, listening to the sound of his Chevrolet Caprice Classic rolling down the street.

There’s the one in which she enjoys her nightly conversation, his companionship, then listens to the contented hum of the night outside her window while she brushes her long hair.

I wonder now if there was a conversation in which Dwight said he didn’t want to get married and Ellie refused to call off the engagement. Or, if Dwight avoided that conversation completely. Or, if it was something far less explicit, less dramatic. According to Aunt Paula, not long after Dwight returned from World War II—he was an Army supply sergeant in Europe—Ellie’s father got sick, and Ellie took care of him. Then her mother got sick, and she did the same for her. Maybe the assumption was that they’d get married once Ellie no longer had her parents to care for—and by then they were too settled into their routines. Maybe their relationship just naturally evolved into the one it ultimately became.

According to anyone I ask, Ellie seemed happy; it’s one of the first words people use to describe her. Naturally, whether this means she was actually happy is impossible to know. But however disenchanted she may have felt about the way her life turned out, to break with conventional expectations of a woman in the 1940s, 1950s seems proof of her mettle. She didn’t seem embarrassed by her odd-looking arrangement. She and Dwight saw each other nightly, presumably enjoyed each other’s company. In his memoir, my grandfather describes how the “girls at the bank” threw Ellie anniversary-of-the-engagement parties at the regal Shadowbrook Inn to celebrate 25, 40, 50 years.

When I share this story on the first day of my classes, it elicits chuckles from my students. Sometimes a light gasp of surprise, a sympathetic “Aww.” The reaction depends on how I write it, which has changed over time. As the world looks different and my world looks different—in my late 30s, I settled into a more conventional life: husband, baby, mortgage—Ellie’s does too. Some details have remained constant, so constant I’m no longer sure they bear much resemblance to reality: always there is Dwight on the couch, the dog, the loose change. Always Ellie’s shimmery legs and sculpted hair. Each time, I conclude with the reveal of the engagement, but here the tone has altered most significantly—from the early versions, in which poor Ellie settled for a kind of shadow life to Ellie, a woman who was quietly radical, an outlier, ahead of her time.

But no matter the version, or how determinedly I retell it, I can see it has little effect on my students. Maybe it’s a flaw in the narration—too saggy and inconclusive. Maybe they sense I’m writing the story more for me than for them. Maybe the description of a great-uncle and his dead parakeet strikes them, quite rightly, as an odd thing to be learning about their professor in the first 30 minutes of class. Or else they’re too young, too far outside the old cultural norms for Ellie’s life to strike them as so defiant. Maybe the tale of a 52-year engagement feels—as it did to me, at 18—like a story from a distant past.

Recently, feeling nostalgic, I dug up the first story I ever published. I’d written it when I was in college and hadn’t read it in years. What I found, not unexpectedly, was that the prose felt freer, the story (like me, then) more dramatic and less self-aware. It was about a nameless young woman with a terrible boyfriend. It was also, to my greater surprise, about Ellie and Dwight.

In the story, the young woman has a fight with the terrible boyfriend and then goes alone to the funeral of her great-uncle, who is named Dwight. At the cemetery, she talks with her great-aunt Irene, whose husband is also buried there. Do you remember my Harry, dear? He used to take me dancing, she says. The dogs are accounted for, the loose change, the parakeet. In the story, Irene doesn’t wear black to the funeral because she doesn’t own any; it’s not a detail I recall from real life but one that feels true.

The only character whose name I changed was Ellie’s—to Ella, a gesture almost comically slight. Ella had a beehive of gray hair and Frank Sinatra’s autograph above the fireplace. She’d been Dwight’s fiancée for 52 years. In this version, Dwight had a change of heart about getting married while in the Navy, then came home and simply avoided Ellie until she figured out he’d changed his mind.

Waited a whole lifetime for my brother to come knocking for her again, Irene tells the narrator. He never did, of course, but she was just like one of the family. She was your namesake, you know.

Was this based in part on an actual conversation I had with Irene, one I no longer remember? Or were these my own projections? I suspect some of both. At the end of the story, the narrator is so moved by this encounter—with old age, deep loss, true love—that she breaks up with her boyfriend and moves in with Irene.

In the final scene, they sit by the ocean; Ella plays the flute, and Irene applauds. It’s a bizarre ending, rendered with utter earnestness. I would keep rewriting it for the next 25 years. Ellie’s narrative would change, keep changing, the real story impossible to know. Ultimately, I didn’t need to. It wasn’t mine after all.

Image credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema.

Another September: Creating Life and Art in a Terrifying World


We arrive at the maternity ward late on a Tuesday afternoon in September. That evening, I’m scheduled to be induced. The day before, I received an email from Katherine: “I can’t believe I’m writing you today. What absurd timing!”

She said we’d received an offer on my new novel. She knew, of course, that I was about to have the baby.

“Obviously please don’t feel ANY pressure to respond to this right away!”

I sent back a quick, happy reply.

I called my husband, Jake, who brought home celebratory Choco-Tacos in lieu of champagne.

A day later, my son is born.

This confluence of events—the baby and the book contract—was in part by design. My book was not yet finished, but I wanted to have the offer in hand before the baby arrived. It was a decision perhaps more emotional than practical. At 41, I was overjoyed to be having a baby; I’d always wanted to be a mom. Still, I’d heard about the crisis of identity that could accompany new motherhood and worried that once I was a mother—and maintaining my full-time job as a professor—my writing, which had always been so grounding, would fight for space.

If I had a book contract, though, it would mean I was writing a book, which would mean I was still a writer. Rather than intimidating, this felt clear and comforting. This book would get done.

We had spent nearly two years trying to get pregnant. The summer we got married, I stopped taking the pill. I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I started taking my temperature, timing my cycles. I emptied the top drawer of our bathroom cabinet and filled it with plastic-wrapped testing strips, one for ovulation and one for pregnancy, green and blue.

That fall, three months after the wedding, I went in for testing at a fertility clinic, sitting in the waiting room that would become so familiar over the next two years. I wasn’t yet too worried. In the exam room, the doctor narrated the internal sonogram. Better-than-average egg count. Evidence of recent ovulation. A large fibroid on one side—it looked monstrous on the screen.

Afterward, in his office, Dr. P told me what I knew: At 39, getting pregnant could take longer. There were more risks involved. Still, he said, given what he’d seen, he felt confident; they would monitor my next cycle and tell me when to have sex (this was the kind of impersonal personal directive I would become used to soon). Then we talked about books. Turned out he was an avid reader. I’d recently sold a novel, about a family, which was coming out the following spring. Funnily enough, one of the characters in the novel goes through fertility treatments. I’d done research for that storyline—imagine how much more detail I’d have had to work with now!

There was, in that waiting room, a careful lack of interaction. Nobody spoke above a whisper, which seemed a nod to privacy, even though everybody knew what everybody else was doing there. Couples talked in low tones. Waiting husbands thumbed cell phones. A sign hung on the wall: Never never never never give up hope. A little cheesy, I thought, but sweet. There were no kids, per office policy, for they could be upsetting, though I found the absence of them almost more upsetting, the implication that our situations were so dire we couldn’t handle having a child in the room.

I was going for regular appointments with Dr. P. Bloodwork, ultrasounds. Frequently, we talked about books. After two months, he ordered further testing. He prescribed Clomid. He recommended we start IUIs. He scheduled an HSG test, where dye would be shot through the fallopian tubes to make sure the fibroid wasn’t in the way.

On the day of the test, we met him at the hospital, in the radiology unit. As directed, I’d taken eight Motrin before coming. It was a Friday in December, the waiting room still and silent. News of the Sandy Hook shooting was playing on the TV.

Five years earlier, after the Virginia Tech shooting, I’d written a novel I’d since abandoned. I’d watched an interview with the gunman’s creative writing teacher, who tried to alert someone about the disturbing material she’d seen in his work. A writing teacher myself, I was haunted by this interview. I spent the next three years working on a novel in which a student writes a paper that suggests she’s depressed, suicidal; when no one intervenes, tragedy ensues. I sent it to Katherine, my agent, but after several close calls with editors, conceded something wasn’t working. Reluctantly, I shelved it. I wrote a novel about a family, about mothers. (I was always writing about mothers, even then.)

For the IUI—to my mind, a sophisticated turkey baster—Jake was encouraged to stay in the room. “That way, if you get pregnant,” the nurse said, “you can say that he was there.” Afterward, as I lay still for 15 minutes, we speculated about our imagined baby, possibly being conceived that very moment. We were feeling hopeful—this was a new step, a further step. Maybe it would work.

When a few weeks later, I tried one of the blue test strips—it was a Saturday, and we were going to a dinner party—we both felt heartsick. We consoled each other, reasoning it could take a few tries. But a new reality was settling into my bones. We drove to the party then sat in the parked car, me suddenly crying so hard we had to turn around and drive home.

For the next several months, our lives were at the mercy of timing. I showed up at the clinic at prescribed hours. Bloodwork, ultrasounds. Mondays, I taught my classes then raced to acupuncture we couldn’t afford. Once a month, we received disappointing news. Hard as it was, Dr. P encouraged us to project into the future, to imagine what further steps we might regret not having taken—which was startling but ultimately simple. We couldn’t afford to do IVF; deep down, we didn’t think we’d need to.

As the months passed, expectations were shifting. I struggled between feeling the need to stay hopeful—as if hope, like acupuncture, could increase our chances (because who knew: Maybe it could?)—and the need to be realistic, a constant negotiation between thinking positively and protecting myself. The tone of our appointments was changing too. Dr. P grew more somber. We rarely talked about books anymore. He told me he was retiring. That after six months of IUIs, he’d recommend stopping.

“For people accustomed to doing whatever they set out to do in life,” he said, “this can be hard to accept.”

It startled me: I hadn’t realized I was that person yet.

Throughout those months, my writing felt unmoored. I had finished revisions to the family novel but hadn’t yet started something new. My job as a professor—and my other job, trying to get pregnant—was consuming and exhausting. People encouraged me to give myself a break from writing, but I was happiest when I was working on something, when I had another life running parallel to my own.

My mind kept wandering back to that shelved novel—the teacher, the paper. I was starting to imagine a different version: A student writes a troubling paper for a college comp class, but this time the student is a gunman in a shooting. His teacher read the paper, which may have indicated he was violent, but didn’t intervene. It would be difficult to write—even more so now, when mass shootings had become so horrifically common—but I thought about the advice I often gave my own students: Take a small truth, a true fear or worry, and exploit it, push it to the nth degree.

Dr. P had discouraged us from trying IVF. He was cautious about the odds, the expense. For it was extraordinarily, prohibitively expensive: approximately 20 thousand dollars. Covered by insurance in some states, but not Pennsylvania. Despite this, we decided to try it, just once. If we didn’t, we feared we’d always wonder. We used all the money we received for our wedding, which covered half, and family loaned us the rest.

We filled out reams of paperwork and attended the injection training, where we met with a nurse in a tiny room. Tiny table, tiny chairs—everything felt kindergarten-sized. I understood the IVF basics: the drugs taken to stimulate eggs, the best of which were taken out, fertilized and put back in. Because pre-filled needles were (even more) expensive, we would prepare them ourselves. The nurse spread out her supplies. She showed us how to mix the hormones with the sodium chloride. How to inject air into the syringe. How to give a shot with a swift, unhesitating motion—like a dart, she said. As I watched, I started feeling faint. Something in me was shutting down. When she had us practice prepping a needle, I was trembling so much I fumbled it. Then I was crying, and apologizing. Because how many couples had done this? Millions? Obviously we could too. We took our instructions, drove to the pharmacy, put thousands of dollars on two credit cards and left carrying bags filled with drugs, vials of powder and saline, gauze pads and alcohol wipes and variously sized needles and a red bin that said, “CAUTION HAZARDOUS WASTE.”

For the next few weeks, our dining table became an amateur pharmacy. Jake mixed needles and stuck them in my thighs. At the clinic, they monitored the results. When initially it seemed no eggs were viable, I started crying again in front of the nurse, a different nurse. This time I just pretended it wasn’t happening. There was a sign hanging from the ceiling about the exam table, like a mobile above a baby’s crib. Sometimes It’s Just When We’re About to Give Up that the Miracle Happens! And sometimes it’s not, I thought. Then worried I’d jinxed myself by allowing such a non-optimistic thought.

The morning of the egg retrieval, we arrived early. I stashed my sweats and eyeglasses in a little locker, one of several little lockers. Dr. P was now retired. My new doctor was sarcastic and smooth. “Nice outfit,” he quipped when he saw me in the scrubs, a line I’m sure he’d used a million times. My bed was separated from the next bed by a thin divider. A gentle IV nurse prodded my hand for a vein. I tried to stay calm. Stay present. I could hear the woman in the next bed on her phone with her husband, chatting easily, as if she were getting a pedicure at the salon.

For the next four days, we anxiously awaited reports on how our two embryos were developing—like a parent-teacher conference, getting reports on how our children had behaved. On the day of the transfer, we met with the embryologist back in the tiny room, tiny table. She showed us pictures of our embryos, printed on slippery black and white paper. One looked bumpy. “Low quality,” she said, apologetically. The other was smooth, but small. Gradewise, a C.

I struggled to keep it together as I was taken into surgery. I tried to think positively—tried, by force of will, to twist my sadness into belief—as I was asked to confirm my identity and the little bundles of cells were handed into the room.

The picture of our two embryos hung on the refrigerator door. They were microscopic, but looked like the surface of the moon. For the next 15 days, I attempted to stay occupied. It was June, so I wasn’t teaching. I returned to the new novel, scheduled a call with Katherine to discuss it, started taking notes.

The blood test was at 10 in the morning. The nurse made her calls at 1:30 in the afternoon. I asked her to leave a voicemail so Jake and I could listen together. At exactly 1:30, as the phone rang out on the porch where I’d deliberately left it, I felt a blast of fear. When Jake got home, he’d stopped for flowers—consoling, or celebratory. We put the phone on the coffee table and sat together on the couch and pressed play. “Hello this is—” From her tone, I knew. It was careful and kind. “I’m sorry to tell you that your—” I remember thinking how strange it must be to be the person whose job it was to make those phone calls. “Please discontinue all medication.”

We cried, then threw away the needles. We were done.

Afterward, there was a period like grieving. We didn’t regret trying IVF, but didn’t second-guess not trying it again. In that way, at least, we were resolute. The harder part was re-envisioning the big picture. I’d always imagined being a mother. When finally I got married, I felt certain that would be next. To let go of that idea—turn toward a different kind of life, a version I hadn’t yet imagined—was painful. Dr. P had been right—“for people accustomed to doing whatever they set out to do in life, this can be hard to accept.”

There were other options, of course, but I couldn’t yet think about them. My emotions were too raw. I was sad, and depleted. And angry. I was furious. My hair was falling out, common when you stop taking hormones. Jake and I decided to table the subject for a while, give ourselves the summer to recover. We went to Maine for a few weeks, to his parents’ summer house on an island near Portland. There were babies everywhere.

Meanwhile, I threw myself into the new novel. It was difficult to write, but that difficulty felt like a good thing—something I could handle, pin to the ground. Quickly, the original idea began expanding. Other characters were appearing. The teacher’s teenage daughter, who struggled with anxiety. The teacher’s ex-husband and his new girlfriend; they were doing IVF. We began talking tentatively about adoption.

That January, on winter break, I spent five days alone at the Jersey shore. I went to work on the new novel. Off-season, Sea Isle felt deserted. I took walks along the ocean in a freezing wind. I got up at 5 in the morning and wrote until dinner, sometimes later—the kind of work I always found energizing, but it was making me feel queasy, exhausted. It’s a testament to just how effectively I’d removed myself from the possibility of getting pregnant that I didn’t wonder at this (I chalked it up to pressure) or at the fact that coffee suddenly seemed repulsive, or that at night I was so ravenous I found myself ordering enormous sandwiches from the one open deli, or that the texture of my lip balm made me gag.

When I came home and stepped inside our house, filled with the smell of pine, I felt a sweeping sickness. The Christmas tree must be rotten, I decided. Jake shrugged and dragged it to the curb.

The next morning, I woke early. I tried to remember the last time I’d had my period. Five weeks ago? Six? I had stopped paying attention. After the months of constant scrutiny, it was too upsetting to pay attention. Because it no longer mattered—though the fact that I had truly no clue gave me pause. I went into the bathroom and reopened the top drawer. I waited, staring at the blue test strip. I checked the indications on the wrapper, sure I’d taken a green one by mistake. I took a second blue one, thinking the first might have been defective. I woke Jake, confused. Even after three blue tests, I didn’t believe it, not until that afternoon, when I went back to the fertility center and saw one of my old nurses, who took blood and confirmed, amused, that I was already seven weeks.

If the story were fiction, I would dismiss the ending as unrealistic. A deus ex machina. Contrived, overly convenient. Offensive, even, in its narrative tidiness, an insult to all the women who don’t get pregnant, don’t get the happy ending promised by the signs and clichés.

Our baby was due in September. My novel about the family would be released in May. That spring, giving readings, my belly was growing. People talked about the book, then wanted to chat about the baby. At a Q&A that summer, I was asked what I was working on next and I described the novel-in-progress. The teacher, the shooting. “A hard book to write,” I acknowledged. A woman raised her hand—I would think of her often, later—and asked, “Why are you writing it then?”

Unlike having a baby, writing a book does not rely on the mercy of luck or science. It is an exercise in discipline. An act of will. I’d expected that, with a newborn, the process would be harder in the obvious ways—lack of time, lack of sleep and focus—but I hadn’t accounted for the unique difficulty of writing a book on a topic like this.

I hadn’t fully anticipated—couldn’t have, I’m sure—the intense emotional terrain that came with having a newborn. The acute feelings of tenderness, fear and protectiveness. The love so distilled it almost hurt. The susceptibility to sentimental commercials, inability to handle any story in which something happened to a child. The towering sense of responsibility, having this little being in my care.

Suddenly my own health, and the health of the world, mattered differently; this was the world into which I’d brought my son. To dip into the novel—submerge in such an alarming scenario, imagining the aftermath of a shooting—felt almost impossible to bear. What time I managed at the computer was brief, unfocused. The anxieties of my characters merged with my own in an edgy haze. Instead of the steadying effect I’d been counting on, invariably I emerged from my desk feeling more frayed.

That November, the three of us went to our local elementary school to vote in the primary, Theo nestled in a Bjorn against my chest. As we stood in line, he started to wail. The older woman in line behind me smiled and advised me to breathe deeply. She had seven children, she told me. I drew several long inhales, and Theo gradually stopped crying, little body lifting with my breath.

In June, after my semester ended—and Jake’s school year, as a counselor—the three of us headed to Maine. It was still off-season on the island, sleepy and uncrowded. An escape.

The evening we arrived, I printed out my hundred pages—roughly a third of the novel, or so I was imagining—and stacked them on the porch. In the mornings, I rose before dawn and started working. When Theo woke up, I nursed him. Then Jake took him for a walk or to the beach.

Alone in the house, it was quiet and secluded, ideal for writing. But I had trouble sinking below the surface. I read and reread pages. Tinkered with sentences, trying to get traction. Distracted, I checked my phone.

A mass shooting at a church in South Carolina. Nine people had died.

As I returned to the pages, I felt a rising despair.

Around my son, I tried to stay calm. Stay present. Delight in the simple joy he found in seagulls, shadows, the moon. In the middle of the night, his sleepy weight in my arms, the stillness of the island was so absolute I could faintly hear the ocean. The low moan of the foghorn was a comfort in the dark.

But alone, by day, I began to worry that the novel simply wasn’t working. I felt guilty for the hours I wasn’t spending with Theo. Concerned that my anxiety—about the book, about the world—might be filtering down to him.

I grew reckless with the manuscript, chopping scenes and sentences. I deleted the IVF storyline entirely—after the way things had turned out for us I somehow felt I didn’t have a right to tell it anymore.

I began to wonder if pressing for a book contract had been a mistake—I’d imagined it would be grounding and motivating, affirmation that I was still a writer. Instead it felt like pressure, proof of my failure to make progress, only emphasizing the disconnect between who I’d been and who I was.

One morning, sitting on the deserted beach with a fluttering stack of pages, it struck me that my main character no longer felt right. She had a different name, I realized—was a different person. I set about reimagining her completely, starting from page one. 

Over the next school year, the novel slowly found its shape. Completing it was ultimately something I had control over. I wrote early every morning while Theo was still asleep. I bought a giant six-dollar bulletin board to chart the different storylines. Heading into campus on the subway, I edited pages, scrolled through headlines. Mass shootings in Oregon, California. I felt sick about the direction the country was heading, the world my son was growing up in. But the world of the novel was no relief. Instead of offering an alternate reality, fiction felt like a more concentrated version. I spent hours researching the psychology of shooters. I recalled an anecdote my parents used to tell about how, as a kid typing stories in my room, I’d come flying down the stairs and stop short on the landing—“I scared myself writing,” I’d say.

The following June, we returned to Maine. I’d missed my first deadline, unsurprisingly. The new goal was August. Each day, I worked from dawn until early afternoon. After lunch, the three of us were often the only people on the beach.

Meanwhile, 49 people were killed in a mass shooting in Florida.

Donald Trump was named the Republican presidential nominee.

The poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith went viral. “The world is at least half terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.” It felt truthful and awful but also comforting and I reread it many times.

It is now another September, a little over three years since I walked into the maternity ward telling myself that if I had a book contract, my book would get written. That the contract would provide some sense of security, reassurance that my self as a writer was still intact.

It was not so simple, of course. The world feels increasingly unstable. My mother self, writer self—the two are inextricable.

The book, though, is done.

I’d like to tell myself that in writing about something so pressing and frightening, I found an outlet for my own fears, emerged feeling more empowered. It sounds, I think, like a plausible ending. Convenient, but satisfying. Reassuring. If I heard that story, I might believe that it was true.

Theo, now 3 years old, refers to me as Mommy, Mama, Mom. Except for when I’m writing, when he calls me by my first name.

“Ellie?” he says, little hand rattling the doorknob of my study.

Even at 3, he intuits that when I’m at my desk, I’m inhabiting a different role.

“Ellie?” he calls. “Ellie? Are you there?”

“Right here,” I answer, opening the door, scooping him up.

Image: Pexels/freestocks.org.

The Keep Pile


My mother announced that she was going to declutter: pare down the excess in her house. Much of this was, admittedly, boxes of mine and my sister’s that had been stored in her attic since we were children. She asked me to come over, sift through them, and take anything I wanted to keep.

I arrive around dinnertime one evening, already exhausted from a long day at school. I direct the creative writing program at a university in Philadelphia, and had spent the better part of the day sitting in meetings, wading through emails. I’d tiredly edited a few pages of my novel on the subway ride home. My husband, Jake, is working late, so I’ve brought along our two-year-old, Theo. Still, I foolishly imagine I’ll be able to put a sizable dent in the boxes, which my mom has already hauled downstairs. What I find waiting is a mountain of cardboard: 19 boxes, soft and sagging, seams splitting, nearly blocking the hall.

They are, for the most part, very large boxes packed with small things. For starters: every homework assignment I have ever done. Book reports, spelling quizzes, tests, and report cards. Programs from band concerts and awards ceremonies. To move from one pile to the next is to plumb a different age. In one, it’s 1982, fourth grade: a Trapper Keeper with a pair of kittens on it. Two-pocket folders, filled with my carefully practiced cursive, bearing pictures of the Muppets and ET. Autograph books and Christmas lists, plans for secret clubs and lemonade stands. Next I’m in junior high, 1987: congratulations on the Presidential Academic Fitness Program, signed by Ronald Reagan. Detailed instructions on wearing makeup from my far more sophisticated cousin in New York. Soft brown-paper book covers—I recall, with a visceral jolt, the blue-inked notes scribbled on them (like the “you’re cute” that Tommy, who sat in front of me in Algebra II, had once swiveled and slowly written and I had stared at, disbelieving, for the rest of the term). Then, abruptly, I’m in college: spiral-bound notebooks for Shakespeare, Milton, Modern Drama, the short stories I wrote for my first fiction workshop sophomore year.

It’s all still there. It’s painstaking. In part because of the sheer quantity, and in part because so much necessitates a sentimental pause, a moment of laughter or recognition, before deciding whether to toss or keep. For the most part, I toss. I’m trying to be practical; when, realistically, would I look at them again? If there’s a flicker of doubt, it goes in the trash pile. Scented erasers, puffy stickers, Lip Smackers, friendship pins, fuzzy footed cotton balls that lined my headboard—were I a different sort of person, I could have amassed a small fortune on eBay in ’80s memorabilia. Flattened photos in paper envelopes, with tea-colored negatives. Piles of archaic mix tapes. (One of the playlists, called Fall 1992, I transcribe and email to my college friends before pouring the cassettes in the trash.) At the bottom of a box, I find one of those star-shaped origami fortune-tellers that were popular in elementary school. I show it to Theo, stuffing my fingers in and pinching it this way and that, while he stares, curious, a relic from a distant age.

And of course, there are my stories. They overwhelm the boxes—hundreds, thousands of pages. As a kid, I was always writing, clacking furiously on the manual typewriter in my room after school. I recognize the blocky gray of the Smith-Corona, the trim black letters of the electric typewriter from my dad’s office (a jolt of pleasure as I remember the hum of it, the can of orange soda by my elbow from the vending machine). Other stories are hand-written, in notebooks or stapled sheaves. I had saved every page.

I don’t have time to stop and read them, though I could easily linger for hours—I have the fleeting thought that, had I more time, this might be worth writing about—but I’m trying to be efficient. I’m pressed for time; lately, I’m always pressed for time. Five years earlier, I took on the directing of the writing program. Two years later, I became a mom. In those years, the shape of my life changed. My own writing drifted from the center; my novel, under contract, is now two deadlines past due. I adore my writing students but my job is consuming, my inbox seemingly bottomless, my hyper-responsible nature less a blessing than a curse. Recently, a friend noticed my shoulder floating up near my ear and gently pressed it down, like a jack into a box. She suggested yoga (a perfectly sensible suggestion—but who had time for yoga? It was precisely because I had no time for yoga that I needed yoga so much).

The sun is setting. Theo is sleepy. I entertain him with some Garfield stickers. I move all my stories to the keep pile, along with all photos, cards, and letters, stuffed in bloated envelopes and addressed to college, camp, study abroad—pausing to rue the dawn of email—then drag the discards to the trash.

By the time we leave, I’m thrumming. And I only made it through four boxes. I slide a partly filled plastic tub in my trunk, avert my eyes from the heap by the curb. I strap Theo in his car seat, toying with a Rubik’s Snake. Driving home in the dark, I feel the stirring of a deep melancholy I can’t yet place.

Over the next few weeks, the excavation continues. I return to my mom’s house to make my way through another box or two. When she comes to mine, she has one in the trunk. Now, though, I sift through them more slowly. I’m more cautious about tossing things in the trash pile; if there’s any doubt, I move to keep. Sometimes I pause to read my old stories. They’re about families and friendships, girls my age waiting for their lives to begin. One imagines a woman president (written in 1981—I was eight). Often I can guess what I was reading, and therefore imitating—Judy Blume’s funny Fudge series, the relatable teenagers of Paula Danziger and Katherine Paterson. A brief experiment with fantasy (Madeleine L’Engle), with mystery (Ellen Raskin). There’s my short-lived foray into fashion journalism: photos of my Mandy doll posing on the playground—the swing, the monkey bars—in different outfits, with sprightly seasonal captions: A Shawl for Fall! (Much as I’d wanted to be a kid who liked dolls, I had little use for them except as writing prompts.) There were family newsletters (Baby Cousin Katie takes first steps!). Issues of the Elkins Park Torchbearer, where I published thinly veiled fiction about my middle school preoccupations—locker combination, gym class, popular kids, boys—written with an openness, or lack of guile, that is amazing to me now, that of a shy person who doesn’t yet realize she can be seen. My kids’ book review, which ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. A list entitled My Writing Career as of Now and My Plans for the Future, dated 1984. Ticket stubs from a playwriting competition I won in 11th grade. Rejection letters from contests—I saved these too, developing a thick skin that would serve me later on.

Combing through the remaining boxes, I see a through-line rising to the surface with increasing sharpness, as if drawn with invisible ink. It’s not that I’m remembering things I’d forgotten—if anything, the surprise is how immediately familiar many of these things are. I know, of course, that as a kid I was always writing. Yet seeing it all together, box after box and pile after pile, is striking: not just the volume but the focus, the way writing saturated every pore of my life. The notes from teachers. Yearbook messages, letters. An article from our local paper my senior year: The Write Stuff. A poster on which I’d glued scenes I’d scissored out of my stories, a collage of typed paragraphs (and possibly the most boring-looking poster of all time). Even during the high school period when I wasn’t writing stories (too preoccupied with real-life drama) I was writing stories: unsent letters to my friend in Scotland, my cousin in New York, melodramatic non-encounters with boys I can barely recall. Twenty-five years later, I can’t help cringing at the crisp, sassy voice I was affecting, though I see that the letters doubled as diaries, or writing practice, or both.

Something about the totality of it, the definiteness and the joy of it, is moving. It wasn’t just a private hobby, something I knew about myself; it was how everyone else knew me. It’s an exercise in clarity, a return to my childhood that saddens me, but centers me too.

A conviction is forming: I need to strike a new balance. Make more time for writing again. Pare down outside obligations, difficult as it will be. That fall, I will decide to return to teaching full-time. In the mornings, I’ll set the alarm for five and write for two, sometimes three hours in the house before teaching, and before Theo and Jake are awake. Eventually, the novel will get finished. Of the 19 original boxes, I’ll amass just two. But the pile of cardboard, initially a chore, was a gift—like the attic, a call to simplify, a reminder of who I was that helped affirm who I am.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.