Her Town's Claim to a Kind of Fame by Suzanne Strempek Shea

Her Town’s Claim to a Kind of Fame

Posted Posted in Blog

By Suzanne Strempek Shea

I left home for college with the normal amount of angst about meeting new people.

I needn’t have wasted time fretting—I quickly found out I had an easy icebreaker.

“You’re from where?” strangers would ask.

“Palmer, Massachusetts.”

They’d nod blankly, as you do when meeting someone from a place you’ve never heard of but want to appear as if you have. Then they suddenly would stop: “Wait—why do I know that name?”

I learned to stand there and let them figure it out, which they usually did. They knew of my tiny Western Massachusetts town because since earliest memory they’d seen its name printed on the side of baby-blue cartons stashed beneath their bathroom sinks. My hometown, and its most famous product, had sneaked into their psyches.

Tampax. Palmer, Mass.

Actually, the location should have read “Three Rivers, Mass.,” the village in Palmer where the plant towered on a ledge beside the Chicopee River, 11 houses down from the one where I grew up.

I passed the place nearly every day of my young life. I cannot pinpoint when I realized the unusual and highly personal nature of the things made within those brick walls, but I have always felt a kinship with kids who grew up in the shadows of offbeat manufacturers.

I once met a guy whose town thrived because of a condom company, and a woman whose high school class partied next to a brassiere factory. As embarrassed teens, they, too, had lied when out-of-town dates asked what was made in that building over there, always giving an answer like “Shovels.” Brothers and sisters they were to me.

Tampax was just another part of my Main Street, part of the scenery, this huge structure with its odd series of angled roofs. For 55 years, it turned out feminine hygiene products, and took in several generations of employees who’d otherwise be commuting far and wide for work in our largely rural area. Their cars and trucks jammed the parking lot for all shifts. They busied Main Street, walking at lunch for a bite at Dominick’s or to errands at the drugstore or the bank.

Get a job at Tampax and you were set for life. After all, you were making something that was never going to go out of style.

Everybody I knew worked there, had once worked there, or knew it was possible to work there.

I spent three months at Tampax my first summer back from college, hunching from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at a noisy and lightning-fast packing machine, feeding into its ever-hungry maw the fashionably shaded purse containers that came free in every box and that offered a discreet way for customers to carry along a pair of products. When my machine froze, a stern Portuguese woman materialized with the right combination of impressive whacks and shoves to get those Super Pluses rolling freely once again.

On the way to lunch across the street, my line-neighbor Elmo and I stopped to admire the glass case displaying Tampax from around the world. The case held boxes labeled in languages of faraway places where the tampons had traveled and where we could only dream of visiting. Once a month, need ‘em or not, we were handed our employee bonus: a free box of 40.

The job also gave me a decent salary, a great reverence for those who do line work, and the determination to avoid it at all costs in the future. It cast a new light on my father, who, beginning in his teen years, had toiled in the filth of the Uniroyal tire factory on another rocky ledge 18 miles downriver. How could he do the same exact boring thing every single day, I found myself wondering for the first time.

“Everybody has to do something for work,” is how I remember him putting it. “I’m lucky to have a job.”

As was everybody I knew who worked at Tampax, who had once worked at Tampax, or who once had believed it would always be possible to work at Tampax.

I put that in the past tense because though tampons have not gone out of style, the small-town, old-style factory has. The first blow was a curious change in the company’s name, to “Tambrands.” Downsizing followed, ending the jobs of a couple of hundred people. Then in the summer of 1997 came word that the new owner, Procter & Gamble, would close the entire plant by year’s end. The futures of employees, their families and local businesses would be shaken, and the great building would sit empty and idle.

For the first time in 55 years, my town’s kids would have something in common with too many other kids across the country. They’d have a closed-down factory to pass.

Everybody has to do something for work. But when it comes to making tampons, and making a decent living, people wouldn’t be doing those somethings there any more.

And none of us in town will have the least bit of trouble telling anybody who asks just what goes on in that building over there on our quiet and deserted Main Street.

The answer will be simple and sad and true.


Author’s Note: A version of this essay was written for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. The factory building breathes with new life now, as the Palmer Technology Center. Tenants include those who build motorcycle seats, move libraries nationwide, create artisanal chocolates and, most importantly, make it a place where people once again go to work.

About the Writer:
Suzanne Strempek Shea
writes nonfiction, fiction and journalism, and has authored 11 books. She is writer-in-residence and faculty member at Bay Path University, where she created the MFA program and leads its annual Summer Writing Seminar in Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne is the winner of the 2000 New England Book Award, which recognizes a body of work’s importance to the region. She has a special interest in working with those writing about trauma. Her freelance work has appeared in publications including Yankee, Down East, The Bark, Golf World, The Boston Globe, The Irish Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and ESPN the Magazine.

The Presidential Classroom by Kara Lynn Puskey-Noble

The Presidential Classroom

Posted Posted in Blog

By Kara Lynn Puskey-Noble

When life gets stressful, I go to the barn and clean stalls. Forking up manure, pushing around a loaded wheelbarrow, sweeping—caring for my livestock settles my mind and clears my head.

Between the pandemic and the election, I’ve needed to spend a lot of time there lately.

In the barn, I try not to think about the uncomfortable realities of the present or the bleak pronouncements about the future spouted by social media pundits. My mind wanders into the past. The current state of the present and the future makes even high school look good.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, I was always on the lookout for anything that might improve my chances of getting into college. When my history teacher announced a schoolwide competition to attend a weeklong national honors program in Washington DC called the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, it caught my attention even though I wasn’t particularly interested in politics.

According to its mission statement, the Presidential Classroom offered the “best and brightest students unprecedented access to the federal government and the people who shape public policy.” Only four students would be selected from my high school and the competition was fierce. It was a longshot, but I applied anyway.

To my astonishment, in January 1979 I found myself standing in Washington National Airport, fresh off my first airplane flight, scanning the crowded terminal for somebody holding a sign that read Presidential Classroom.

Forty years later, most of the details of the trip are blurry. Only the biggest revelations and strongest emotions linger in my memory. Like the cute guy from Alabama who flirted with me at the opening reception in the ballroom of a glamorous Washington hotel. Meeting teenagers from all over the U.S. and its territories was exciting, but his big brown eyes and genteel drawl really impressed this New England Yankee.

At the same reception, I met Senator and astronaut John Glenn. I was so awestruck and tongue-tied, he had to prompt me to shake his hand and say hello.

I remember the thrill of seeing the real Constitution at the U.S. Archives—and being told it would automatically drop into a protective vault below it in the event of a nuclear attack.

Jimmy Carter’s White House looked as comfortable and reassuring as Mr. Rogers’s television living room. Even so, when we were allowed to peek into the Oval Office, my first thought was That’s where Nixon sat when he resigned. It was a relief to know those dark days were behind us.

As I stood beneath the magnificent dome of the Capitol Rotunda surrounded by statues of the luminaries of U.S. history, all I could think was that I was standing where they put Abraham Lincoln’s casket after he was assassinated. We were told that the catafalque, the wooden platform built to hold Lincoln’s coffin in 1865, had been used to support every coffin laid in the Rotunda since then. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s casket was placed atop it when she became the first woman to lie in state in the Rotunda in September 2020.

I was furious when Massachusetts senior Senator, Ted Kennedy, blew off our scheduled meeting. “The Senator is very busy,” his staff said.

I was mollified when our Congressman, Silvio O. Conte, warmly welcomed me and my classmate, Christine, and led us onto the floor of the House of Representatives before it opened for the day’s session. We stood several rings into the chamber’s semicircles of polished wooden chairs gaping at the huge American flag behind the podium where Boston’s gruff Irish son, Tip O’Neill, presided as Speaker of the House.

“Someday, one of you might sit here,” Conte said quietly.

At Arlington National Cemetery, after watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one of the boys asked about Vietnam and the Fall of Saigon in 1975. “That’s history,” said the officer assigned to supervise our visit. “We need to focus on the future.”

The Smithsonian’s new Air and Space Museum opened during the hoopla of the national bicentennial celebration in July 1976. Standing in front of its exhibit of the capsule from 1969’s Apollo 11 moon flight, my thoughts flashed back to my first meeting with my high school guidance counselor in ninth grade.

“What do you want to be in the future?” he asked me.

“I want to be astronaut,” I said. “I want to work for NASA.”

He frowned at me. “Girls can’t be astronauts,” he said. “Let’s talk about more realistic options. You could be a nurse or a teacher.”

The Presidential Classroom taught me I had other options. I could work to make laws that would change stupid rules like that.

One of our final trips of the program brought us to the Lincoln Memorial. We clustered around the spot at the top of its marble steps where contralto Marian Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000 on April 9, 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to perform in Constitution Hall because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt, outraged by the DAR’s actions, promptly quit the group and arranged an alternate concert venue.

Almost 25 years later, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the same spot.

Standing there shivering in the chilly January air with my Presidential Classmates, I felt sure I heard echoes of Anderson singing “My country tis of thee…of thee we sing.” I swore I could hear King say, “…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

Leaning on a manure rake in my barn and thinking back on that trip, what I hear loudest now are two nagging questions.

Has my generation moved this country toward that dream or away from it? Have we made things better or worse?

Things have changed. In 1979, all nine Supreme Court Justices were male; now three of them are women. Back then, the 96th Congress had only 16 voting African American members. Today’s 116th Congress includes 56. We have more regulations, but less pollution; higher taxes, but fewer armed conflicts with other nations. We are still plagued by “isms”—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ageism—among others. We all know the economy is still a work in progress.

I’m not objective enough to judge whether we’ve driven this country forward or plunged it off the road into a ditch, but the more I stand in the barn and think about it, the more I share the opinion of Ben Franklin, who had a keen interest in agriculture and who mucked his share of manure. The Presidential Classroom, taught me how the 81-year-old Franklin addressed similar questions in his final speech before the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787:

“When you assemble…[People] to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble…their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect product be expected? It…astonishes me…[that] this system approaches so near to perfection as it does.”

We’re as diverse, passionate, and opinionated as the folks in Franklin’s day. We’re definitely as imperfect. But we’ve managed to keep the republic that is this “democratic experiment” going so far. Hopefully, if we keep shoveling, then forkful by forkful, we’ll get things cleaned up enough to truly realize the American dream.

About the Writer:
Kara Lynn Puskey-Noble
is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications ranging from textbooks and dictionaries to newspapers and magazines. She served as the editor for Merriam-Webster’s language question-and-answer column, “Take Our Word for It,” their public radio program “Word for the Wise” (WAMC, Albany, NY), and their online “Word of the Day” feature. Her equine-related stories have been published in Massachusetts Horse, Connecticut Horse, and The Competitive Equine. She holds a BA from Amherst College and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University.

Poll Tales by Robert Surbrug

Poll Tales

Posted Posted in Blog

By Robert Surbrug

I’ve been a passionate advocate of voting for most of my life. I’ve thrown myself into voter registration drives and taught the history of voting-rights struggles. That’s partly because I’m an historian and partly because I grew up on Schoolhouse Rock. But looking back, I see three particular episodes in my life that deepened my commitment to voting.

The Firehouse

I grew up on the Jersey Shore. My dad was a plumber and my mom a homemaker. Each weekday, as Mom prepared dinner, my beagle and I waited by the window for Dad’s van to back into our driveway. One Election Day when I was eight years old, Dad returned from work, plopped his lunch box on the counter, and announced he was going to go vote. My mother (who voted while I was in school) said, “Why don’t you take Bobby?”

I felt a surge of excitement to do a grown-up thing with Dad and to go to his polling place at East Dover Fire Department. I’d never seen the inside of it. As we left, Mom chided Dad: “Don’t stay too long bullshitting.” (Mom’s Dictionary: bullshit verb: to yap; especially men talking about idle crap. See your father.)

We drove to East Dover, and as my father signed in to vote, I stood in awe of the firefighters and fire trucks. Before voting, Dad approached three firefighters and commenced bullshitting. I tuned them out, fascinated by my surroundings. I saw people I knew from my small town enter, sign in, then vote. There were schoolteachers, waitresses, mechanics, homemakers, shop owners. Many were heading home after work, tired yet excited to vote. 

It dawned on me that these familiar folks were choosing the next president of the United States. Each vote was important. Realizing this gave me a sense of the sacredness of democracy. It was still the Cold War then. Half the world lived under some form of dictatorship. It dawned on me that voting was something no one should ever take for granted.

My reverie was broken when Dad asked the firefighters to watch me while he voted.

“Why don’t you take your boy with you?’ one suggested.

Whoa! This trip kept getting better!

Dad put his arm around my shoulder and led me into the inner sanctum of the voting booth. Back then, voting booths had a handle that closed a big red curtain around you, lending gravity to the act of casting your ballot. Dad pushed down levers to indicate his choices and then pulled the handle again, reopening the curtain with a clang.

The next time I set foot in that firehouse was 10 years later, when I, a newly registered voter, proudly entered with Dad to cast my first-ever vote.

The Bar

It was Election Day 2000, the first presidential election of the new millennium. I was a graduate student at UMass Amherst. Several fellow history grads and I met at Hugo’s, a Northampton bar, to watch voting returns. Vice President Al Gore (Democrat) was running against Texas Governor George W. Bush (Republican). Polls predicted a close race.

We arrived at Hugo’s around 7:00 p.m. sporting “I Voted” stickers on our shirts. One of us raised a bottle: “I propose we pledge to drink until a winner is declared!” We clinked our glasses and vowed there would be no cessation of drinking until we knew the next president.

At 7:50 p.m., based on exit polls, TV networks reported that Al Gore had won Florida, earning enough votes to clinch the election in the Electoral College. Only into our first round of drinks, my friends and I felt a sense of anticlimax. I headed home to watched election coverage on TV.

At 10:00 p.m., the networks began retracting reports that Gore won Florida. “Too close to call!” they now declared.

My phone rang: “Be back at Hugo’s in five minutes!”

Drinking resumed, now infused with the thrilling sense of entering wholly new political terrain. The bars closed at 2:00 a.m. with no winner projected, which compelled us to an after-hours party. That lasted until 2:30, when the networks shifted victory in Florida to Bush and reported Al Gore had called his opponent to concede. We drank a nightcap and staggered home.

An hour later, as I lay on the couch enveloped in the glow of my TV, the networks announced Florida was again too close to call and reported Gore had called Bush to retracthis concession. 


More than 100 million votes had been cast, but the candidates were separated by a mere 500,000. The Electoral College was nearly tied. In Florida—the state that would decide the outcome—only about one thousand votes separated Bush and Gore, compelling a state recount.

I’d always said, “Every vote counts.” That night gave the cliché new meaning. An epiphany cut through the haze of alcohol: “Damn, every vote really DOES count!”

The Florida recount, punctuated by legal challenges, lasted over six weeks before the Supreme Court (with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Paul Stevens dissenting), ordered it stopped on December 12—before all the votes had been tallied. When the recount was stopped, George W. Bush was ahead by 537 votes. 

The Bridge

One of the great privileges I’ve had as a professor of history at Bay Path University is leading the “One America” trip, in which students travel to a region of the U.S. for a week in January to study its history. In 2010, we took our first civil rights-themed trip.

We visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. We met with 1960s civil rights veteran John Perkins. But our most inspiring experience happened in Selma, Alabama, site of the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the Bridge to Freedom.

“Bloody Sunday” happened on that bridge on March 7, 1965, when Alabama state troopers clubbed, tear-gassed, and whipped nonviolent civil rights activists, led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis, who were marching to ensure African Americans the right to vote. Televised images of the incident shocked the nation and led President Lyndon Johnson to demand passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

My students learned the history before we arrived. But nothing prepares you for crossing that bridge yourself. Videos of Bloody Sunday don’t show how low the bridge railing is, or how far down it is to the Alabama River. As the students and I walked solemnly across, I looked down and got blasted by anxiety and light-headedness. I’m afraid of heights. Looking at the river so far below over a rail that was barely waist-high shot my brain full of adrenalin, cortisone, and whatever other neurochemicals make you think you’re going to die if you don’t get across that bridge fast.

Even in the grip of anxiety, I thought what John Lewis and all those foot soldiers of the Movement must have felt crossing the Pettus Bridge. The bridge’s height wasn’t their only worry. Armed state troopers awaited them on the other side. Troopers ready to crack open their skulls with billy clubs. John Lewis, who later became a congressman from Georgia and served more than 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, needed 35 stitches to close a wound inflicted by a trooper.

As I reached the far side and my fight-or-flight instinct yielded to the bliss of serotonin and dopamine, I realized my elevated anxiety made what the Bloody Sunday marchers experienced more real for me. I resolved to do my small part to defend and expand the rights for which they fought.


As I finish writing this, I click on my TV and see socially distanced voters in long lines waiting hours to vote early amidst a pandemic and voter suppression efforts in some states.

The willingness of these Americans—disproportionately voters of color—to go through so much to cast their ballots is testimony why each of us must do our part and vote.

About the Writer:
Robert Surbrug
is an assistant professor of history at Bay Path University. He specializes in 20th-century United States history, especially the Cold War era. He focuses on the movements of the 1960s and their impact on subsequent decades, a theme he explores in his book Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990 (University of Massachusetts Press). He is the director of Bay Path’s innovative Honors Program, faculty advisor to the Black Student Association and a faculty advisor to the Currier and Ives Committee of the Springfield Public Museums. He received his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He divides his time between his adopted home of western Massachusetts and his childhood home on the Jersey Shore.

Cornfield Constellations by Liza Sofia

Cornfield Constellations

Posted Posted in Blog

By Liza Sofia

I roll down my window on the carriageway to get a better look at the sky.

It’s a good thing I’m not driving because I can’t keep my eyes from drifting up to the ethereal clouds above us. I point out a pair of dancing squirrels in the sky, their bushy tails intertwined, and I tell you they remind me of when I lived in Boston and fed squirrels on the Common in the evening. Ahead of us is an antique butter churn cloud. I tell you it reminds me of my first-grade field trip to an 18th-century manor. You can’t see the squirrels or the churn, but that’s all right. I’m happy to explain each cloud as we drive by.

But I don’t think the miles and miles of cornfields stretched out ahead of us are enough. I’m getting scared the road will run out.

I ask you to pull over every time we pass a patch of land with grass cut low enough for us to lay on, but you say we can’t because it’s private property. There isn’t a foot of terrain that isn’t private property. There’s always some pesky red barn attached like a tick you can’t shake off.

I can’t blame people for wanting to own the land and the clouds above it. Everyone likes watching clouds—the same way everyone likes watching sunsets and meteor showers and shooting stars. Watching them makes you feel small in the grand scheme of the universe.

But not right now. Right now, I’m an ancient Greek goddess riding through crop fields in a light blue Hyundai Sonata chariot, telling you the myths behind each of my constellations.

It’s getting darker. I’ve never liked the heat, but for once I want the sun to stay in the sky just a little longer.

I think about taking your hand off the steering wheel so I can guide it as I trace the cloud outline of the long-vined potted plant that almost fell on my head as a toddler, but I doubt you’d see it. Instead, I take your hand and hold it tight in mine and silently vow to tell you these stories tomorrow.

About the Writer:
Liza Sofia
is a 21-year-old university student who is currently studying French and Economics in Rochester, New York. Her passion for the literary arts started in early childhood, and she finished her first book manuscript at 17. Her writing has appeared in Raw Arts Review Journal of Arts, The White Wall Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Horseshoe and Hand Grenades, Fingerlake Journal, Sheepshead Review, and the Paragon Press.


Work as a Spiritual Exercise by Karol Jackowski

Work as a Spiritual Exercise

Posted Posted in Blog

By Karol Jackowski

In the sisterhood, we were taught to think about work as obedience. We went where we were sent and did what we were told, believing that the will of God was wrapped in the decisions of the Superior. A group of 19-year-olds just discovering who we were, what we thought, and how we felt, we were told not to let any of our discoveries influence us. That’s soulfully hard to do without making yourself sick. But in that world, Superiors made decisions; sisters obeyed. As part of our spiritual formation as sisters, obedience became an exercise all its own, as well as a vow we were preparing to profess forever. More, the spirit of the vow called us to accept the will and practical judgment of the Superior as our own, and to do so without murmur.  

I could bring myself to obey, but I couldn’t stop murmuring. When I look back now, I see how mindless, distasteful work set my spirit free to wander, and though I didn’t know it at the time, obedience wakened my writing voice in hot and sweaty ways. In letting Superiors make decisions, it became crystal clear how much I agreed or disagreed and why, what I liked and didn’t like, the kind of work I did and didn’t feel called to do, and eventually, the work I loved to do. Not only did I discover a voice that was completely my own, but I noticed it was becoming stronger, clearer, and funnier. I became a constant inner murmurer. Something mysterious happened in the obediences I received: they became stepping stones to where I am now.

Every writer and artist I know tells the funniest stories of awful jobs they’ve had, as though it’s an essential ingredient in learning the craft—a rite of initiation, a test to see whether we have what it takes to be a writer. It’s those mindless jobs that make us think about work differently because we have to; it can’t be all there is. The work we put our life into must of necessity give us infinitely more than a paycheck.

I spent a summer microfilming medical records in a hospital storeroom closet, and a brutal year sorting boxes of construction documents damaged in a flood and breeding black mold. With jobs like that, we wake up dreading the day and counting the hours until it’s time to leave. We come home drained of energy, in a bad mood, full of complaints about another miserable day. On Sunday mornings, we begin dreading Mondays, and long for Friday every day. That kind of work stirs up dire necessity—a magic ingredient that eventually gets us from there to anything better.

In the Big Picture,which we rarely see, except when we look back in time, most work—including nearly every job I had—appears to be a turning point on the way to work we love. Out of necessity, we may have jobs that give us nothing more than a paycheck, but thinking about work differently can prevent even the worst jobs from making us increasingly miserable.  And if we have a loving family, community, friends to play with, or solitary splendor to come home to, we can survive any job for the time being. 

There is nothing more interesting than what we do with the lives we’ve been given and how we choose to live. Nothing is more divine than the steps we take and the roads we follow to discover what we’re called to do and what in us begs to be brought forth. It may take decades to understand what we’re called to do, but once we experience the life we bring forth, we begin to discover the work we love. We meet our Muses.

It took nearly 20 years for me to hear clearly the call to be a writer, to see there was no work I loved more than writing. At first, I was sent to be a high school counselor, teacher, and administrator for five years, before being asked to work with college students for 15 years; all work I loved. And somewhere in there, I moved from knowing I was a good writer to wanting to write more. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. On the path of doing what I was asked to do—obediently—I discovered what I felt called to do, and began thinking of work differently (thanks to constant murmuring). I began thinking of making writing my life because it felt increasingly like it wanted to be. In 1979, while living in a college dorm with 575 women, I began writing at the beginning and end of every day. Years later, I began minding my Muses. I stopped murmuring, and I turned myself into a writer.

The Gnostic Gospel of Saint Thomas reveals, “If you bring forth what is in you, what is in you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you…Do not do what you hate.” [1]

The older we become, the more self-knowledge we gain through experience, and the more clearly we see our purpose in this life, the more often we feel the growing need to “bring forth what is in us.” Everything we do brings forth something in us, revealing what we need to know to get to where we want to go. On the deepest level, where our own essence begs to be brought forth, we are led every step of the way, whether we know it or not, as long as we trust the divine inner capacity and we are willing to obey the only voices we need to obey forever: our Muses, and our own.  All we need to do is keep writing. It’s our work.

[1] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books:  New York, 1989, p.126.

About the Writer:
Karol Jackowski
left the Sisters of the Holy Cross and became part of the Sisters for Christian Community, an independent, self-governing sisterhood. Her books include Forever and Ever, Amen: Becoming a Nun in the Sixties; The Silence We Keep: A Nun’s View of the Catholic Priest Scandal; Sister Karol’s Book of Spells and Blessings; Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die; Divine Madness: Why I Still Want to be a Nun; and the cookbooks Let the Good Times Roll and Home on the Range. She has been profiled and reviewed in Rosie, People, The Star Ledger (Newark), ELLE, The Journal News, The New York Post, and The New York Times. She has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, Speakeasy, CNN (interviewed by Soledad O’Brian), The Early Show (interviewed by Bryant Gumbel), WPXN-TV, Eyewitness News Sunday Morning, Weekend Today, and ABC-TV/She TV. Karol holds a PhD from NYU and lives in New York City and she teaches in the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University.

Don't Live Past Ninety, Dear by Meghan Vigeant

Don’t Live Past Ninety, Dear

Posted Posted in Blog

By Meghan Vigeant

Mimi’s white hair sticks up stiff and electric. I notice a brown spot on her gown—the same black and white flannel dress she wore yesterday. Why didn’t the last caregiver change her? I kneel in front of her on the floor, fumbling to bring a pale green nightgown over her head before unbuttoning the dirty flannel dress and trying to do it without leaving too much of her body exposed. She whines. She hates getting naked, hates the cold air on her skin. The thermostat is set on 82. I’m sweating. “Why are we doing this?” she asks.

“Mimi, we need to get you into a clean outfit.” I point at her chest, “Look, a stain, probably from lunch.”

Her face twists in disgust. “Oh, I’m a slob.” She pummels her knees with her fists. “Slob. Slob. Slob! I hate myself. I hate myself.”

“Whoa,” I intervene, my flat palms protecting her tender knees. “Whoa, there.”

Her hands in mine are a landscape of blue vein rivers and brown spot hills. Her body balloons with fluids and shrivels into loose folds. Shoots of pain interrupt her every step. She would sleep all day if she could, but her legs twitch and her mind cycles through loops of dementia and anxiety. By noon, she’s afraid of the dark. Even with sunlight pouring into her apartment, she’s afraid.

“Why am I still here?” she moans. “God doesn’t want me. He doesn’t love me.”

What do you say to a 93-year-old woman who just wants out of her body?

I could ask the same thing. On my drives home from work, I cycle silently through mantras that sound so similar to Mimi’s. Nobody loves me. Who would want to love me? Why am I still alone at 36?

“Don’t live past 90, dear,” her mother used to warn her. She repeats this line for me like a song. She is three years overdue.

Before dinner, I arrange two green tea towels on her chest and lap to avoid more spills on her clothes. Her chest rattles when she breathes.

“I have this terrible cough,” she tells me.

“You sure do. You should get rid of it.”

“Help me. Tell it to go away.”

“Hey cough,” I say, “we’d really appreciate it if you’d leave.”

“Oh, thank you,” her gratitude laced with sarcasm.

There is a brief pause. Mimi coughs.

I shrug. “If only it worked that way.”

While she eats, I wash dishes in the kitchen and keep an eye on her through the pass-through window over the sink. She’s snoozing, listing to starboard, as she says, then startles and picks up the spoon and pokes at the shrimp casserole on her lap. “You should just put me out with the trash,” she declares.

I snort, roll my eyes. This line again. I need a new comeback. “Would you prefer recyclables or waste disposal?” I ask.

“Disposal,” she deadpans, her gray eyes daring.

I wipe my hands on a tea towel and flip the switch for the food disposal. A deafening rumble shakes the apartment, growling like a demon as it grinds orange peels and shrimp tails.

She looks up from the plate sliding down her knees. “What’s that?”

“That’s gonna be you, dear. That’s what you want, right? To go with the disposal?”

“Hmm. Maybe not.” She smirks at my joke.

I am the court jester. I trick her out of bed. Trick her out of her funk. Trick her out of lousy thoughts. I perform magic on a confused crumpled woman, a transformation with words, with favorite books, lullabies, black and white movies, sips of Ensure, and spoonsful of coffee ice cream. I make jokes, put a smile on her face and mine too. Before I know it, she is up on her feet, wobbling, shuffling her walker to the big brown chair. Before I know it, she is eating her grapes and singing, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.” She doesn’t even like grapes, but she’s eating them. Before I know it, she is laughing and lighthearted again.

Before I know it, she will be gone, and I will still be here.

About the Writer:
Meghan Vigeant
is a writer, teacher, and oral historian in Maine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Island Journal, Balancing Act 2, Maine Boats, and Hole in the Head Review; it has been also been featured on public radio and podcasts. Meghan was a Monson Arts resident and an Island Institute Fellow. She is the author of Guts, Feathers, and All: Stories of Hard Work and Good Times on Swan’s Island, Maine. She recently earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Stonecoast.

Remembering How to Pray by Heidi Fettig Parton

Remembering How to Pray

Posted Posted in Blog

By Heidi Fettig Parton

In the middle of September, you are in the backyard on your knees. You are not praying, but perhaps you should be. Bended knees can lift up, bended knees can kill.

The world, heavy with sorrow; you persist.

Using your gloved hand, you dig out still-green clover and dandelions where they encroach on your garden. Yet, these have no lesser claim to the earth than the marigolds, squash, and beets.

Your grandmother pickled beets on the North Dakota plains. Those ruby circles were heaped in an unwelcome pile on your dinner plate. But all things, even taste buds, evolve. Now beets taste like the dark soil of memory. Their earthy flavor roots you to a lineage come and gone.

You turn the soil over, awakening the freshness of tepid air after a rain, uncovering thick, long earthworms in the clumps of rich earth. Earthworms have not eyes, but light receptors, alerting them to darkness and light.

Whenever you encounter an earthworm trapped in the center of a concrete sidewalk in the morning sun, dried out but still wriggling, you use a foraged stick to gently lift the struggling worm to a dew-covered patch of grass.

You know the aching pull of home, the pain of displacement, however brief. Is this still my country, you ask?

Like muddied worms, your vision is impaired. Perhaps by clouds. Perhaps by the hazy smoke of fires out West reaching your landlocked Midwestern town. This year has seemed a tunnel with no end. You imagine growing your own receptors of light to lead you through.

Here on your knees in the garden, you tap into a small, nascent shift toward the sacred interconnectedness of all things; you reach for that ancient circle of belonging.

You are made of clay and love and delight. Remember this.

Scooping handfuls of dirt, you fortify your soul for the tasks awaiting you in the future, where you will slowly wind your way, where you will—upon arriving—bend your knees in prayer.

About the Writer:
Heidi Fettig Parton
received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University in 2017. Her writing can be found in many publications, including Assay Journal, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus. More at www.heidifettigparton.com.

What It's Like by Deirdre Mahoney

Emerald Blog: What It’s Like

Posted Posted in Blog
The Emerald Blog :: Writing Inspired by Ireland

Every summer, Bay Path University’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction writing offers a weeklong Writing Seminar based in Dingle, a town nestled on the Atlantic coast on the western shore of County Kerry, Ireland. Each day throughout the week, Seminar Facilitator Suzanne Strempek Shea gives participants a prompt to encourage writers to investigate new ideas and topics in their writing. During August 2020, we’ll publish our Emerald Blogs to showcase the diverse work developed from responses to Suzanne’s prompts.

From Suzanne Strempek Shea

Several of the workshops in our annual Summer Writing Seminar workshops are generative, and Deirdre Mahoney made the most of the opportunity to create in a 2018 workshop with Dinty W. Moore titled “Literary Nonfiction: The Truth, Artfully Arranged” during her second time with us in Dingle. Daily prompts in the workshop focused on detail, character, voice, and other key craft elements, but Deirdre doesn’t know the exact one that sparked this honest and artful essay. All of its readers can be grateful for her candor and for the strength it took to retrieve these moments so keenly.

What It’s Like

by Deirdre Mahoney

What It's Like by Deirdre Mahoney

He hovers over the Keurig machine trying to make a teabag produce coffee.

Is he brushing his teeth these days? No toothbrush in either bathroom or by the utility sink in the basement. Putting folded clothes away, I discover his plastic toiletry case poking out from under a pile of hand-knitted socks in the top drawer of the dresser. It contains five or six toothbrushes, all seemingly new and recently opened. Does he un-package a new one each time he brushes his teeth? When did that start? Why haven’t I noticed?

The phone rings less than three feet from where he sits with his eyes closed. He doesn’t flinch. A diminished sense of smell was one of the earliest symptoms; that occurred well before memories began to recede. Recently, I’ve noticed that items within eyesight don’t always register. He doesn’t see the carton of milk on the counter, his shaving cream on the shelf, the TV remote in the basket I ask him to hand to me when it’s time for Jeopardy! Surely the phone’s jarring ring should elicit a response. Does the ringing not register? Is he confused about what to do? Is this what lack of motivation—a common behavior listed in the literature—looks like?

Although he no longer reads them, I still carefully choose fly-fishing books for holidays, birthdays, and no-particular-reason gifts. It’s a three-decade habit. 

I arrive home from campus on a chilly April evening to find him sitting in the dark wearing polarized sunglasses to watch the evening news. I kiss him on the forehead and scan the kitchen counter. Taking two stairs at a time, I head to our bedroom and check the bedside table. No luck. I dash back downstairs and recheck the living room before heading to the basement to scout the folding table where he’s been arranging stones he discovered on beaches in Leland and Northport, Michigan. Again, no luck. “If I were his eyeglasses,” I ask myself, “where would I be?”

The answer: anywhere.

I trail up to bed late and find him asleep in the Levis, flannel button-down, wool pull-over sweater, and striped socks he wore all day. And the day before. I pop the tank out of his CPAP machine, fill it with distilled water, and adjust the finicky face mask, repositioning the Velcro closures around his ears. I tap the start button and crawl in next to him, but before I turn off the bedside lamp, I pass my hand over his face to feel his breath.

He’s taking the dogs for a quick walk, he announces. Faithful friends Zelda and Phaedrus fixate on his every move, then agitate when he retrieves a single leash and walks alone out the back door toward their regular route

As we drive 30 miles from Traverse City to Northport, he’s content and quiet until we round a curve and the view of Lake Michigan is no longer obscured. He points to a mirage on the water, a number of illusory islands in the distance. “An archipelago,” he offers.

“Do you think they’re real, the islands?” I ask, downplaying my surprise at his use of archipelago, a specialized term, the kind of word once a natural part of his lexicon.

“Well, you see them too. There’s your answer,” he says.

After we return home, I mention his previous reference to an archipelago. He has no idea what I’m talking about. I coach him. I reference our drive earlier in the day, mention him pointing to what looked like islands in the bay. I want him to recall the setting. He can’t but he’s amused by the idea of a mirage, an archipelago, by something he noticed earlier and now can’t remember, even with my prompting.

He mows part of our front lawn and part of the neighbor’s. Task complete.

I hear him at the front door chatting with unfamiliar voices and intervene. Should I post a “No Solicitation” notice on the cedar siding? Is it time to stash the checkbook and remove the remaining credit card from his wallet?

It’s Father’s Day 2018, and I have forgotten to pick up a card. Don’t worry, I tell myself. He won’t notice.

He’s antsy for a bike ride, but the sun will set within the hour and the mid-summer sky threatens rain. I suggest putting it off until the following day, hoping that sounds like a casual request. Recently, I’ve seen frustration when I crowd his independence. I’m seeing it again, so I cave. “Maybe keep it close to home, just to Garfield and back,” I say, mentally calculating the 15-minute round trip. When a soft rain begins to fall a half hour later and there’s still no sign of him, I begin to worry. As I consider how the combination of drizzle and dusk might disorient him and how I have enabled this insanity, I move into batshit-crazy-full-on panic.

My rational friend Rachel, who’s visiting for the evening, guides me to her car. While she drives, I scan the streets and alleys. Twenty minutes later we spot him biking toward home from opposite the direction we discussed earlier. It’s clear I can no longer trust his ability to keep with a plan. Rachel and I race home, repark the car, and return to sitting and chatting as if we’ve been doing so all along. Alerting him to my alarm doesn’t make sense. Frayed synapses are the problem here, not staunch willfulness on his part. Best to let him enjoy the evening without upset while I consider options to avert future disasters.  

There’s a café at the co-op in my neighborhood where I steal time in the early morning, just me with my thoughts and my laptop. I justify the self-indulgence as self-care, but self-care sometimes dissipates as I observe a couple, regulars, folks like us. The “us” we once were. He orders and pays at the counter, then brings their coffees to the table close to the window where she sits waiting.

“How can I help?” he asks. Brown spots in the yard signal that the grass needs extra water during the summer’s relentless scorching weather. My to-do list is long this day, so I welcome his offer. He listens closely as I point to the backyard and say, “Move the sprinkler a few feet but don’t let the water hit the sidewalk. Keep the water on the grass.” He leaves the room and goes somewhere, not outside.

He still makes our bed each day. I take note of how well, as if his bed-making skills parallel the progression of the disease.

It comes out of nowhere. It always does. The sense of dread. The panic. The future. The when. The what ifs. What if I can’t make it work? What if I have to make unimaginable decisions? What then? What if I get it wrong? What next?

Then I hear the words of our elder attorney—who refers to me as “dear,” and I let him.

“Just put it to bed,” he said the last time I called him with more questions and worries. He said what I needed to hear. It clicked. Just put it to bed. I’ve done what I can to prepare. Time will run its course. The disease is fatal. The progression continues. I can’t control the outcome. None of us can.

Just put it to bed.

About the Writer

Deirdre Mahoney is on the English faculty at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, Michigan. Currently, she is working on a collection of narrative essays based on her experience of living with and caring for her late husband who died from complications of younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Write with us in Dingle next year, July 31 to Aug. 8, 2021. Contact sshea@baypath.edu for full information.

We welcome submissions to Multiplicity Blog (nonfiction prose of 1,000 words or fewer, poetry, and photography) all year. Click here for more details on submitting to Multiplicity Blog. From September 25-October 30, we are also accepting submissions of brief true stories and reflections on the Black Lives Matter movement (100 words or fewer) for “Multiplicity Commons: Readers and Writers Respond to Black Lives Matter.” Click here for more details on submitting to Multiplicity Commons.

Secrets of the Deep by Fabrice Poussin

Secrets of the Deep

Posted Posted in Blog

By Fabrice Poussin

From the Photographer:

There is nothing more awe inspiring than the wonders and power of the earth, which grants us the privilege of its nurturing for but a few decades.

This image, like so many taken in the vicinity of Yellowstone Park, is an homage to the earth’s power. Standing in the center of what could be the most powerful dormant volcano on this planet is nothing if not humbling.

Simple in its clear beauty, a burst of boiling water links us to the inner workings of our planet and the universe. This image balances the purity of color and water with the potential destructive forces that lay below us. What appears to be a mere photograph of a little hole in the ground is in fact about the unsuspected forces encompassed within the incredible life-giving and life-altering world we are fortunate to call home.

Secrets of the Deep by Fabrice Poussin

Secrets of the Deep

About the Photographer:
Fabrice Poussin
teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review and the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.

Mysterious Girl by Jenee Rodriguez

Mysterious Girl

Posted Posted in Blog

By Jenee Rodriguez

I adore a mystery.
Now, at 26,
I never felt more like one in my life.

My past is in the clear water,
and I say thank you each day
for the things I thought about
at 16, 18, 20, 21.

Mistakes have become memories,
some universal heartbreaks,
some minimums—
But I am no longer hard on myself for them.

I only look back
to try and tell me something,
to tell you the words that burn inside now:
I love you no matter what.

I don’t have to be afraid to look anyone
in the eye. Thank you, past me, for staying strong.
You kept me alive.

I became beautiful because of you.
I won’t let you forget that.

From the Writer:
To all my young girls: loving hard is your real power, and patience is everything. One day you will look back and remember all your bravery and boldness, how you went through the floods and flames, and how ready you were for the better things in life. — Jenee Rodriguez