One character, for example, suffers a head injury and suddenly suffers from severe intellectual disability and moderate physical disability. Wingate poses intriguing questions here: How would a less-than able-bodied person be treated in dangerous wild west towns during the Reconstruction era? In addition to that, the choice of placing Benny, a woman of Italian heritage, in 1987 America allows Wingate to weave in intergenerational trauma of World War II, as well as women’s rights during the 1970s when Benny was a teenager. Lastly, while the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t been established yet in 1987, it is clear that Wingate means to say that Black lives do matter and matter a great deal more than acknowledged by those in 1875, 1987, and presumably also today.
Abelism, women’s rights, effects of slavery, economic hardship and educational disparities in the south, haunting effects of World War II… Again, timely.
Above all, and perhaps also a timely topic considering the disconnectedness we all felt during the pandemic, this book highlights the interconnectedness of communities whose surface characteristics might lead more toward segregation than not. Namely, the Black and white communities Wingate describes in 1987 Louisiana turn out to be more closely related than some of the members knew…or than some of the members chose to acknowledge.
In order to show this, The Book of Lost Friends takes on physical form within the text. It’s a book in which the Black characters note the names of missing or separated family members, people sold off during slavery or sent off to fight in the Civil War, or displaced during Reconstruction. When able, the characters submitted this information to The Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper, which published ads for these “Lost Friends” beginning in 1877 and continuing “through the early part of the twentieth century,” according to Wingate. (A database curated by the Historic New Orleans Collection provides access to ads from November 1879 to December 1900.) Preachers were asked to read these ads to their congregations in hopes of reuniting loved ones.
Sometimes it worked.
This past winter, my family busted out of our pandemic bubble and took a trip to DisneyWorld. One hot afternoon, while we were standing in line for frozen treats, the couple in front of us turned around and noticed our shirts.
“You haven’t been waiting in line since 2019, have you?” the man joked.
I appreciated the break in tension as I glanced down at my homemade, iron-on transfer which read “Stowell Family Vacation 2019.”
“Good one,” I told him. “Nah, I just didn’t want to spend the money on new shirts this time. But we definitely waited three hours for the Seven Dwarfs!”
By that point, I was used to people commenting on our family shirts – the neon colors I chose so I wouldn't lose anyone, or the phone numbers I had ironed onto the backs of my kids’ shirts so they could be returned to us if lost. But I wasn’t prepared at all for the comment to come.
When it was our turn to order treats, the vendor took a glance at my shirt and said, “Oh my gosh! Stovall! Maybe we’re related!”
I blinked at the thirty-year-old Black man in front of me, noted his name tag, and considered how to react.
I decided to focus on the spelling of our names.
“Oh, it’s actually “Stowell,” but that would have been cool,” I said, gesturing to his last name, which was spelled “Stovall.”
Then we hovered there for a minute.
He continued to smile at me, so I smiled back. And something warmed inside of me. His face was so earnest, it made me wonder if we could be related, even though “Stowell” was only my name by marriage, not birth. Could we have been related somewhere in the distant past? This man seems so excited by the idea that I really wanted to be related to him. I wanted to stay in that moment of connection.
It took an awkward shrug and nod to the still-growing line behind me in order to transition to placing our order, but we parted with smiles, and a few minutes later, when one of my children decided to get a soft pretzel instead, I knew just who to ask where to find a vendor selling such a snack.
I walked back to Mr. Stovall. I guess it sounds strange now to type it out like this, but it really felt like we knew each other, all because we wanted to. He eagerly offered directions, and once again, I felt reluctant to walk away.
I remembered Mr. Stovall when I got to page 211 of Wingate’s book. She writes of a character approaching the holders of the Book of Lost Friends:
“I look up and see a colored man, stout as a woodcutter, standing over us. He folds and unfolds a hat in his hands….
“I come ‘bout the Loss Friends.” He glances toward the Katie P. “I hear…heard it from a fella. You put me in the Loss F-friends, too?”
“We look toward the landing nearby and see the singing man Juneau Jane wrote the letter for on the boat, and he’s pointing somebody else our way. Word of us has spread.
“Juneau Jane gets her pencil and asks the man who he’s looking for. It’s nobody we’ve got on our pages already.
“She takes down the names of the man’s people, and he gives us a nickel before he goes back to work, loading seed bags onto a swamp boat. Then comes another man.” (211)
The characters fill their book with names of lost friends. No matter what they face in life, it’s clear that their main desire is for reunion with their people.
It’s a gruesome book, and it’s a beautiful book, and once again, I have my sister to thank for sending it. If I had to critique it in some way, it’s that I wish I knew the Benny character better. She spends most of the book telling the reader that she has a secret past that she is reluctant to acknowledge. When it all comes out in a rush at the end, I remembered my writing teachers telling me that a story should tell it all at the beginning so as to not keep secrets from the reader, and then spend the rest of the text deepening the problems and insights. I think that could have happened here. I think we could have learned about Benny’s past early on and gotten a lot more out of her by the end. Still, the read is completely worth it just for Hannie’s story. Benny’s story, if nothing else, drives home why Hannie’s story – and real stories like it – are so important today.
Last December, while in the middle of Grub Street’s year-long MFA-level intensive called the Memoir Incubator, my writing teacher asked my class to draft a letter to our future selves, to be mailed to her and returned to each of us after graduation. At the time, I was struggling with how much I had on my plate – all of the reading and writing for the course, in addition to contemplating major life changes, parenting four children, and negotiating the holidays during a pandemic. I didn’t want another assignment. I dashed off something rather quickly on my computer and mailed it off to my teacher.
Months later, my little ditty of a letter brought me to tears as I read it again. How true that the passage of time adds poignancy to the most mundane events. How true that simple language and short sentences can reveal the condition of our hearts. As busy as last year was, and as nervous as I was standing at that podium during my graduation reading, I would do it again. I would start as soon as possible.
Here’s what I wrote:
December 28, 2021
By now, you have finished slashing and shaping your manuscript for your second reader. Tonight, it feels like you’re stalled at a page count of 367. Tonight, you are distracted by whether you should buy a new house, more your family, apply to private middle school for your daughter, or simply whether you should call your parents.
I hope as you’re reading this that you have crossed those finish lines that seem impossible right now – that you were able to cut down the manuscript and send it to Tracy Slater, that you were able to continue to meet with your writing group, that you were able to sign up for an agent or editor meeting, that you were able to revise your manuscript for class (AND take your family to DisneyWorld!). I hope you enjoyed the Muse and the Marketplace after waiting two years to go!
This has been so much work. You have done so much work already. This work has taken you away from friends more than you would have liked. This work has forced you to revisit the worst parts of yourself, and the times in your life that you wish you could change. It has been time-consuming and emotionally dangerous.
When all of this is over, don’t feel sad. You had been waiting years to take this course, and now you have done it! Whatever happens, your work can’t be taken away from you. If you need time now to read or purge the basement or move or print out photos or check in with friends or go for a run, take that time. I hope you’re watching your sons play Little League. I hope the kids are all swimming through the spring. I hope you’re out in the sunshine, soaking up the promise of summer.
There will always be more to write, more to research, more to connect with. Take a moment. Take a breath. It’s okay. You did this. You helped your classmates. You got to edit and comment and shape stories. You got to do this for an entire year.
May there be other years like this one.
Did I ever tell you I have a little sister? Well, by “little” I mean younger. She is taller, as well as more independent, and lately, I have come to think of her as wiser than me too. She has a particular knack for anticipating needs, like how unsettling it might be for me to move four kids cross country and then turn forty.
“Happy birthday!” my husband’s card read, “You are finally the age you’ve always wanted to be, and things are coming together!”
It’s true. I’m one of those people who thought: When I’m forty, I will have it all figured out. I will be comfortable in my skin, and I will have the life situation I’ve always wanted.
I turned forty in Colorado during a visit to my parents, a mini vacation before we had to return to our new home in Illinois and begin this new life for real. School. Activities. And six toilets to clean.
Toilets aside, I did expect to own a house at age forty, in a location near family where I could raise my kids well. Check. (Even though I now realize how overwhelming home ownership can be.) I also expected to have my vocation figured out, and while I probably spent too many years deciding not to be a doctor, I think I’ve made up some ground on the writing front, finally taking classes, finally publishing essays, and once I get a book out there, hopefully feeling more confident of this title: writer.
But overall, I think I expected to feel grounded in who I am and where I am. So moving this summer really shook that up. All of a sudden I had no friends, no connections, no doctors, no grocery store, and a stack of bills higher than anything I’d ever seen before. All I knew was what was behind me: for example, being able to walk to get a mammogram (where else can you do that?!), or return books at the library, or visit CVS or the grocery store, or exercise on an incredible bike path, or have access to a million green spaces, or say hi to everyone I pass on the sidewalk by name. I also missed my little house (including, oddly and particularly, my kitchen sink), the house I complained about for years as “not enough,” the one that held so many memories that I didn’t want to forget.
All of a sudden, I didn’t want to be forty. “Forty” to me was supposed to feel confident. Instead, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. And I was so angry, angry that I couldn’t keep my family going in the same way we had before.
Settings, jobs, and schedules are frequently vague, and the many names of her friends truly blend together, although I know a lot about what she ate in each restaurant or gathering. Food writing is where she shines, and her earlier book / cookbook Bread and Wine is one of my favorites. (I make Annette’s Enchiladas once a month.) But somehow, she always writes in a way that says, I see you. For example:
“You may, like me, find yourself in midlife…and all of a sudden, the life you planned is gone. And the world you thought you lived in is gone. And the assumptions and beliefs that carried you through up to this moment have dumped you unceremoniously into a foreign land. You don’t speak the language. You don’t know anyone.
“...Everything has changed and also you still have work to do and dirty dishes in the sink, and where your future used to be, now there’s a blank nothingness and you realize you have to build a new life… This is terrifying.” (20)
I lived in Cambridge for 13 years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else in my life, by about four years more. During those last weeks, my book club threw a goodbye party for me, and at the end of the night, one by one, each of the women spoke about how I’d helped bring the community together, and about how they were confident that I would do the same where I was going next. I know they meant well, but what an overwhelming thought! I spent 13 years building up to this, and I’m exhausted. All I want to do right now is hide in bed. How am I supposed to do it again?
I remember I chose to move, and I didn’t choose to move. Sometime last falI I screamed at my husband, “I don’t want to move! I don’t want to live like this anymore!” Like the move Niequist writes about in her book, our families moved for concrete reasons, and also because we felt let down by systems and people around us. Under the grief of all of this loss, I was angry, because, as Niequist astutely points out:
“Anger makes us feel like we’re in control again, because loss is, at its core, loss of control, or the myth of it anyway – I couldn’t keep that person alive. I couldn’t make them stay. I couldn’t fix our problems. I couldn’t save whatever it is that was broken.” (102)
Yes. I couldn’t keep my patients alive in the hospital back when I was a doctor. I couldn’t make friends stay when new jobs took them away from Cambridge. I couldn’t change our school system to be what we needed, and I couldn’t find the space to heal from these difficult past few years. Gosh, I thought everything would feel “set” in my forties. Instead, I felt exactly like this:
“To my great horror, the first part of my forties has been an unwinding of the threads that wrapped around my life, a throwing off of all the lines, a systematic and painful series of unbelongings. I didn’t choose the unbelongings – by that I mean it wasn’t strength or independence or boldness. It was more someone peeling my fingers, one by one, away from the life I’d been clutching with white knuckles, the life that didn’t fit anymore, no matter how hard I was trying to hold on.” (63)
I lay in bed a few nights after unwrapping Niequist’s book and devoured her words in sort of a call and response format. As big questions and yearnings and homesickness rolled around in my mind, Niequist penned her suggestions of hope:
“I don’t know when the dawn will break, for you or for me, but I know that the healing comes in the trying and that even in the dark we have to keep practicing our callings, whatever they are. We have to keep doing the things we were made to do, the daily acts of goodness and creativity and honesty and service – as much for what they bring about inside us as for the good they do in the world. Those two things work together, and they both matter.
“Practice your vocation or calling…because the practice of it will keep you connected to your own deepest self and to the God who planted these gifts inside you. Because this is how life is. We get stuck in the dark, sometimes for a long time. We ache for morning. And sometimes it seems like it will never come.
“But this is also how life is. Dawn always breaks. Morning always comes.” (61-2)
For me, I knew that meant going back to the page. I was sure of it. To write myself into a place where I could seek and reflect and share again.
I wanted to turn forty and feel like I’d arrived. Instead, while all I’m feeling is unmoored by everything I’ve left behind and while I’m wondering what could possibly lay ahead for me now, I was most cheered to read Niequist’s story of her grandfather, a man who had a specific and profound impact on those around him…beginning at the age of eighty-five. You’ll need to get your own copy of the book for the full story (Chapter 38: Never Too Late) because I don’t want to alter how she tells it. The point: who knows what we’ll be called to do in the future. There’s a lot of hope in that.
Niequist writes, “as long as we all keep showing up, keep dancing, keep seeing each other, I think we’ll all get to wherever we’re going, and I think we’ll all discover our wild, weird, brave next selves along the way.” (215)
There’s a gesture we make in church sometimes, a way of standing with your hands turned palm up in front of you, open and willing to give or receive or both. My fingers may feel like they have been peeled painfully from the life I clung to in Cambridge, but recently my sister reminded me of this too: the need to keep my hands open. Always.
I am still here. Just over here now. Another time zone. Another place. Same purpose. Same pen. As my friend Katie once said, “There are many wonderful ways to live.” May we find them here too.
On October 2nd, my daughter and I are participating in the 2022 Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk which is a fundraiser for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. We walked for the first time in 2021 while the race followed a “Walk My Way” format. This year, we are looking forward to joining the other walkers back on the official Boston Marathon course.
Once again, we are walking and fundraising in support of our dear friends whose daughter succumbed to pediatric brain cancer in 2017. Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is the deadliest pediatric cancer and has no effective treatment. Dr. Mariella Filbin is working to change that as head of the Filbin Lab at Dana Farber and Co-Research Director of Pediatric Neuro-oncology. You can read more about her work here.
I have written previously about Dr. Filbrin’s efforts while working at the Broad Institute, and about other nonprofit organizations like Lucy’s Love Bus that help support children undergoing medical treatment. At the root and heart of all of these causes are families like my friends – parents and siblings who have lost someone along the way and now seek to help other families in their fight against disease. My friends are proud of the over $240,000 they raised while at the Broad Institute and the $50,000 they have raised since transferring these efforts to Dana Farber, bringing them halfway to their $100,000 goal for 2023.
If you’re able, would you consider making a donation to our walk? We are walking with our friends on a team called “We Can Do This!” but we sure could use your help. The proceeds we raise will be funneled toward Dr. Filbin’s work. My donation page for the Jimmy Fund is located here. Any amount helps.
Thank you for considering.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.