NEA Literature Fellowships

Maureen Stanton

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(2006 - Prose)

From the creative nonfiction essay "Laundry"

My grandmother, Madeline Juliano, grew up in a shack in a place called Stoney Lonesome. Long since condemned and the land reclaimed by West Point Military Academy in the Hudson River Valley of New York, the house was set in the woods among rolling hills strewn with glacial erratics, large boulders pulled along by the mile-thick tongue of ice as it retreated north. At nearby Long Pond, at a small mouth where the spring-fed lake pours itself out, in the stream that flows over these rocks, my grandmother scrubbed clothes. She was taken out of school in sixth grade to care for her three younger brothers, and was hired out to keep house in nearby Highland Falls for the wives of doctors and lawyers and officers from West Point.

Every morning, in spring and summer and fall and winter, before she walked three miles to her job as a maid, my grandmother scoured her family's clothes in a trickle of water, which remained fluid when the lake froze. She spread the clothes on the rocks to dry like skins. I imagine her hands, chapped and raw from washing other people's clothes and linens for years. At nineteen, Madeline married Clarence Starr, a groundskeeper at West Point, and they lived in a caretaker's residence for fourteen years, with their three children, Barbara, Clarissa (my mother), and Skeeter. The house was set on several rural acres with peach and apple orchards, and through the woods was Round Pond, where my mother swam, and in the winter, ice-fished with her father. The house was large and elegant, with French doors leading to a flagstone patio, and a massive fireplace in the living room. They had no electricity even though it was the early forties, but the house and land were paradise and they were happy there.

My grandmother and her two daughters, Barbara and Clarissa, washed clothes with a tub and washboard, using a hard chunk of Fels Naphtha soap, or lye soap my grandmother poured into pans and sliced into irregular rectangles. They cranked the wet clothes through a wringer, careful not to catch their fingers between the rollers, then hung the laundry outside. In the winter, when the pants froze solid on the line, they'd bring them inside to finish drying, the frozen trousers standing upright as if embodied, as if they'd walk around the kitchen, collapsing as they warmed.

"Laundry" first appeared in The Iowa Review.

Maureen Stanton received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Ohio State University in 2000. She has published essays in journals and anthologies, including Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, American Literary Review, Iowa Review, Riverteeth, and The Sun. Her essays have received the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, the Penelope Niven Award from Salem College Center for Women Writers, the Iowa Review award, and the Goldfarb Family Fellowship. Three of her essays have been listed as "notable" in Best American Essays (1998, 2004, 2005). She has received grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the Vogelstein Fund, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches creative writing at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

Hot dog vendor. Gas station attendant. Supermarket cashier. Janitor in a doctor's office. Cafeteria worker in a shingle factory. Assembly line worker at an artificial kidney manufacturing plant. Assembly line at a linoleum tile wholesaler. Nursing home aide. Convenience store clerk. Cafeteria worker. Clerk in the food stamp office. Telephone surveyor. Secretary. Library clerk. Bartender. Waitress. Switchboard operator. Bank receptionist. Replacement window sales representative. Administrative assistant. Public relations assistant. Fund raiser. Development consultant. Customer service representative for a fast-food chain. Painter at a nuclear power plant. Research assistant. Janitor for a conference center. Focus group facilitator. Editor. Teacher.

These are some of the jobs I've held since I began work at fourteen. The NEA grant will allow me to leave work behind for a while, or to see writing as my work, to add to the end of this long list of jobs the one I've always wanted and have been steadily working toward: writer. I'm grateful for the precious gift of time and the validation of my writing that this grant confers.