The circumstances of my childhood turned me into a life-long diarist. I discovered that writing alleviated my loneliness and my fear of death. In 1998, I was inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’s book, Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place, (New York, Pantheon, 1991) to submit a collection of my diary entries to the Bakeless Literary Prize because Terry was judging that year. I wanted Terry, who lost her mother and grandmother to the breast cancer, to know what a powerful impact her writing had on me. My submission, a collection of diary entries relating to my own experiences with breast cancer, was a kind of fan letter. I assumed Terry would receive a stipend for the time she spent reading, so that my amateur submission would not amount to an inappropriate imposition.
I was stunned when a letter arrived telling me that I was one of three finalists for the Bakeless Prize, and further, there was a consolation prize: an invitation to attend the 1999 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a Bakeless Scholar. I accepted, despite the fact that I had absolutely no ambition to publish my autobiographical writing. I went because my husband Bob and I had already made a plan to travel to New York City to celebrate the first birthday of our first grandchild the week before the Conference.
Our granddaughter’s birthday was celebrated in Westchester County at Brook Astor’s Briarcliff Manor estate, a location that deserves it own story. A few days later Bob and I drove further up the Hudson to Wappingers Falls in Dutchess County to search for the grave of my paternal grandfather, Jacob Liebermann.. The only role Jacob Liebermann had played in my life was as an unmentionable missing man. My hunt was inspired by Helen Fremont’s book, After A Long Silence. After reading her story, I began to explore the scar tissue of the familial wound Jacob had inflicted almost eighty years earlier when he betrayed and abandoned his wife, my father, and three other children in Ogden, Utah.
Bob’s famous persistence finally located Jacob’s unexpectedly grand granite marker in Wappingers Falls City Cemetery. It read: Jacob Liebermann, born August 14, 1882 – died July 10, 1947. As I looked at the inscription I realized Jacob’s life had overlapped my own for five years. For a brief moment, I wistfully wondered if my paternal grandfather had somehow heard of my existence through some unknown familial grapevine.
In 1946, the year before Jacob Liebermann died of a heart attack outside Wappingers Falls at his roadside store and gas station on Albany Post Road, my father had taken my mother and me across America in his 1939 Chrysler. We had traveled east from Delta, Utah to his birthplace in Newark, New Jersey. On the return trip, we deliberately detoured to Niagra Falls, crossing the Hudson River at the Tappen Bridge, before we began following a parallel track north.
In a scene out of some poignant, frustrating movie, we unknowingly passed Jacob Liebermann’s roadside store and gas station. It is remotely possible that Jacob caught a glimpse of my father’s profile in the Chrysler’s window as we passed. If so, perhaps Jacob’s weak heart skipped a beat seeing the driver’s vaguely familiar visage. Jacob may have even seen my face pressed against the Chrysler’s high back window in search of permissible childish distraction since it was long before the restraint of car seats and seat belts.
When Bob found Jacob’s gravestone fifty-three years later, we took a picture, wondering what had happened to Jacob’s second wife, Emily. Her name was also on the stone, but only her birth date was listed: Emily Liebermann, born May 28, 1897. We decided she must have died and been buried elsewhere, perhaps after marrying again. Were she still living she would have been one hundred two years old.
After another day with family, Bob and I parted at LaGuardia Airport. He flew home to Colorado while I drove to Bread Loaf in Ripton, Vermont. Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference turned out to be an extravagant spa for my brain. As a Bread Loaf novice, I had mistakenly prepared myself to spend three weeks writing, interspersed with a few group meetings and joint meals. Instead, Bread Loaf was a marathon of readings and workshops–an elaborate banquet of stimulating analysis, new perspectives and rich language. I felt more alive than I had in years, even with the paraphernalia of cancer in my pockets. The only writing I did at Bread Loaf was to compose two letters home to my husband, the last of which included a prophetic dream about writers and readers.