My friend and mentor Sandra Benitez had the first inkling she was a fiction writer when she was a girl of ten, living in a small and cherished community in El Salvador. Domestic workers and townspeople brought her letters to read. After the unfortunately common occurrence of reading a much-anticipated letter only to have the contents harsh and/or anxiety-producing for the recipient, Sandy liked to imagine she had “a genie’s powers, and could blow a mental kiss over a letter and transform the story” into something more easily received.
Later in her life, late enough to give hope to the rest of us late starters, Sandy harnessed those genie’s powers, those story transformations, into a very successful writing career. But much had to happen before that point, a lot of which might have broken the spirit of a weaker, less determined woman. In bag lady (her frank, funny and affecting memoir), Sandy writes of two ways in which her life and career have been sustained by family: through the steadfastness of Missouri relatives, and through the hope of her people in El Salvador.
Sandy and her identical twin sister, Susana, were born on March 26, 1941 in Washington, D.C. Her father, James Quentin Ables, was a Missouri farm boy who, after military service, moved to DC to work as a Senate page. Her mother, Martha Benítez, was born in Puerto Rico. Soon after Sandy’s parents married, her father took a job with the Foreign Service.
The infant girls came into the world prematurely and spent extra time in the hospital. It seems Susana never came home, dying 37 days after she was born. The young, bereaved Ables family buried Susana in Washington DC and within the year James was assigned to work in El Salvador. Later the family would live briefly in Mexico (where Sandy’s sister, Anita was born) before a return to El Salvador.
Fast-forward to 2001: Sandy, her father, Anita and Anita’s husband commit to a promise they made to Sandy’s mother before she died, and return to DC to exhume Susana’s remains and to bring them home (now Florida) to be buried with her family. It was on this particular journey that her father told Sandy the story of the day, some 60 years before, when her mother lifted the dead Susana’s body from the baby’s casket and held her close as they drove to her burial. It seems Martha had never once gotten to hold Susana when her baby girl was alive.
In an other-worldly parallel, even though Sandy had not yet known this story, in her novel Bitter Grounds the character Mercedes has a baby who dies only a few days after he’s born. “She can’t bear to let him go,” Sandy writes in her memoir, bag lady, “so she sits outside her hut under the laurel tree, her tiny boy clutched against her breast until he turns to stone.”
And in the intervening years, from story receiver to story-teller? For Sandy, a blessedly and wickedly complicated life included all those moves as a child, followed by separation from her parents and sister when she was fourteen to attend high school in rural Missouri, where she was sent to live with her paternal grandparents. It included teacher’s college in Missouri, although she might have liked to become a doctor. A wedding and, in quick succession, the birth of two sons. Attainment of a Master’s Degree. Ongoing issues with chronic and severe inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis. A move to Minnesota where she briefly experimented with writing fiction but then took a job as a translator. A freak accident in which she fell off of a poorly constructed deck and broke her back; three months immobilization in the hospital; four months in a body cast. A deeply unhappy marriage. Divorce, estrangement from people she loved; guilt about separation from her sons. Medications for bowel disease and also for the chronic pain associated with her still un-repaired spinal fractures. Their ultimate failure to help her heal, to deaden grief, to fill the empty spaces of all of her losses.
It was 1980. A Place Where the Sea Remembers, the book which catapulted Sandy’s writing career, was published in 1993.
Sandy dedicates a Place Where the Sea Remembers to the man she married in 1980, James Kondrick. “Para Jaimsey,” she writes, “mi hombre: fuerte, fiel, formal.” “For Jaimsey, my husband: strong, faithful, dependable.” Soon after marrying Jim, Sandy returned to writing. Her husband became her first reader, and she re-joined an old writing group. Jim offered her the financial support she needed to write full-time. Sandy quit her translating job. She wrestled with her demons. When they rose, she beat them back again.
She finished the novel she’d started years ago, a kind of murder-mystery taking place in a rural town in Missouri. In 1982 she was admitted the prestigious writing conference Breadloaf, conducted for two weeks each summer in Maine. She brought along her mystery novel manuscript. It was critiqued by an unknown author who remains a nobody, writes a now-much-wiser Sandy in her memoir bag lady. Nonetheless, when in 1982 he called her manuscript “shit,” she took it to heart. She took to her bed. She took weeks off from writing.
Ultimately my hopeful and steadfast Sandy agreed with him. She could do better. She decided to return to the women and the letters of El Salvador. She took her mother’s maiden name, Benitez, and embraced her Hispanic heritage. She put the murder mystery novel manuscript in a box under her bed, where it remains to this day.
It took her thirteen years to write, revise and publish A Place Where the Sea Remembers. Sold to Alan Kornblum and Coffee House Press here in Minnesota in 1993, it was followed by Bitter Grounds in 1997, The Weight of All Things (2002), The Night of the Radishes (2004) and finally her memoir, bag lady, in 2005.
Sandy Benitez was, as they say, in the house.
It was my honor and pleasure to have Sandy as my mentor in the Loft Mentorship program of 2007-2008. Sandy chose me and my story “Wolf,” and I’ll never really know what hand of fate had me submit a story set in the Prado Museum in Madrid, a story peppered with Spanish words, Spanish architecture, paintings by Goya and Velázquez, a story unlike any I’d written before or since. Truth be told, at that point in my career I had about three submission-worthy stories—or maybe it was two. All I can say is that I guessed well. Or was guided.
She was the first real writer I got to know. What coincidence placed me with a mentor who was also a late starter? I don’t know, but Sandy got behind me and my work like nobody else. She mentored all four of us emerging fiction writers in that year, but I can’t help but think she was there pretty much exclusively for me. That’s what it felt like. That’s how good it was.
She was willing to put “Wolf” aside and help me with another short story I was working on, one which was decidedly NOT good enough to submit to the mentorship contest. It was a story everyone hated except me. Everyone saw what was wrong with it—except me. When that’s the case, said Sandy, it may be that the story really wants to be a novel. But first you must know, she told me, what the story is about.
“What’s the story about?” she asked. I answered, “Well, A goes to B where they do C…”
“No, no. What is the story about?” she repeated, and not always sweetly.
She made me write a whole page of what the story was about–not what happens, not who lives or dies or loves or loses–but what was at its heart. I had to think, long and hard. What was my story about? Vincent Van Gogh? Only peripherally. The mistral–a strong and unpredictable wind in the south of France? Yes, but only as a kind of force of nature. Disability, depression, cruelty–yes. Estrangement. Desperation. Deceit. The love of a child. The power of art. The power of forgiveness.
She made me write what the story was about in a paragraph.
She made me write what the story was about in a single sentence.
“A disabled man is deceived by the people he loves but the journey he takes to save the life of a child allows him to see himself, and others to see him, in a different light.”
Now you know, she said, what the story is about.
With Sandy, and with knowing what it was about, I expanded that story by 150 pp. In a year. In the seven years since I have been engaged in its re-writing, its further expansion and revision. It won an agent’s heart. When it was rejected by publishers, my agent helped me work on it some more. Over and over. Now it is, once again, on the verge of submission to publishers.
Maybe this time will be the charm. If not, I still have a few more years to catch up with Sandy.
I wanted to have Sandy come to my May book club where I will be moderator for the discussion of A Place Where the Sea Remembers. But the past year has been hard on my friend and mentor. She lost her beloved Jim Kondrick to a long and difficult illness last fall. She mourned deeply, she tells me, but she’s coming back, tending to the many elements of her own health she put aside to care for her husband. She won’t be able to attend our book club, but she’ll be there with me in spirit, I know.
That same spirit which fed her when, in 2001, the faculty of Breadloaf asked her if she would once again grace the conference, this time as faculty. One thing I know: she never called anyone else’s work worthless. It’s simply not in her nature. But this is: on the night of her designated faculty reading, she opened with her own Breadloaf story. Complete with the shitty verdict.
She is a woman who knows about hope. About steadfastness. A woman who understands what her own stories are about. And how very much all of our stories are worth, to all of us.