Bridging the Divide: Why I Brought My Mom to Bread Loaf

Jennifer De Leon and her mother

I didn’t grow up in what I would call a literary family. We delivered newspapers; we didn’t read them. We told stories constantly, but we never wrote them down.

My mom is a housekeeper. All her life she has never taken a sick day. No work meant no paycheck. Simple. Once, when visiting me at college, she sneezed, and my then-boyfriend asked her if she had a cold. “No,” she said. “I don’t believe in that.”

In college, I majored in International Relations, admittedly so I could travel the world, something she always wanted to do. For me, that meant studying abroad in Hanoi for a semester, Paris the next, and interning at the U.N. in Lagos one summer. On the eve of each trip, I would sit at the round wooden table in my parents’ kitchen in Massachusetts and write letters to relatives and friends. When I was done, I always wrote a letter for my mother. This was the hardest one to write. What could I say to a woman who clipped coupons and stuffed napkins from Dunkin’ Donuts into her purse so that I could have the chances she never did? Dear Mom, thanks for everything.

With each trip, I returned a bit changed. Nothing as dramatic as a shaved head or anything. The changes were subtle, like those photographs taken of a person every single day for a year and when you look at them collectively, closely, you notice the slight sag of an eyebrow or perhaps a pimple. Yet none of my travels, in college and beyond, marked me quite like the two weeks I spent in Ripton, Vermont.

In 2007 I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a work-study scholar. I had first heard about the conference from Julia Alvarez, back in 2004, after I drove two hours to hear her read and then cornered her on the stage. Yes, it took me three years to build up the guts to apply.

Two days before the conference started, while running on a treadmill at the gym, I composed an email in my head. Dear Bread Loaf: I regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend the conference after all…

I was scared.

Of what? You might wonder. Ripton was only a four and a half hour drive from my Boston apartment. It was a writer’s dream camp, right? Stuff white people like. That was just it. I had never been to camp, nor had I ever worked as a camp counselor, so of course I had never understood camp nostalgia. In my childhood, summer meant slapping city mosquitoes with the back of a chancleta and racing on scooters down Cranston Street in JP with my cousins.

But then, as I ran on that treadmill, I thought of my mom. She had never taken a sick day from work. Writing was my work. So I went.

You know how this story goes: Bread Loaf was my point-of-no return. I had found my tribe. I came home, quit my job nine weeks later, booked a one-way ticket to Guatemala, sublet my apartment, and set out to write my novel. My mom was worried, but she still helped me cram a printer and a stack of books into my suitcase and then dropped me off at the airport.

Since then, my decision to pursue the writing life has forced me into various corners—and I’m not talking about the conflict of clinking glasses with friends at a bar versus revising a short story in the lonely land of Microsoft Word. Writing is a solitary act. Got it. This I’d heard and found to be true. Writing is alienating? This I wasn’t expecting.

It’s ironic that the communities I aim to represent in my work are the very ones that I feel distanced from by pursuing this art. My mother doesn’t understand many of the sacrifices and challenges of being a writer. She doesn’t get why I would want to rearrange my life to spend two months in a Maine cabin with no TV, or why I would be thrilled to have a story I worked on for years accepted in a journal that only pays in contributor copies. But I try to include her as much as I can, and she has sat in the front row of more readings than I can count. For my MFA thesis reading, she showed up with my father, my grandmother, my cousin, my cousin’s husband, their three kids, and a tray of tacos.

My mom has always been there to celebrate my successes. Recently, I was thrilled to win an essay prize from Fourth Genre, and for the past several months, she has carried a copy of the journal in her purse. She shows it to the women whose houses she cleans. Thanks to her, more women in Wayland, Weston, and Newton have read the winter issue than if the editor had airdropped them from a helicopter into the Whole Foods parking lot. I have a feeling she’ll do the same with the current issue of Ploughshares.

In the years since I put down my waiter tray and drove back home from Ripton, I have been trying to bridge the divide between my family and my writing life, and I know my mother has too. So last year, when Bread Loaf held its first conference in Sicily, I knew right away whom I’d bring as my plus one.

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About Jennifer De Leon

Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Macondo, and others. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), she is also working on a memoir and a novel.
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24 Responses to Bridging the Divide: Why I Brought My Mom to Bread Loaf

  1. Michelle says:

    Such a beautiful piece and picture of how writing can hopefully bring people together; even family. Thanks for sharing, Jenn.

  2. Sharon Gelman says:

    Beautiful and so moving.

  3. Christine Nichols says:

    Very good piece. Thank you for sharing it with me!

  4. Wonderful essay–so moving, made me call my mami to thank her.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is very timely for me because I am beginning a process of sharing my writer’s life with my mother. For years I have not shared all of my experiences, only the occasional publication. I’ve now told her about how difficult it has been to get a publisher for an anthology I’ve edited and I turned to her for advice. Today she told me to take a break because I need to rest and regain strength otherwise I will make a martyr of myself and she knew about that. “It’s like everything else in life,” she said.

  6. Celeste says:

    Thank you for sharing what many of us experience in our daily life and writing journey. I could relate right away as my parents do support my choice to write, though I do have another profession that takes up most of my day but that pays for all of my living and writing expenses. And though they don’t understand all the aspects of the work and the business surrounding it, nor do they care to understand them with many other things pulling their focus and attention, they are affirming and show up at every reading they can with their smile and a big hug afterward. And no, “Why do you do that?” at Thanksgiving either. :)

  7. Ru Freeman says:

    You know what I love about you Jenn? You get to the heart of everything with a supersized dose of humor – you make me laugh at all the parts that in reality make us cry. You are gifted – that in itself is your tribute to your mother.

  8. Trish Woolwine says:

    That was such a lovely piece. I am going to Bread Loaf Sicily next month, alone, and I admit to being a little nervous about it. Reading your piece made me realize that I take with me my mother and my father and brother who have been my inspiration for most of my poetry and memoirs. I lost all three of them in the last four years. How I would have loved to have done something as wonderful as you have for your mom. You are a very special daughter.

  9. Jenn, what a lovely piece. You have shown us yet another but beautiful example of the ‘writer’s struggle’ and in your case, success. The honesty and sincerity are clear.

  10. Grace T says:

    Thanks for this, Jenn. It’s an important perspective. I grew up in a similar family. If my father happened to walk by while I was reading a book, he’d say, “Since you’re not doing anything, come help me do X.” And yet, I know he’s proud of my writing. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  11. Patricia Sanchez-Connally says:

    So proud to call you my friend :)

  12. Mia says:

    Love it! So peaceful – yet so moving. I got totally pulled in and enjoyed the smooth ride.

  13. Chloe says:

    Beautiful essay and huge wake up call for this aspiring writer– time to stop taking sick days from my writing.

  14. I loved this essay–so full of real heart. And I love De Leon’s mother through it. When a writer makes you feel something for someone you’ve never met, that writer has done her work.

  15. Becky T. says:

    So good, JDL! As always, I’m so moved by your words, your ambition, and always happy to read about tu mama!

  16. Chantel says:

    Lovely, lovely, Jennifer. I don’t come from a family of readers, either, so what I do is a mystery to them. Still, they’re proud, and they display my book on their étageres (remember those?). With that kind of love behind you, you can write anything. And yay for making mami your plus one! That’s awesome!

  17. Oh Jenn–This is a beaut! Like you, like you and your Mom in Sicily (great photo too). And brings back–as nothing else–the profound and proud loyalty of my worker family too. Lucky me to be with you there in Sicily last year, and in life, at least from time to time. A lot of people have the drive, but you have the spark. Thanks for this and for your beautiful essay in the fall issue. Your fan, Trish

  18. Addie Hauber says:

    Really loved this piece. It’s so important to be able to not only share success with family members, but also the process that precedes it. Your story is inspiring to those who are anxious about opening up their world of writing with family/friends who aren’t as ” in touch” with writing. Thank you for writing.

  19. Jenn De Leon says:

    I am blown away by these lovely, fierce, profound comments. I will wrap them around me like a shawl as I continue on this journey. Abrazos to you all.

    Thank you.

  20. Eve says:

    So moving and beautiful, Jenn. Now I’m going to have to track down all of your other writing! xo, Eve

  21. Thank you, Jennifer for describing how writing is both a solitary and a communal act. Writing would be meaningless if it weren’t for the people in our lives. Your tribute to your mother is deeply inspiring.

  22. Cloe Axelson says:

    Abiding respect for your mom and the adventuresome spirit to pursue what’s in your heart. Love this piece, Jenn.

  23. prachi jain says:

    Very moving piece. Continents separate my mother and I and this piece made me miss her even more. But it also inspired me to write about her too.

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